Update – free lessons in medieval economic history

My mega-post on possible explanations for the distribution/losses of coins in Surrey between the mid-seventh and late-ninth centuries continues to occupy my thoughts a number of weeks after writing it. While I continue to mull over the idea of creating some graphs to depict the variant numismatic profiles of the main sites in Surrey, as well as tarting up a schematic diagram of the proposed Chertsey trading network I sketched out while I was distracted at a loose end at work, here are a few brief observations on a couple of recently-read articles I felt are relevant – if only indirectly – to my analysis.

When I happened upon A. R. J. Hutcheson’s article ‘The Origins of King’s Lynn’ from the 50th volume of Medieval Archaeology a few weeks back, I initially had it earmarked as something that would be useful when I turn my attentions (hopefully later this year) to writing a retrogressive history of Anglo-Saxon Guildford. However, upon reading it I realised that there were at least two points that were especially applicable to my county-level study and so warranted mention in relation to it.

The first is a fairly general methodological point. Hutcheson argues that, rather than attempting to understand concentrations of coins (and more often than not other attendant metallic artefacts such as pins, strap-ends etc.) in terms of “productive sites”, hence envisaging such locations as having once been estate centres/monasteries/markets or fairs (or a combination thereof), there is greater sense in conceptualising “productive land-units” or “productive areas” (Hutcheson 2006, 82 and 88 respectively). Approaching the evidence at estate – modern-day parish – level correlates much better with the tenurial context in which the coins were carried/exchanged/lost, allowing more diffuse provenances within the same parish to be understood in comparable terms at the same time as (in Norfolk at least) preserving the sharp contrast between coin-rich parishes on the one hand and coin-poor or coin-less parishes on the other.

The second of Hutcheson’s useful observations is related to the first, being his definition of a “productive” parish as one that has yielded four or more coins of seventh to late eighth-century date (Hutcheson 2006, 84; I seem to recall four is also the number at which a murderer becomes classified as a serial killer…). Adapting this classification to the slightly broader time-span of my appraisal of the Surrey evidence, the following parishes achieve “productive” status (in brackets are the maximum possible date-range of the coins reported to EMC and/or PAS):

  1. Lambeth – 10 coins (665-760)
  2. Dorking – 4 coins (665-825; this excludes the ?700 or so coins from the Dorking hoard of circa 862)
  3. Effingham – 4 coins (685-710)
  4. West Clandon – 4 coins (695-725)
  5. “Guildford” – 4 coins (770-825)

The name of Guildford is in inverted commas on account of my doubts as to the accuracy of the provenance of the four EMC-listed coins; if my suspicions are correct and most or even all of them derive from nearby Shalford then that rockets the latter up the list although does not alter the fact that neither is known to be the provenance of a “proto-penny” or even earlier issue. What is more, there is a clutch of parishes where the discovery/recording of one or two more coins would push them across the “productive” threshold.

Thinking about it, the fact that Surrey will almost certainly never prove to be as numismatically prolific as Hutcheson’s Norfolk recommends the goalposts are moved so that, rather than focus on coins alone, we might make “productive-ness” synonymous with parishes which have yielded four or more artefacts, metallic or otherwise, dated to the period in question. This would no doubt add new names to the above-mentioned quintet, while reinforcing the significantly uneven distribution pattern already in evidence. I suppose writing that last sentence means I’ve just volunteered myself to do that work, haven’t I?

The other article I wanted to draw attention to, even though I have yet to read it in full, is  Mavis Mate’s ‘The Rise and Fall of Markets in Southeast England’, available to read as an HTML version of a study first published in the April 1996 edition of the Canadian Journal of History (it’s a new one on me, too). I know a bit about Mate’s research into the late-medieval economy of South-East England from the Google Books preview of her 2006 monograph Trade and Economic Developments, 1450-1550: The Experience of Kent, Surrey and Sussex, a book that’s been on my Amazon wish list for absolutely ages. Book and article seem to overlap in terms of subject matter, but the latter has a greater chronological breadth (beginning with the testimony from Domesday Book) and likewise a tighter thematic focus on matters mercantile.

Both the analysis and the tables of data are likely to prove useful to anyone studying settlements in Surrey that were granted markets (as well as those researching ones without known market or fair grants as a means of understanding the wider economic connections of such places). It is, however, worth comparing Mate’s appendix of markets and fairs in Surrey with the longer list compiled by Samantha Letters for her 2005 Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs in England and Wales to 1516, available via British History Online. Both include places that have been referred to above as “productive parishes” (notably Dorking and Guildford, both of which were still going strong as market towns in the post-medieval period) but there are a number of curious differences between the two lists. For instance, Mate does not follow Letters in noting the existence of a market and fair at Lambeth from 1199. Accepting that Letters is correct in identifying Lambeth as a market-cum-fair site, was this status in any way connected to its proposed earlier role as a riverside trading-place in the mid-Anglo-Saxon period?

In general, comparison of the two lists with my one of numismatic find-spots shows that the correspondence between the places which had the right to hold markets and/or fairs in Surrey and the sites of Anglo-Saxon coin finds is not an especially strong one. This is not altogether unsurprising given the passage of time and the dynamic nature of settlement and administrative geographies of the period. Nevertheless, it is contingent upon anyone studying the spatial manifestation of trading activity to seek explanations for such changes. Oh dear, I’ve just landed myself in it again.

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