Houses and Society in Norwich, 1350-1660
Urban Buildings in an Age of Transition
Thank you, Dr King, for taking the time to answers some questions about your new publication Houses and Society in Norwich, 1350-1660. To begin with, can you please provide a brief introduction to your book?
The book is a study of houses in Norwich, which was England’s ‘second city’, during the period of the transition between the late medieval and early modern worlds. It covers houses from across the social spectrum – from the large courtyard properties which belonged to the city’s wealthy merchants and aldermen, with their great halls and undercrofts for storage, to the flint and timber-framed houses which would have been lived in by prosperous craftspeople and the smaller cottages which were rented to labourers and artisans. I try to bring together many different strands of evidence – including the architecture of houses that are still standing today, of which there are over 200 in the city, but also the many sites which have been excavated by archaeologists over the past 50 years, as well as documentary sources such as wills and probate inventories to get a sense of the furnishing and objects within the houses.
Can you please outline what is meant by the ‘age of transition’?
Different scholars use the term ‘age of transition’ in different ways. For me, it is a good way to think about the centuries on either side of the traditional boundary between the medieval and early modern periods, which might be c.1500 or c.1550. We often think of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a period of rapid and revolutionary change – seeing population growth and urbanisation, significant religious and political upheaval with the impact of the Reformation and Civil War, and the beginnings of colonial expansion. But many of the underlying social and economic changes were already underway in the late medieval period, particularly in the wake of the Black Death. Thinking about this as an ‘age of transition’ helps us to focus on both long term transformations and short term events. It’s important to stress however that it wasn’t simply a progression from a medieval to a more modern way of life – people experienced change in very different ways according to their social and economic position, and often they dealt with new cultural forces by adapting older medieval spaces or practices – there was continuity as well as change across this period.
Your book examines the years 1350-1660, was there a certain period that you found more interesting than others during your research?
Two periods really stand out as important moments of change in Norwich. In the fifteenth century, the city gained a new royal charter which gave it the power of independent self government, and the wealthy merchants who made up the city’s governing class spent a large amount of money on building a new Guildhall. At the same time we see a significant increase in building of great halls in their own houses, and I link this to the need to provide civic hospitality to bind together the new ruling elite – given that there was a lot of factional conflict underneath the appearance of unity.
The second period of rapid change is in the early and middle decades of the sixteenth century; across the country this has been called a ‘great rebuilding’ by many scholars. In 1507 the centre of Norwich was destroyed by two terrible fires, which means we have very few timber framed buildings surviving from the middle ages. In response the city’s houses were rebuilt using more robust and fire-proof materials, and the living standards of many ‘middling sort’ households was significantly improved. In the 1530s and 1540s the city experienced the impact of the Reformation, and in the houses of the merchants and aldermen we see a significant rebuilding on a grand scale, with impressive first-floor chambers with moulded timber ceilings and big windows. These houses made a bold statement of the power and authority of the civic elite, often decorated with heraldry and guild symbols, at a time when older forms of urban culture such as religious fraternities and processions were under threat.
What was the urban ‘great rebuilding’?
We have for a long time recognised that there were many significant changes in the building and layout of houses, especially in the period between c.1570 and 1640, as older medieval houses with an open hall in the centre were floored over and provided with first floor rooms, chimney stacks and glazed windows. This indicates important changes were going on in how people used and thought about the spaces within their houses. Most of the work on the ‘great rebuilding’ has taken place in the countryside, however. In towns, buildings had very different layouts because they incorporated shops and workshops, and were crowded onto narrow urban plots. In Norwich, the great rebuilding started earlier than in the countryside, and took different forms depending on the social status of the house owners. Many of the improvements which were made to building materials were actually put in place by landlords who developed houses for rental purposes, and wanted to protect their investment.
In your book you examine the two twin themes of continuity and change in the material world, how is this relevant today?
When we walk around a city such as Norwich, it’s easy to see how our modern experience rests on medieval foundations – the layout of the streets goes back to the middle ages and the skyline is punctuated by the city’s famous churches – but the urban landscape is multi-layered, with buildings of different periods which tell the story of the city through time. Many of the city’s oldest timber-framed houses are now hidden behind later brick facades, but these everyday building are both an essential historical resource and a major contributing factor to the unique townscape and sense of place that makes Norwich such a fine city to live and work in.
Was there something from your research that really stood out to you?
In many ways, the most important aspect of the research is that it brings together for the first time a detailed picture from both the standing buildings that survive in the city and the evidence from archaeological excavations. Norwich is one of the most extensively excavated of England’s historic cities, and these sites give us a wealth of information that simply doesn’t survive above ground. The houses of the poorer members of urban society were often built of clay walling with thatched roofs, and none of these survived the 1507 fires. One of the key insights of the archaeological evidence is showing how, as the city’s population rapidly expanded in the seventeenth century, houses were subdivided and cottages were built in the rear yards and back lanes, leading to increasingly over-crowded and insanitary living conditions for the city’s lower status inhabitants.
Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers?
One of my aims in this book was to highlight the rich architectural legacy of Norwich’s everyday buildings, which are sometimes ignored in contrast to the more obvious attractions of the castle, cathedral and many medieval churches. I hope the book will give readers a much better grasp of the city’s houses and how important they are for understanding profound social and economic changes that occurred in all aspects of life during the ‘age of transition’. Many of the properties I discuss are private houses and businesses, but a good number are open to the public, and hopefully the book will allow visitors to understand these buildings in a new and deeper way.
We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. In this issue we’re asking how do you keep abreast of new publications and research? Is there anything that publishers could do better to keep academics informed?
The increasing availability of online resources has been a really important change for researchers – never more so than in the past four months of lockdown! It was great to see many publishers making content more freely available, which was a real help to researchers and students, even if can only be temporary. Social media like Twitter is becoming an ever more important source of information for finding out about new publications. And we can all look forward to the first round of online book launches, which might actually help more people to attend!
CHRIS KING is Assistant Professor of Archaeology at the University of Nottingham.
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