Medieval London - research insights

One of things that interests me about Medieval London is how effective is archaeology?  In the Prehistoric, Roman and 'Dark-age' period Archaeology has revolutionized our understanding of these periods. After 40 years of excavation, we now know there was no prehistoric London; that London boomed in the early Roman period, but began its decline as early as 140AD; and that after a period of decline revived in the 7th Century in the area of Covent Garden, before moving back into the Century round about the time of King Alfred.

These are really impressive discoveries, things that just were not even hinted about from  historical documents.  Is the same true of the Medieval period?  Certainly recently archaeology has shown the development of the City from the 9th to the 12th Century, and sites such as Milk St. Guildhall, No 1 Poultry and Queenhithe are used by John Schofield, and Christopher Thomas in their books on Medieval London to give a novel insight into the City's growth in the early period.  However, there is much less survival after the 12th Century, and from 1300 onwards it is, arguably only at the Waterfront, and monasteries that archaeology makes a major contribution to the major narratives.

Documentary history takes over from archaeology in this period to gives us ground breaking insights. As an example, it was not archaeology that showed that the Population of London rose to as much as 100,000 by 1300, and that, following the Black Death, the population did not get back to that figure until well after 1500. This insight was given by Derek Keene's examination of  City Property Deeds. He was able to show that medieval Cheapside had over 400 shops, and 4,000 'retail' units.  (Present day Oxford St boasts of 'over 300 shops'). Many of the retail Units were of less than 6ft by 10ft.  His work on Ironmonger Lane was able to detail occupations, and something of family organisation, as well as information that most households stayed less than 2 years in their rented accomodation, but normally moved to a new place in the local vicinity.  Keene was also able to point out the change in the area from manufacture towards retail, or manufacture of higher value goods.   These trends were picked up at No 1 Poultry but first identified by documentary history.

Barney Sloan's book on Black Death in London equally shows great insights from wills, while archaeology of the graveyards was able to give some real insights into societies response to the tragedy.

To be continued.

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