BMCR 2019.04.23

Early Medieval Britain: The Rebirth of Towns in the Post-Roman West. Case Studies in Early Societies

, Early Medieval Britain: The Rebirth of Towns in the Post-Roman West. Case Studies in Early Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. xvii, 227. ISBN 9780521713702 £24.99.


This book analyzes the development of towns in Anglo-Saxon England, placing them into the wider framework of archaeological research on early urbanism. It is part of the Cambridge University Press collection “Case Studies in Early Societies”, a series known for its concise and authoritative, rather small-format monographs on well-defined topics. Several previous volumes in the series focused on premodern urbanism, including case studies such as Cahokia and Teotihuacan, but this is the first contribution based on a European example. The author has a long-term expertise on the topic that goes back to her PhD work in the late 1970s. While trained as a zooarchaologist, her work has expanded to incorporate other sources of evidence in a holistic way, as demonstrated by the current volume. The author’s theoretical approach can be described as predominantly processual, or, as phrased by herself, “processual plus”.

The book is structured in four main chapters, preceded by an introduction and followed by a conclusion. Chronologically, it covers the period between about 400 CE and the Norman Conquest in 1066, and thematically it is focused on the development of urbanism during that time frame. There are numerous b & w illustrations, generally reproduced with good quality. The book also includes two info-boxes, inserted in chapters 1 and 4. While the short discussion of the Late Iron Age oppida (pp. 44-45) as the first urban centers can be regarded as a welcome addition to the author’s attempt to place Anglo-Saxon urbanism into a wider temporal perspective, the box on geophysical survey seems rather unnecessary and a bit out of place (pp. 150-152).

The volume’s introduction starts with a brief note on the concept of “Anglo-Saxons” and an outline of the conventional chronology. The sections on “Archaeology and Urban Origins” and “Theoretical Perspectives” have the merit of explicitly addressing some general concepts and definitions. However, in terms of content they are among the few weaknesses of the book, looking rather outdated in relation to new advances in comparative archaeological research on early urbanism. An example is found in the author’s definition of urbanism, which incorporates “dense residential populations” (p. 5) as a criterion, thus ignoring the increasingly popular notion of “low-density urbanism” developed by authors such as Roland Fletcher (2009). Even more striking seems the lack of any reference to other leading scholars in comparative early urbanism such as Michael E. Smith, including the latter’s review of Childe’s influential 1950 article extensively discussed by Crabtree (Smith 2009). A similar issue can be observed in the following section on “Models of Medieval Urbanism”, where the main focus lies on works from the 1980s.

Chapter 1 deals with the decline of urbanism in late Roman Britain. The author’s phrasing of the title (“The End of…”) is very revealing of its content, since the main argument is that by the mid-5 th century urbanism had largely failed in Britain. Starting her analysis on Anglo-Saxon urbanism by looking at earlier urban developments is certainly the right approach for a work that is explicitly pursuing a long-term perspective. The key question is the degree of continuity (or discontinuity) between late Roman and Anglo-Saxon urbanism. In order to address this question, Crabtree proposes the history of the US city of Detroit as a comparative model of urban decline. This is certainly an innovative approach, which tries to establish links between past and present. The example is followed by a discussion of three main British case studies: Winchester, London and Wroxeter, while some other sites (Lincoln, Silchester, Bath and Verulanium) are mentioned in a shorter way. The overall assessment of the data indicates a gradual decline of most Roman urban centers in Britain, which the author relates to economic decay. Although activity continued in some towns into the 5 th century, only Wroxeter provides evidence for continuity in urban functioning. Going a step further, the author claims that there was a post-colonial period in which elements of Roman culture such as coinage were actively rejected. Be that as it may, “by the mid-5 th century Britain was no longer an urban society” (p. 48). However, the old Roman towns remained part of the landscape, and some would have continued being occupied by small numbers of residents. From this perspective, we can attest a phase of deurbanization, but not a complete disruption between the late Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon periods.

Chapter 2 provides an overview on the archaeology of early Anglo-Saxon settlement in England from the 5 th to 7 th centuries. The low number of investigated settlements from the period is striking, especially when compared to the abundant burial data. The author briefly introduces some of the more known settlements, in particular West Stow, Mucking and West Heslerton. The following discussion on society in the 5 th -6 th centuries sustains a rather rural picture composed by small-scale polities. This situation started to change in the late 6 th and 7 th centuries, with the establishment of rural settlements with more elaborate architecture, royal sites—such as the palace of Yeavering in Northumberland—and rural estate centers, indicating the development of a true settlement hierarchy. The changes are also reflected in the funerary record, which points towards greater inequalities and individualization. However, in the first moment these changes did not lead to a re-emergence of towns. The author provides a very good summary of the main socio-political models proposed for this period by other scholars, although she does not fully develop her own theoretical model.

The following chapter 3—perhaps the strongest of the volume—analyzes changes in settlement patterns during the middle Saxon period (7 th -9 th centuries), with a strong focus on the rise of emporia. The “long 7 th century” seems to have marked a turning point, with the abandonment of many early Anglo-Saxon settlements and the establishment of new ones. Among the latter, new estate centers such as Ramsbury, Brandon, Wicken Bonhut and Flixborough stand out. This period also witnessed the rise of the church as a large landowner and a process of agricultural specialization and intensification. But perhaps the most important feature, at least for the urban focus of this volume, was the development of the sites known as wic or emporia. The excavations at Ipswich and Hamwic can be regarded as particularly significant. In the case of the former, it was a new foundation of the early medieval period that rapidly expanded in the 8 th century, being known by its pottery production (the so-called “Ipswich Ware”) that became widely distributed in Anglo-Saxon England. Excavations at Ipswich have revealed that the town was engaged in trade with the European continent, from Norway to the Rhineland and northern France. This was a true emporium that continued to function as a market town into the modern period. Much more ephemeral was the development of Hamwic, a new foundation which started in the later 7 th century and ended around 900. The decline of this center might have been related to the re-emergence of the town of Winchester. I share the author’s classification of both Ipswich and Hamwic as towns, as opposed to other scholars that preferred to label them as “proto-urban”—the usefulness of the label “proto” is rightly put into question by Crabtree. This also applies to other sites discussed by the author such as Eorforwic (Anglian York) and Lundenwic (London). Despite the importance of trade, a considerable number of the inhabitants of the emporia seem to have been engaged in agricultural activities—this is by far not exclusive of the examples discussed by the author, and could perhaps be better understood within the concept of “agro-urbanism” developed by Christian Isendahl (2012). As a way of summary, the emporia represent the first step in the rebirth of towns in post-Roman Britain, but this was not a unilineal development since the process had ups and downs related to specific historical circumstances, such as the Viking raids of the 9 th century that contributed to do decline of some of these centers.

Chapter 4 addresses the Late Anglo-Saxon towns of the 9 th to 11 th centuries. This period, which symbolically ends with the Norman Conquest in 1066, witnessed some important political events, including the intensification of Viking attacks and the division of the Carolingian Empire. It was also a time of consolidation and expansion of royal power. Regarding the core topic of the book, the development of urbanism, the period saw a number of significant changes, starting with the decline of some of the previously mentioned emporia and the rise of other settlements such as Winchester. The latter became an important royal and ecclesiastical center, being substantially replanned in the late 9 th century. While not as significant as Winchester, other fortified places or burhs were developed in the kingdom of Wessex, for example Wareham, Cricklade and Wallingford. Their urban status remains contested, and this is one of the places in the book where the author’s reductionist identification of urban as necessarily “dense settlement” hinders the discussion. Other important centers that grew during this period were the former Roman towns of Exeter, Chichester and Bath. The author’s suggestion that one of the main motivations for their development would have been to establish fortified market places in times of insecurity due to Viking attacks is certainly interesting and raises interesting analogies, for example, with other scenarios of town development such as the Late Iron Age oppida. In the case of late Saxon London, the city developed gradually between Alfred the Great and the Norman Conquest. Different is the case of Jorvik (York), due to its mixed Anglo-Scandinavian history that included moments of political turmoil but considerable economic activity and a population of more than 10,000 people before the Norman Conquest. Other important sites explored in the chapter are Dublin, Ipswich, Norwich and Thetford.

Taking a broader view, it seems that most towns within both the Anglo-Saxon territory and the Danelaw developed gradually between the later 9 th and the 11 th centuries. Crabtree is certainly right in noting that this process was based on creating links with the surrounding countryside, an aspect that is often underestimated in approaches that are mostly focused on the role of long-distance trade. On the other hand, while most urban sites from the Roman period did not survive as towns after the 5 th century they nonetheless remained significant places in the landscape, which explains why in several cases the urban “revival” of the Middle and Late Anglo-Saxon period occurred at those locations. Very important for wider discussions on past and present urbanism is the author’s emphasis on the non-linear character of urban growth, dismantling the argument of scholars who do not attribute town character to certain sites because of their shorter time-span due to the Viking raids. Finally, Crabtree rightly points out that the formalist-substantivist divide in economic anthropology had important limitations for the explanation of the links between trade and urbanism. Models have often been too focused on long-distance trade, kings and entrepreneurial elites, something that also applies to discussions on early urbanism in other periods.

These broader issues on urban origins are expanded in the final “Conclusions” chapter, which takes an explicitly comparative approach. Moving away from monocausal explanations, Crabtree concludes that “there is no single factor or prime mover that can explain the rebirth of towns in Anglo-Saxon England” (p. 182). But there were several interconnected factors, including the ability to mobilize social surplus and the exchanges within the interaction sphere of the North Sea. The author also includes a section on “urbanism in Later Prehistoric Europe”, which unfortunately is rather outdated and does not incorporate the results of new research or interpretations either for the Early or the Late Iron Age (cf. for example Fernández-Götz et al. 2014 for a recent synthesis). The conceptual framework used by the author falls back into an old-fashioned core-periphery model that sees developments in temperate Europe merely as a response to the influence of Mediterranean civilizations. The following section on Hawaii is certainly refreshing, but in terms of comparisons I would have welcomed a more extensive and informed discussion of the situation in medieval Scandinavia and France.

In summary, despite some minor weaknesses this volume represents an important contribution to the study of settlement dynamics in the Anglo-Saxon world and, more widely, a welcome addition to the list of synthesis works on early urbanism. Placed into a broader perspective, the phenomenon of urban decline at the end of Roman Britain and the early Anglo-Saxon period, followed by a revival a few centuries later, can be seen as part of a more general trend of alternating cycles of centralization—decentralization—centralization. This phenomenon can be traced back to late prehistory (cf. Müller 2016) and certainly deserves further future exploration.


Childe, V. G. 1950. The Urban Revolution. Town Planning Review 21: 3-17.
Fernández-Götz, M., H. Wendling and K. Winger (eds.) 2014. Paths to Complexity: Centralisation and Urbanisation in Iron Age Europe. Oxford, Oxbow Books.
Fletcher, R. 2009. Low-density, agrarian-based urbanism: A comparative view. Insights 2: 2-19.
Isendahl, C. 2012. Agro-urban landscapes: the example of Maya lowland cities. Antiquity 86, 334: 1112-1125.
Müller, J. 2016. From the Neolithic to the Iron Age—Demography and Social Agglomeration: The Development of Centralized Control? In M. Fernández-Götz & D. Krausse (eds.), Eurasia at the Dawn of History: Urbanization and Social Change. New York, Cambridge University Press: 106-124.
Smith, M. E. 2009. V. Gordon Childe and the Urban Revolution: a historical perspective on a revolution in urban studies. Town Planning Review 80 (1): 2-29.