What happened to England after the Middle Ages?

During a recent bout of enforced leisure, I read some books outside the syllabus as it were, and two books in particular, it struck me afterwards, painted entirely different pictures of post-Medieval Britain. The first was Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World by Niall Ferguson which I was not sent for review but bought for myself (Penguin paperback £8.99). This paints a picture of a thriving dynamic Britain from the Elizabethan period onwards, sending out pirates and settlers all over the world and relieving our surplus population by populating all the countries which we had made under-populated by importing our diseases. The Empire came about in a fit of absentmindedness largely leaving native cultures alone and it was only with the advent of the Victorians that we were inspired to bring light to what they called the dark continent.


At much the same time I was also reading The Bridges of Medieval England , Transport and Society 400 – 1800 (Oxford University Press) which I was sent for review and which is one of the best books I have read for a long time. David Harrison is in origin an Oxford scholar – I think this is the jazzed up version of a doctoral thesis of long ago – but he has long left academe and now works in the House of Commons as Clerk to the Transport, Environment and Regional Affairs committee – an appropriate place for an authority on transport in the Middle Ages.


Bridges are one of the under-rated achievements of medieval England. Many of them were very substantial and the span of the greatest of them rivals that of the greatest medieval cathedrals: indeed in many cases the great bridges were built by the same men who built the great cathedrals. Anyone visiting English cathedrals should also take care to visit the medieval bridges that often accompany them.


But who paid for the bridges? The answer is that they were mostly constructed by charity. In the Middle Ages, if you wanted to dispose of your riches, there were two ways to do it. Either you could build a chantry chapel and pay for a priest to pray for your soul in perpetuity; or, if you were bolshie, you could do something useful and build, or more often repair, a bridge. In this way, by the high Middle Ages, England was equipped with a fine collection of bridges and the road network to accompany them. (In a provocative final chapter, he argues that Medieval roads must have been much better than they are usually considered to be: you do not build marvellous bridges unless there were adequate roads to connect them).


The dissolution of the monasteries proved a disaster, for not only were the monasteries destroyed but also the charities that went with them. However, in some cases this proved a stimulus: one thinks for instance of the huge number of schools that were founded following the dissolution of the monasteries. But bridge building ceased. Possibly all the bridges needed to be built had already been built, but in the event, few new bridges were built for at least two centuries until Rennie and Telford launched the next great orgy of bridge building in the eighteenth century.


We thus have two different versions of what happened to England in this period. Was it a period when Britain was thrusting forward and exporting its surplus population overseas? Or were we essentially asleep? I must say that archaeology does tend to line up behind the sleeping interpretation. It was a doctrine I first learnt from Martin Biddle at Winchester: that the medieval town reached its greatest expansion by the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, and that the sites of the monasteries that had expanded outside the medieval town walls were not reoccupied until the 18th century. It has been a story that I have heard repeated in many towns since, notably for instance in an excellent new book on Coventry. But where did the population come from that emigrated overseas? Was it just certain towns such as London and Bristol that were expanding? Or was the population of Winchester and Coventry, and so many other towns, kept low because people were constantly leaving these towns to make their way to London and Bristol to seek a better life overseas? Archaeology has much to offer in the study of this period. So, were we really dozing, or was it more a case that we were we preparing for the great leap forward that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries?



This opinion comes from CA issue 202

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