Peter Clark, ed. The Cambridge Urban History of Britain. Volume II 1540-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xxvii + 906 pp. Â£95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-43141-5.
Reviewed by Catherine Patterson (Department of History, University of Houston)
Published on H-Albion (August, 2002)
Decay and Dynamism in Britain's Towns
Decay and Dynamism in Britain's Towns
In this work, Peter Clark, one of the leading figures in early modern urban studies since the 1970s, brings together a collection of scholars whose research demonstrates the vitality of the field in recent years. Part of a three-volume series (under the general editorship of Clark), this book focuses on Britain's cities and towns during a period of tremendous stress and change, from the Reformation through the Reform Act and the Industrial Revolution. While the authors note the difficulties faced by urban places in this period, the predominant theme is one of transformation and the expansion of the urban system.
The book is organized both thematically and chronologically, consisting of twenty-five chapters by different authors. It begins, after a general introduction by the editor, with seven "Area Surveys" covering the entire time period. Each of these--East Anglia, South-East, South-West, Midlands, North, Wales, and Scotland--offers a regional context for the later chapters, which cover more specific urban themes and types over shorter time spans. Part II, covering the period 1540-1700, consists of essays on themes like "Population and Disease, Estrangement and Belonging," and "Reformation and Culture," as well as urban types, such as "Great and Good Towns" and "Small Market Towns." Part III follows the same pattern for the period 1700-1840, with slightly different themes and types, underscoring the changes that Britain's towns had experienced. Here we see such topics as "Population and Society 1700-1840," "Culture and Leisure," "Health and Leisure Resorts," and "Industrialising Towns." There are continuities between Parts II and III as well, with demography being highlighted throughout and London, the dominant urban place in all of Britain, receiving individual coverage in both parts. Politics and government are also treated at some length, with strong chapters in both of the two chronological sections--Ian Archer dealing with the earlier period and Joanna Innes and Nicholas Rogers the later.
The essays in this collection demonstrate that British urban history has come a long way from the "crisis and order" model that first energized urban studies thirty years ago. While significant economic, social, and political stresses affected Britain's towns and cities, these essays show that very few were undone by these strains. This can be seen in a number of the essays, perhaps most clearly in Penelope Corfield's excellent area survey of East Anglia. She shows that East Anglia's towns in this period formed a real regional network and that they persisted, and even thrived, despite the economic changes of the period. As she puts it, "Tenacity over time thus created a historic identity that transcended the fluctuations of fortune" (p. 48). Such fluctuations could come in many guises, including disease, migration, economic contraction or growth, new industry, and political and cultural change. All of these topics are treated at length in the essays, with demography and economic stresses/developments perhaps being given pride of place. While not every contribution can be discussed here, a brief look at two chapters offers a window into the themes of the volume as a whole. In their chapter "Towns in an Agrarian Economy, 1540-1700," Paul Glennie and Ian Whyte lay out the general patterns of urban structures and town life in Britain; they remind us that in the sixteenth century, and to a great degree in the seventeenth, too, England's urban places had a decidedly rural flavor, and Wales and Scotland were hardly urbanized at all. When we skip ahead to John Langton's fine piece on "Urban Growth and Economic Change: from the Late Seventeenth Century to 1841," we see an urban situation that is greatly changed, though as the author makes clear, the extent and nature of that change is hotly disputed by historians. By 1841, England was heavily urbanized and, in places, industrialized. Langton nevertheless makes a strong argument for the notion that "[s]ingle holistic national economic and urban systems did not exist in this period" (p. 489), stressing instead regional growth and development. He also problematizes the periodization of these changes, reaching back into the seventeenth century rather than hewing to the editor's date of 1700. Clearly, dramatic change did occur, and while some towns--particularly some smaller market towns--decayed, it is the dynamism of urban Britain that shines through.
One of the overall strengths of the volume is the fact that it is truly an urban history of Britain; a concerted effort has been made to integrate Wales and Scotland fully into the discussion. England was a far more urban place, at least in the earlier part of the period covered, but one of the lessons of this book is the extent to which other parts of Britain, especially Scotland, became urbanized by the early nineteenth century.
Historians whose main focus is England will find in these essays a very useful comparative perspective. While this effort at national integration has been made within each essay, one might have wished for more integration between the essays. The authors are not much in conversation with each other here, and there is very little in the way of cross-referencing. The fact that there are so many contributors to the book (thirty-one) may have exacerbated this problem. Not surprisingly, the greatest continuities between sections occur in the few cases the same author covers topics in more than one section, for instance Michael Reed's two essays on the urban landscape before and after 1700, Alan Dyer's essays on the Midlands and on small market towns 1540-1700, and the editor's own contributions. The contributors generally share a common vocabulary of the British "urban system," but it is not always clear what is meant by the phrase or just how "systematic" it was, at least before the nineteenth century. And, as is inevitably the case in this sort of collected work, the individual essays do vary in quality. For instance, while Corfield's area survey is one of the stronger essays in the book, others of these surveys are less coherent and compelling--perhaps because East Anglia itself had a clearer regional identity and thus lent itself to this sort of treatment more effectively.
Despite some shortcomings, this collection shows just how far urban Britain itself came in the 300 years under study. Britain went from being rather less urbanized than most other European nations to having "the highest level of urbanisation in the world" (p. 832) by 1840. Historians of early modern England, and urban historians more generally, will find the second volume of The Cambridge Urban History of Britain a useful compendium of recent scholarship on the most vibrant sector of Britain's economy and society in the early modern period, its towns.
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Catherine Patterson. Review of Clark, Peter, ed., The Cambridge Urban History of Britain. Volume II 1540-1840.
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