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The Town House in Medieval and Early Modern Bristol
by Roger H. Leech

The Town House Historians searching for the seeds of the exponential growth of capitalism in the West from early modern England to the present day will find them in The Town House in Medieval and Early Modern Bristol.

While the book’s focus is on the medieval and early modern houses of Bristol, much of what is discussed can be applied in general terms to other urban centres throughout England. This work certainly provides much vital material for a deeper recognition of the importance of the Atlantic economy to the wealth of Bristol, and to Great Britain as a whole.

The study covers the period c.1000 to c.1800 of the medieval and early modern houses of Bristol, England’s second city in the later Middle Ages and again in the 18th century.

Based partly on the survey of surviving early buildings, the study also makes extensive use of documentary evidence and records of houses now demolished to analyse how town houses reveal the social structure and aspirations of Bristol’s citizens in this period. The focus of the work is on the experiential perspectives of the original owners of the domestic/commercial buildings under study.

The author, Prof. Roger H. Leech (currently Visiting Professor in Archaeology at the University of Southampton) takes this approach in order to trace the changes that took place over what was a significant period of cultural, economic and political development through much of England.

In his introduction, the author displays a thorough knowledge of the existing historiography (which is backed up by a ten page bibliography), while noting the drawbacks of so many studies that spend their pages discussing architecture and urban development without ever considering the lives lived within. His work seeks to enrich our understanding of the daily existences that shaped the growth of capitalism in this and in other urban centres through the early modern period.

The depth of the author’s research is obvious from the archaeological and documentary sources he’s sampled over the many years it has taken him to produce this work of remarkably well-balanced scholarship. They range from well-established and respected texts by Girouard and Schofield to primary documents held by the various (singularly enlightened) record offices that serve Bristol and its environs so extraordinarily richly.

Having said this, Prof. Leech is aware of authorial bias, and notes in his introduction that consistent earlier destruction has severely limited the number of medieval buildings remaining within Bristol, and that a plethora of information has made necessary the selection of only a few ‘typical’ seventeenth and eighteenth century houses.

A selective inventory of recorded houses is listed separately on a CD inside the back cover.

The list of chapters illustrates Prof. Leech’s overall approach, which focuses on types of housing, rather than on the chronology of development used by many other historians. In this approach he reflects the attitude of Professor Matthew H. Johnson (many of whose publications appear in this work’s bibliography), whose interdisciplinary and interpretive methodology considers the vital importance of the ideas of the urban dwellers, themselves, to the study of the buildings in which they lived.

Chapters are:
The Saxon and Medieval Town
Developers – the Early Modern City
The Urban Tenement Plot in the Medieval City
The Hallhouse
The Shophouse
The Complexities of Commerce
The Residential House
The Garden House
Spaces and Changes
The Company of the Town
Bristol and the Atlantic World
Merchant Capitalism and the Streets of Bristol

Appendix two is especially valuable for historians of interior design inasmuch as it offers inventories proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury “to provide information on the arrangement of identified houses and the names and uses of rooms”, a rarity in works of this nature and extremely useful.

The work is richly illustrated with photographs (many of them historical), watercolours, plans, maps, and diagrams. Those who know Bristol will recognize much within the pages, and for those who do not, the wealth of illustrations ensures that as little as possible is left to the imagination.

While this is undeniably a work of academic scholarship, its purpose is practical, and it is written in a tone which is clear,concise, and easily-comprehended by both expert and amateur alike----an admirable characteristic, which seems to be shared by many of the works published by English Heritage.

The Town House

Publication date: 2014
452 pages
ISBN 978-1-84802—053-5
English Heritage Publications

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