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Life in towns and villages
By 1066 towns were already a recognisable feature in England. Many, for example Colchester, Lincoln and York, had their origins in Roman Britain. Domesday Book records 112 towns or boroughs, a term with its origins in the Anglo-Saxon 'burh'. A burh referred to a fortified town, rather than to a town’s size or economic status. The Anglo-Saxon King Alfred had encouraged the development of burhs in the ninth century as a form of defence against Danish invaders. In Norman England these grew in importance as military, religious and administrative centres.
In the 150 years after Domesday the number of towns in England more than doubled. Castles, often built on a town’s high ground, became an important aspect of military control. In some existing towns such as York and Lincoln houses were destroyed to create space for castle building. Some towns developed around a new castle, or around a monastery, as at Bury St Edmunds. Within the 20 years from 1066 to the making of Domesday more than 300 houses were built on land in Bury St Edmunds that had previously been used for agriculture. The two largest towns in England - London with at least 10,000 inhabitants and Winchester with around 6,000 - are not covered in Domesday Book. Other large towns at the time included Norwich, York and Lincoln, with populations of between 4,000 and 5,000 each. Domesday offers some details that indicate the size of towns, such as the number of burgesses who lived there or the number of residencies. An entry for Lincoln details 970 occupied residencies in 1066.
Increasingly, trade was the focus of the boroughs. Many served their local areas with goods like livestock and fish. Salt was another important commodity, essential for preserving fish and meat. An urban settlement had developed around this natural resource at Droitwich in Worcestershire since Roman times. By the time of Domesday Droitwich was a major salt-producing area. One entry in Domesday details 13 salt-houses in Droitwich from which three salt-workers paid 300 measures of salt to the King. While most rural activities were agricultural in nature, the production of iron and lead was also important. Metalworking was often situated near wooded areas in order to supply the fuel needed for furnaces. The iron mentioned in the Gloucester entry in Domesday probably came from the Forest of Dean.
This reference to iron rods in Gloucester is one of the few made to metal working industries in Domesday. Other references to iron in the area include the rendering of ploughshares.
Wool was important for textile production in England and overseas. Towns on the coast became key staging posts on international trading routes for wool exported to the cloth towns of Flanders. Inland towns located on major rivers, such as Lincoln and York, also played an important role in exporting goods. Trade in imported goods, including fine cloth and wine, provided another impetus for a town’s growth.
A town’s burgesses would be involved in trade, craft and industry. Specialist guilds were beginning to emerge. Among the crafts were groups of weavers, goldsmiths and leatherworkers, among the trades were groups of bakers, butchers and fishmongers. The burgesses also had judicial and administrative responsibilities although levels of autonomy varied across the kingdom. Towns often had their own courts to handle the legal proceedings otherwise covered by those of the shire or the hundred. In Domesday one of the few references to this is for Lincoln, where 12 lawmen are noted as holding such roles.
In the Domesday borough merchants, tradesmen and craftsmen lived together in a bustling community. Houses on narrow plots ran back from the high street, with gardens and outbuildings. Although this accommodation might be cramped and unsanitary, and the burgesses owed services and taxes to their lords, they tended to have more status and wealth than the rural population. A burgess could buy and sell property as long as it had been held peacefully for a year and a day.
Most surviving Norman architecture had a military or ecclesiastical purpose. This 12th century building, known as The Jew’s House, in Lincoln is one of the few remaining vernacular buildings in England.
The villages were comparatively undeveloped. Many were still little more than scattered hamlets, not yet settled into the nucleated pattern of the medieval village. However, some settlements like Isham, Northamptonshire, had been replanned by the lord and peasants, with a green and a church in the centre, surrounded by houses, with arable land combined into two or three large open fields.
Life for the Domesday peasant was harsh. Peasant houses were made of wood, wattle and mud and needed frequent rebuilding. People shared a single large room with their animals for warmth in winter, and cooking was over an open fire. Clothes made of wool, flax and skins were rarely changed. Only the elite, the lord, the priest and the reeve – the lord’s steward – and perhaps some of the wealthier peasants enjoyed superior housing and clothes and more to eat.
Village lives revolved around the agricultural calendar. In spring the animals grazed in the pasture, and seed was sown. Summer was the busiest time, particularly when the harvests of wheat, barley, rye, hay, vegetables and fruit were being gathered. In autumn the animals grazed on the remains of the crops, providing manure for the fields, which were then ploughed. Winter was the time when family and those animals not killed for meat stayed indoors.