David Butcher’s book on medieval Lowestoft and its environs charts the development of a medieval town which both changed its location and aspects of its economy during the Middle Ages. The work combines minute attention to detail with some national and European contextualisation and thus represents a good example of a local history. In 2008, the author published a study of the Lowestoft area in the early modern period, also with Boydell. His present book traces the town’s history from its Anglo-Saxon origins until it became unmistakably urban by the first half of the sixteenth century. The first three chapters discuss the town’s medieval development chronologically. The first chapter deals with the pre-Conquest period, the second moves from Domesday Book to the early fourteenth century and the third examines the period in which the town was moved to a coastal location, and its later developments. The three chapters that follow are thematic. Two examine the town’s principal commercial activities of fishing and maritime trade and the third discusses the parish church and its guilds in the medieval period. Finally, Butcher provides a sketch of the town in the early sixteenth century. The first chapter attempts to explain the origins of the town and the characteristics of the territory of Lothingland before the Norman conquest. This is made more difficult by a lack of both historical sources and extant archaeology, making this chapter necessarily speculative. For instance, the reasons for locating the original site of the town of Lowestoft in the north-east corner of Lowestoft’s present municipal cemetery are not entirely clear. Butcher is honest about the speculative nature of many of these observations. Furthermore, some opportunities do seem to have been missed—for instance, it would also have been helpful to have placed the discussion in the context of the East Anglian Saxon period more fully. Two important elements in Lowestoft’s overall development (its surface geology and coastal location) are considered thoroughly. The work on Domesday Book is extensive and detailed. From being a mere outlier to the Lothingland manor at the time of Domesday, the town gradually developed into a notable coastal station which was directly connected with various ports on the continent of Western Europe. The discussion of the Hundred Rolls and Lay Subsidy returns which follows is impressive and undoubtedly attempts to mine as much data as possible from the sources to present a comprehensive picture of the town’s development and economy in this period. Butcher includes a very interesting discussion of corruption that is revealed in this study of the Hundred Rolls, a subject that is returned to again in the discussion of maritime trade. These activities are often difficult to detect in the sources and so this work provides a valuable case-study of the importance of illegal activities within a medieval regional economy. However, the acknowledged lack of documentary evidence is apparent in these sections as well. When discussing the move of the settlement to the new planned coastal site in c.1300, there is little examination of tenure, particularly burgage tenure, so often associated with new towns of this sort, and there is little in the way of contextual discussion of other planned or relocated towns of this period, such as Winchelsea. The maps in the book are first class. The 1618 map of the new town is a good example. However, the opportunity presented by this particular map for plan analysis of the early, fossilised, plot arrangements found in the medieval town (so often used by urban historians and geographers) seems to have been missed here. The two chapters on the economy, one on fishing and the other on trade, are also good. Of particular interest, principally because these are often considered as separate sub-disciplines by historians, is the exploration of relationship between the agricultural pursuits and maritime commerce. Also of interest here in relation to its economic development is the discussion of the town’s comparative freedom from outside interference on account of its absentee manorial lord. Furthermore, it is argued here that Lowestoft’s proximity to the port of Great Yarmouth, which was experiencing difficulties in the later medieval period, was very much to the town’s advantage in reinforcing its own maritime commercial activities. Particular attention is paid to the town’s magnificent church, which provides a welcome window into the inhabitants’ lives beyond their economic activities. Boydell has produced the book very well. Throughout, the work is sensitive to topography and landscape and so has relevance for archaeologists and geographers as well as those interested in urban history and medieval maritime commerce. The book presents a detailed picture of life and trade within a medieval coastal town. It will also appeal to the general reader on account of Butcher’s ability to pick out areas of historic interest within the modern town. Many of the black-and-white photographs, some of which are reproduced more clearly than others, present images of ordinary buildings and features located in the modern town, each with helpful captions, which may well appeal to readers who know the area well. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: May 28, 2018
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