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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access February 9, 2024

Urbanity, Decline, and Regeneration in Later Medieval England: Towards a Posthuman Household Microhistory

  • Ben Jervis
From the journal Open Archaeology


It is proposed that combining a microhistorical approach with the frameworks offered by household archaeology and posthumanism provides a way of rethinking what urbanity means in archaeological (specifically later medieval) contexts. This approach is deployed to challenge generalising approaches which obscure the complexity, vibrancy, and generative capacity of past urbanities. Focussing on the question of the fortunes of later medieval small towns in England, a posthuman household microhistory of two households in the town of Steyning (southern England) is presented. This demonstrates how a focus on the practices undertaken by, and relational constitution of, households can reveal difference and open new avenues for understanding past urbanity.

1 Introduction

It is often said that we live in an “urban age,” a term which has generated critique for the way that it generalises the urban phenomena, erases diversity in urban experience, and neutralises the generative potential of urban life (Brenner & Schmid, 2014). It is this diversity, this inherent difference, which makes the urban so difficult to define both in contemporary and historical contexts. Increasingly we are becoming aware that urbanity is not a stable, nor a singular, phenomenon. Rather, it is open ended, constituted of processes, situated within, but extending beyond, towns and cities (e.g. Brenner & Schmid, 2015; Frichot, Gabrielsson, & Metzger, 2016; McFarlane, 2011). It is multi-scalar, surfacing in different ways among households, within cities or regions. Just as with the twenty-first century “urban age,” urbanity, however we choose to define it, might be considered a defining characteristic of later medieval Europe (Schofield & Vince, 2005). In England around a tenth of the population lived in towns during this period, the majority in small towns with populations of around 2,000 people (Dyer, 2003, p. 88). These places are highly variable and difficult to define, many having more in common with nucleated villages than larger centres such as London, Bristol, and York. We remain ill-equipped to understand the diversity of these urban places. Here it is contended that a combination of a microhistorical perspective, household archaeology, and posthuman thought can provide a path to a better understanding of urban difference and reveal indeterminate processes of urban becoming. The aim of this study is to examine the fruitful intersections between these three bodies of archaeological and historical thought, which have emerged out of disparate research traditions, but have a degree of commonality to their aims.

The first is microhistory, which might be broadly defined as the writing of situated, specific histories which seek to reveal the dynamics of the mundane and the everyday, which, through highlighting diversity of experience, stand in contrast to the singular “grand” narrative. These microhistories are intensive studies of specific people or places with the aim of addressing wider historical questions (e.g. Ginzburg, 1995, p. 33; Magnússon, 2003, pp. 709–712; Magnússon & Szijártó, 2013, p. 5; Szijártó, 2002, pp. 209–210; Trivellato, 2015, p. 122).

The second is household archaeology. Initially emerging out of the “New Archaeology” of the 1960s–80s (Wilk & Rathje, 1982), household archaeology has developed into a vibrant field of research which places the household unit and its composite relations of labour, gender, and power at the heart of archaeological analysis (e.g. Carballo, 2011; Douglass & Gonlin, 2012; Hendon, 1996; Nash, 2009; Tringham, 1991). Although popular in the archaeology of the Americas, it has received less attention within European archaeology (although see e.g. Allison, 1999; Bolender & Johnson, 2018; Catlin, 2016).

The third is posthumanism, particularly that inspired by Deleuze and Guattari’s (1972, 1987) assemblage thought and readings of it by feminist thinkers such as Braidotti and Stark (e.g. Braidotti, 2013, 2022; Stark, 2017 see also Cobb & Crellin, 2022 for an archaeological perspective). Posthumanism is a way of thinking which critiques the centrality of the human and highlights the diversity of “human” as a category, which has potential for developing new perspectives on our understanding of the more-than-human past (e.g. Crellin & Harris, 2021; Fedengren, 2013; Jervis, 2019). In particular, it extends our understanding of the “human” beyond the body, to understand it as relationally constituted through practice. As such, a posthuman, archaeological microhistory of the household creates a space to explore the emergence and significance of difference in the past, while also exploring how agency and power emerge from, and are dispersed across, the relations constitutive of historical processes of becoming.

In order to examine these theoretical intersections, the study begins by exploring the potential synergies between microhistory, household archaeology, and posthuman thought. These ideas are then examined in relation to a specific historical question, the fortunes of later medieval urban communities in England, through a focus on two households from the town of Steyning in southern England. The study concludes with reflections on the potential of the theoretical framework presented to re-think medieval urbanity.

2 Microhistory, Household Archaeology, and Posthuman Thought: Some Theoretical Synergies

The potential for synergy between these different approaches is readily apparent. In his discussion of archaeology and the “singularization of history,” Orser (2016, p. 176) demonstrates clear points of methodological similarity between (historical) archaeology and microhistory. These can be summarised as the shared interest in small units of analysis, a concern with the relations between individual behaviour and wider contexts and the usage of a wide range of sources. He goes on to argue that the “bottom-up” approach developed through the writing of microhistory allows us to understand the “human aspects,” or what we might term the agencies, behind the metanarrative, rather than using metanarratives as our frame of reference (see also Tringham, 1995, pp. 94–95). Orser’s article is a response to a provocation by Magnússon (2003), that those proclaiming to undertake microhistorical research are too beholden to the metanarrative, which works against the grain of an approach which is intended to reveal specificity and difference. Elements of this argument are apparent in the development of household archaeology, too. In its initial form, and typical of the paradigm from which it emerged, household archaeology sought to develop a model of the household to provide a “middle range” theory linking the individual and the wider community, the household being the smallest identifiable social unit of analysis (Wilk & Rathje, 1982, p. 617), defined by relations of co-residence. Critique from the 1990s, particularly stimulated by Hendon (1996) has sought instead to demonstrate the diversity of household composition and organisation, to create a bottom-up perspective which explores the relations between the household and wider social contexts. Similar points are made in Tringham’s (1991, p. 100) discussion of household archaeology as an archaeology at the microscale, in which she critiques the “willingness to accept generalised assumptions” about household activities and, by extension, the role of the household in social continuity and change. It is through such observations that the synergy between household archaeology and microhistory becomes apparent, as demonstrated by a small number of archaeological studies of household which implicitly draw on microhistorical perspectives (e.g. Borić, 2007, p. 98; Boozer, 2010, pp. 141–142; Hupperetz, 2010; pp. 282–283; Weikert, 2018). A posthuman approach allows our understanding of the historical importance of the household to further develop, by understanding them as more than groupings defined by human co-residence, instead being situated concentrations of relations between human and non-human participants (including the house, objects, animals, and plants), which is both coherent and drawn beyond itself into a wider constellation of relations (e.g. Bolender & Johnson, 2018; Harris, 2014; Jervis, 2022a).

Such a perspective remains true to the original concept of household archaeology, in that it can be understood as a response to a problem of scale. Initially intended to bridge the gap between systems thought and human action, the approach developed here can be framed as an extension of this purpose, to address the question posed by Robb and Pauketat (2013, p. 24) of how we can build histories which work at multiple scales. Microhistory is one response to this challenge, in that it seeks to understand how broad social patterns emerge in dialogue with the everyday, a purpose shared by household archaeology. Robb and Pauketat (2013) proposed that a productive approach to the challenge of scale is a relational history, one in which we tack between scales and understand how they are enfolded within each other, rather than limiting explanation to historical change from the system down, or the individual up. To achieve this it is necessary to understand human experience as constituted of more-than-human relations. This allows us to perceive of material practices as building tradition and experience, as mediating persistence while both responding to, and stimulating, change. Reflecting on this argument, Harris (2017) advocates for the assemblage thought of Deleuze and Guattari as a tool for thinking through scale. Assemblages, defined as fluid and productive comings-together of both human and non-human participants are inherently multi-scalar in their composition. They are processes of becoming which enfold intimate experiences such as the working of materials within wider relations, being productive as they act upon other relational processes elsewhere (see e.g. Crellin, 2017; Fleisher, 2020; Fowler, 2013; Jones & Sibbesson, 2013; McFadyen, 2013; Pauketat, 2021). The multi-scalar character of assemblages means that to think through assemblages is to think across scales, and to understand the household both as more-than-human in its composition and as entangled in, and constitutive of, processes which extend beyond its bounds. It is in this way that household archaeology or microhistory are not approaches reducible to the micro-scale, but rather offer starting points for multi-scalar analyses of historical process.

Posthuman thought can, therefore, be understood as non-hierarchical and more-than-human in its approach. What this means in practice is that it allows for analysis to start at any scale, but not to reduce analysis to that scale, while also allowing for reflection on how history is not the product of human action alone, but emerges through relations with heterogenous “others.” It is these relations which constitute the assemblage as a simultaneous moment of gathering and dis-integration, as relations coalesce to form identifiable entities, elements of which are constitutive of assemblages elsewhere. The writing of Deleuze, including his collaborative work with Guatarri, has a complex and contradictory relationship with history. At times, for example in their discussion of history in relation to capitalism in Anti-Oedipus (Deleuze & Guatarri, 1987, pp. 163–311), universalism appears to be the focus. At others, they espouse approaches which are nomadic (that is undirected and emergent), problematising the relationship between history (what happened) and becoming, variously holding these approaches in opposition, and exploring the intersection between them through temporality (Colebrook, 2009, pp. 7–9; Patton, 2009, p. 35). A core element of assemblage theory is a concern with the becoming of affective bodies (which may be more-than-human or non-human in their composition), produced through gathering and affective as they act within and upon relations, a process which itself might be understood as a “microhistory, which analyses the production of powers from connections of forces” (Colebrook, 2009, p. 12). The link between posthuman approaches and microhistory has also already been established by Magnússon (2003, p. 721), who highlights in his use of the word “singularization” to mean the close study of specific historical circumstances, rather than the reading of evidence in support of metanarrative, that Deleuze and Guattari used this term to question regular hierarchy. The “molecular” or “intensive” approach developed by Deleuze and Guattari (1987, p. 47), characterised by analysis of affective relations begins from the singularity, the specific, and it is out of these relational moments that the “molar,” what we might equate here with a generalising metanarrative, comes into focus as an object of critique. Indeed, reflecting on the development of microhistory, Trivellato (2015, p. 123) emphasises how microhistory has demonstrated the importance of reconstructing networks of relations to better understand the development of meaning and distribution of power. From a methodological perspective, it is the mapping back of the specific onto the metanarrative against which Magnússon is arguing, something which can be equated with, for example, the way in which Braidotti (2013, pp. 13–15) demonstrates hegemonic ideas of gender to obscure molecular processes of gendered becoming. This is a concern in Deleuze and Guattari’s writing too, for although they explore a universalising history of capitalism, their purpose is to understand how capitalism has reduced the potential for other modes of becoming; how it has rendered other possible bodies invisible (Colebrook, 2009, p. 16).

From this perspective, the criticism of the singular as a history of banality (see Magnússon & Szijártó, 2013, pp. 32–33 for discussion), of a history of lives out of context, falls away as it becomes apparent that it is these relations of banality which are the “machines” (to appropriate Deleuze and Guattari’s term) of historical production. As Deleuze and Guattari (1972, p. 311) write in Anti-Oedipus “universal history is nothing more than a theology if it does not seize control of the conditions of its contingent, singular existence, its irony and its own critique.” In other words, universality of history and experience is the product of what they term the “coding” of relations (the ways in which the potential of relations to form or cause affect are constrained), a process which is contingent upon an ongoing process of production (Jervis, 2019, p. 38). This relational thinking has also begun to inform approaches to the archaeology of the household, seeing it not as a stable social unit but as a dynamic more-than-human relational composition, which is, itself, entangled in productive relations across scales (Bolender & Johnson, 2018; Jervis, 2022a).

In sum, the combination of microhistory, household archaeology, and posthuman thought is a fertile ground for exploring processes of becoming in a manner which leads to the emergence of a variegated, rather than universal, understanding of the past. This is an understanding in which archaeological evidence is not related to a metanarrative as context, but contributes to the understanding of historical process as a non-linear mess of entanglements which evade the writing of a universalising history. As such, it provides a toolkit for engaging with the complexity of urbanity, specifically here, in its medieval manifestation.

3 Medieval Urbanity and the Problem of the Universal

In order to explore the implications and potential of this theoretical synergy, this study will focus on a specific historical problem, that of urban experience in later medieval England. Urbanisation is a defining characteristic of medieval Europe, but was by no means a universal phenomenon. Even across small areas, the character of towns in terms of their size, form, economy, and legal status are highly variable (e.g. for England: Jervis, 2016, 2017a,b; Laughton & Dyer, 1999). The distinction between town and country is not a strongly marked dichotomy, for example agrarian production was a core element of urban life even in larger towns and cities (e.g. Cembrzyński & Radomski, 2022, pp. 227–231; Dyer, 1994, pp. 121–124; Fischer, van Londen, Blonk-van den Bercken, Visser, & Renes, 2021; Goodson, 2021). Much archaeological and historical attention has been spent on seeking a definition for the medieval town, but increasingly approaches are moving away from this. Instead, researchers are drawing to the surface the contradictions and differences inherent in urban experience, understanding urbanity as performance, as emerging out of situated relations not as a single phenomenon but as a constellation of connected “happenings,” which encapsulate processes of synergy and resonance as well as difference (e.g. Christopherson, 2015; Haase, 2019; Jervis, 2016, 2017a, 2018). Reflecting on the role of history in the writing of Deleuze, Colebrook (2009, p. 9) argues that his commitment to vital, materialist, becoming means that historical enquiry should not start with a familiar unit (such as the town) as this serves to limit the potential “lines of flight,” or processes of becoming, which we might be able to observe. Therefore, rather than seeking to write a history or archaeology of medieval urbanity focussed on a “molar” concept, we should instead seek to map affective relations, resulting in an understanding of difference, of multiple temporalities and rhythms and of unexpected intersections. Attending to the scale of the household is one means of achieving this, not by replacing one ‘known’ entity (the town) with another (the household), but by providing as a point of reference an assemblage (the household) constituted of and through the rhythms and practices of daily life. It is in pursuit of this aim that a microhistorical perspective, beginning with exploring the relations constitutive of households, can prove productive as demonstrated, for example, by Boozer’s (2010) analysis of empire through the study of two houses from Roman-period Egypt, which show strikingly different responses and experiences at the domestic scale.

A particular area of enquiry in English medieval history and archaeology has been the question of “urban decline” in the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries, a period characterised by environmental change, warfare, and pandemic. Debate has raged about the extent to which the decline of towns was universal, or whether, and how, certain towns were able to weather the storm more effectively, and even prosper (e.g. Astill, 2000; Bridbury, 1981; Dobson, 1977; Dyer, 1991; Jervis, 2017a; Lilley, 2000, 2015; Reynolds, 1980; Rigby, 2010). Much of this argument is based on economic and demographic data, the taxable wealth of towns and the size of their populations. There has been relatively little archaeological work on this question, and it is common for evidence of fourteenth century abandonment or demolition to be contextualised against this metanarrative (Astill, 2000; Dyer, 2003; Jervis, 2017a). However, detailed analysis of archaeological evidence at scales ranging from the household to the urban landscape as a whole reveals a story of complexity. Rather than simply seeing decay and decline, we see adaptation and adjustment. Urban spaces may contract, but they retained and developed their character, for example in terms of economic specialisation (Jervis, 2017a,b). Works to churches and other public buildings reveal a persistent community organisation. Alterations to houses show that town-dwellers were able to accumulate and dispose of wealth in pursuit of comfort, fashion, or to accommodate economic activities. Material culture demonstrates the persistence of markets, even if the specific networks behind them changed. The focussed historical and archaeological study of urban fortunes does not reveal a universal story of decay and decline, but rather highlights variability and complexity in the responses of communities to crisis.

Returning to the question of definition, this variability of experience resonates with the need to begin from relations, revealing the fundamental issue with any sort of attempt to generalise medieval urbanity. A universal concept of decline implies that there was a common apex of urbanism from which urban life could fall, and that there was a single thing called a town. This perspective is predicated on an understanding of difference as a lacking in relation to the normative ideal. The difference inherent in urban experiences means that such a concept is a fallacy. Following Deleuze we can perceive of an alternative difference, one which is productive and affirmative; which challenges the necessity of the general or the normative, to instead be open to what towns could become and what urban households could do (Braidotti, 2013, p. 96; 2022, p. 190; Cockayne, Ruez, & Secor, 2017). From this perspective, we can perceive the relations constitutive of urban life as continually producing urban difference; instead of perceiving towns as “declining,” we can understand them as becoming something(s) else, as households and communities responded to pressures and opportunities, or simply endured through hardship seeking to conserve their livelihoods and social relations.

For urban history, a microhistorical approach allows us to delve into the complexity of the urban past. As Foot (2007, p. 435) remarks, microhistories do not combine to constitute a macrohistory but rather come together to reveal the resonances, contradictions, and complexities of urban life. The study of later medieval urban life therefore offers a useful case study through which to examine the potential of drawing together microhistorical, household archaeology, and posthuman approaches to challenge a prevailing metanarrative and to understand the production and implications of difference. This will be achieved through the study of two households from a single town, the small town of Steyning (West Sussex), in southern England.

4 Steyning: A Posthuman Household Microhistory

Steyning is situated on the South Downs, a ridge of chalkland running across southern England from Winchester to Eastbourne (Figure 1a). It is within the valley of the River Adur and was an important inland port and religious centre prior to the Norman Conquest. Following the development of the towns of Bramber and Shoreham to the south, Steyning lost some of its importance, being a small market town. While the early settlement was centred on the church, in the twelfth century, new house-plots developed along the High Street, with this area becoming the commercial and social heart of the town. By the fourteenth century, Steyning was an important regional centre. It had a well-established market, merchants selling wool, cloth, and wine, as well as a range of victuallers and a guild of shoemakers and tanners. The town also had a strong agrarian base, being situated in a prime agricultural landscape for both arable and pastoral husbandry (Harris, 2004). This strong agrarian base, as well as its importance as a regional market, likely shielded the town from the worst of the impacts of the fourteenth century crises, and there is clear evidence of re-building through the later Middle Ages, with 30 buildings surviving from the period c1350–1500 (Lacey & Lacey, 1974). Excavation, largely concentrated on more peripheral areas, is suggestive of contraction, but as the evidence from Cuthman’s Field (discussed below) shows, there was still some re-development at the edge of the town.

Figure 1 
               (a) Map showing the location of Steyning in southern England. Image by author. (b) Plan of Steyning showing the location of sites mentioned in the text. 1: Fletcher’s Croft. 2: Cuthman’s Field/Church Street. Reproduced from Gardiner and Greatorex (1997) with permission from Sussex Archaeological Society.
Figure 1

(a) Map showing the location of Steyning in southern England. Image by author. (b) Plan of Steyning showing the location of sites mentioned in the text. 1: Fletcher’s Croft. 2: Cuthman’s Field/Church Street. Reproduced from Gardiner and Greatorex (1997) with permission from Sussex Archaeological Society.

Steyning is typical of medieval small towns in England. These are an important class of settlement, housing the majority of England’s urban population. They are, however, ambiguous and highly variable settlements (Dyer, 2002, 2003). Some appear as miniature versions of larger towns, with well-developed urban institutions, clear evidence of planning and economic specialisation, whereas others retain a particular dependence on agricultural production and were relatively small, if densely populated, settlements. The variability inherent within these towns relates to a diversity of factors; their economic basis, their administrative context, and matters of landscape and communication, all of which contribute to their unique developmental histories. It is the diversity of forms, economies, and societies observable in small towns which make medieval urbanity so difficult to define and generalise, and which, therefore, makes it suitable for an approach which does not take the “town,” but rather the practices of households, as its starting point. In what follows, the evidence from two excavations in Steyning (Figure 1b), at Fletcher’s Croft and Cuthman’s Field/Church Street, will be examined from a microhistorical perspective, focussed on the household, their practices, and the generative more-than-human relations that these generated.

4.1 Fletcher’s Croft: Decay or Endurance?

To focus on the question of decay and decline is to emphasise a sense of urban failure. Doing so devalues the life which took place in these locations, the ways in which labour was directed at enduring. One way of moving past these narratives is to adopt an approach grounded in the concept of resilience. While in simple terms, the equation of resilience with the ability to “bounce back” appears appropriate as a lens through which to explore the impacts of trauma on communities, it is a politically laden and contested concept (Anderson, 2015; Scott, 2013, pp. 598–599; Zebrowski, 2013). Resilience building is a deliberate strategy of taking measures to protect what is valued against trauma; the investment of labour and resources by medieval communities in flood defences is a good example. As the contemporary experience shows, resilience building is not a neutral process; it exacerbates inequalities of power and protects certain interests at the expense of others (Campanella, 2006, pp. 142–144; Diprose, 2014, p. 49; Grove, Cox, & Barnet, 2020; Pike, Dawley, & Tomaney, 2010, p. 64; Pelling & Manuel-Navarrete, 2011; Scott, 2013, pp. 599–60, 605). It is a means of resisting change and difference, of resisting the potential to become otherwise (Braidotti, 2019, p. 171; although see Dovey, 2012; Grove & Chandler, 2016, p. 85, for a re-imagining of resilience in similar terms), albeit with an increasing realisation that effective resilience requires a degree of evolution and adaptation (Ahern, 2011; Bradtmöller, Grimm, & Riel-Salvatore, 2017; Pike et al., 2010; Scott, 2013, pp. 600–602). Rather than seeking to manage the non-human, we can think about how it is incorporated within communities and households, a process which Braidotti (2019, p. 172) refers to as endurance: a process of affective becoming which embraces affectivity and joy, as well as hardship and pain. Such an approach is particularly well suited to a microhistorical perspective which focusses on specific experiences, practices, and narratives, rather than seeking to develop generalising models of societal development. Whereas a focus on resilience results in us asking how successful communities were at maintaining urbanity, a focus on endurance allows us to question the diversity of ways in which communities were able to live with the World.

As an example, we can look at the site of Fletcher’s Croft, situated on the outskirts of Steyning (Evans, 1986). At face value, the evidence is suggestive of a typical story of urban decay. The dispersal of chimney pots and other structural materials paint a picture of dilapidated and abandoned buildings standing ruinous, rather than being systematically dismantled. Later medieval evidence comprises a boundary ditch and possible bridge, an oven, a possible smithy and an area of trampling perhaps associated with animal husbandry (the finds assemblage includes a horseshoe and associated nail) (Figure 2). The evocative picture of tumbledown houses corresponds with a metanarrative of urban decay, creating a direct link between large-scale processes and household fortunes. A household archaeology perspective demands we explore processes, to understand what households did rather than focussing on the apparent decay of buildings themselves (Tringham, 1991, p. 100). Households are not reducible to the house or even the house-plot, being productively perceived of as moments rather than bounded spaces (Battle, 2004, p. 43). In other words, a posthuman microhistorical reading of the evidence allows us to reconstruct the practices which took place within and beyond the house-plot as productive more-than-human relations, through which both the household and the wider urban context underwent continual maintenance and transformation.

Figure 2 
                  Plan of later medieval features at Fletcher’s Croft, Steyning. Reproduced from Evans (1986) with permission from Sussex Archaeological Society.
Figure 2

Plan of later medieval features at Fletcher’s Croft, Steyning. Reproduced from Evans (1986) with permission from Sussex Archaeological Society.

For Braidotti (2019, p. 101), a key element of the posthumanities is the role of non-human life and the geological in the becoming of knowledge. Endurance is not simply about human survival, because human survival is contingent on a constellation of relations through which life, in its diversity of forms, emerges. In other words, life extends into the material realm. In contrast to a focus on resilience, in which we would examine how people sought to actively resist and constrain the vibrancy of the material, an emphasis on endurance creates a space in which we can understand how communities lived with and through this vibrancy, by attending to the demands of the more-than-human relational constitution of urbanity.

As an example, we can look at one excavated feature from Fletcher’s Croft. Despite the apparent evidence for dilapidation and decay, an oven was repaired multiple times and remained in use into the fifteenth century (Evans, 1986, p. 89). Just beyond the apparent boundary of the plot was an area of disturbance, which was the result of clay extraction, likely for the building and ongoing care of the oven. The evidence from the oven itself attests to the drying of peas, but it was probably also used for drying other produce, perhaps cultivated within and beyond the backyard which was situated in a peripheral location in the townscape. Here we see, at the microscale, how the household attended to the needs of the material, expending labour in maintaining the essential resources of the household, ensuring the rhythms of life endured.

We might, of course, situate the oven and the associated quern stone within a narrative of resilience building, of ensuring food security through the drying of peas and other crops, and of processing them into flour or malt. But these are not the steps being taken to secure and maintain a particular mode of urban living. These are long-term processes of agrarian production and processing, of nurturing crops, of arresting decay, contingent upon the hard, physical work of digging clay, cultivating the land, and grinding grain or malt. It is more appropriate to view these activities as a labour of endurance, of a persistent way of living with the world out of which we might see a flickering urbanity emerge (Jervis, 2016, p. 392; 2019, p. 130). For example, this emerges potentially, in their ownership of an oven within the tenement plot, a feature more of urban than rural settlements, where they are often situated within manorial complexes or open fields (Jervis, 2023). A focus on resilience would assess the durability of a particular form of urban life, a focus on endurance reveals how life goes on.

What emerges through a focus on this household labour is a history which de-stabilises the conventional narrative of urban development. Such a perspective, which might be defined as “minoritarian” (Stark, 2017, p. 27), reveals ways of becoming urban which are contextual and specific, which relate not to living up to a pre-conceived idea of urbanity, but embracing its capacity for difference. One object from Fletcher’s Croft associated with narratives of persistence and endurance is a Purbeck Marble mortar. The main period of production and exchange of these objects is centred on the thirteenth century, but they continue to have been exchanged into the fourteenth century. This object was recovered from a late medieval feature suggestive of a relative longevity of use, as might be expected given the durability of the material. This mortar would have been used for crushing herbs or other substances, either for inclusion in food and drink, or for medicinal purposes. Away from larger towns, elite households, and religious institutions, medical knowledge was held informally and often by women, passed through generations (Green, 1989; Jervis, 2022b; Vaughan, 2020, pp. 33–35). The mortar is suggestive of the holding of this knowledge and, by extension, the labour of foraging for herbs, mixing, and administering them, as well as the associated practices of tending to the sick (see Dempsey, 2021, p. 267). To perceive this object as associated with a generalised realm of female practice is to oversimplify the complexity of gendered relations within the medieval home (see e.g. Goldberg, 2011; Müller, 2013; Rees Jones, 2013 for wider discussion). However, attending to the mortar and the system of knowledge into which it was bound sheds light both on the intimacy of household experience and resonances between rural and urban life, the importance of generational knowledge, the capacities of plants, and, potentially, their intersections with gendered experience. The longevity of this object is suggestive of an enduring set of relations between the household, their knowledge, objects, and environment, which stand in opposition to an over-arching narrative of decay.

A contrast is provided by a second stone object, a mica schist whetstone used for the sharpening of blades. This was found with the mortar. These objects were imported in increasing quantities from the twelfth century, peaking in the mid-thirteenth to fourteenth centuries, but continuing to occur in deposits into the fifteenth century across England (Jervis, Briggs, Forward, Tompkins, & Gromelski, 2023; Jervis, 2023b). Some context for the whetstone is provided by the suggestion of the presence of a smithy at the site (Evans, 1986, p. 88). The excavators’ interpretation is conjectural, being based on the presence of a density of iron artefacts and an area of burning, rather than smithing debris, but may provide some indication to the economic basis of the household. Whether used by a smith or around the home, the stone is indicative of attending to the demands of the material; sharpening iron blades in turn allowed for the nurturing and cultivation of crops and the nourishing of the household. The stone reveals how the endurance of the household was dependent on the material. Medieval urbanity is not definable solely in human terms, it emerged as an ecology of interdependence in which urban becoming was predicated upon the curation of material relations (Braidotti, 2022, pp. 137–138).

The archaeological evidence allows us to perceive what Deleuze and Guattari (1987, pp. 375–376) term a process of “territorialisation.” The household is more than a group of people bound in space, it is composed of relations, which themselves pull the household beyond itself. Most obvious, perhaps, is the way in which the household is drawn into relations of commerce and commodification, as is evidenced through non-local objects, namely, the schist whetstone, Purbeck Marble mortar, a German quern stone, and imported French pottery, as well as commercially produced local pottery likely produced in the nearby countryside. The potential presence of a smithy is suggestive of the commodification of labour. We also see the household enfolded into processes of agrarian production, animal husbandry, and the processing of the produce, the acquisition of thatch for the roof, and fuel for the ovens and hearths. These processes simultaneously constituted and “de-territorialised” the household, they pulled it beyond itself. The commodification of labour generated wealth, relationships of co-dependence emerged with other households. While we cannot get to the personal level of relations, we can perceive that it was these relations which were productive of urbanity not as a single phenomenon, but as an emergent quality, neither persistent nor fixed, but situational and shimmering. Attending to relations at the household scale therefore opens the possibility for a microhistorical perspective on urbanity, focussed not on defining the town as a single entity but on the variegated contexts and experiences which constitute it.

Paying attention to the practices undertaken at Fletcher’s Croft therefore moves us away from an emphasis on decay. Instead, we can bring into focus processes of labour and of the curation and enacting of knowledge, to understand how these processes were context making. Rather than focussing on the moment of decay we can think through processes of endurance; the repair of the oven, the drying of produce, the maintenance of tools, and care of the sick. Within the household, we can perceive, perhaps, of gendered knowledge; of medicinal knowledge mediated through relations with the natural world and stone mortars passed between mother and daughter, and, most likely, of smithing skill developed by a male smith learned through a period of apprenticeship. While elements of labour are likely to be gendered, the spatial arrangement of these practices blurs any boundary between domestic and economic; the yard was a place of industry, of food processing, of animal husbandry, and of quarrying; all activities being essential to the household and their ability to endure. This illustrates vividly how the household as an assemblage is pulled beyond itself, as the household and wider economic relations are bound up within and constitutive of each other across scales. What is difficult to see here is anything explicitly “urban.” Ovens are a feature of urban and rural settlements, although the association between an oven and a house-plot is more strongly a feature of towns (Jervis, 2023a). Animal husbandry, processing of grain, and smithing are all activities which transcend the urban:rural divide. This micro-examination of household relations demonstrates the point that we must begin our enquiry not by questioning the persistence of urbanity, but by questioning the potential and implications of relations for what it might become.

4.2 Cuthman’s Field: Regeneration and Rebuilding

Just as decay provides a generalising narrative for the later fourteenth century, so subsequent decades are often characterised as a period of regeneration and rebuilding, of a transformation in domestic life. Just as a microhistorical approach focussed on household relations can challenge a generalising narrative of decay and decline, so too can it help us to better understand the transformations in urban life. The transformation of domestic architecture has been a key theme in the study of later medieval and early modern domesticity (e.g. Briscoe, Martin, Martin, & Whittick, 2018; Johnson, 1993). In general terms, houses transitioned from having an open hall to one which was floored over, with greater internal sub-division, often achieved through the erection of cross wings. Study of this transition has demonstrated that it did not occur as a single event, with individual buildings being modified in stages and alterations taking place earlier in some regions than others (Briscoe et al., 2018, pp. 62–63; Roberts, 2007). Domestic spaces became larger in terms of floorspace and more complex, households were able to adapt spaces to their needs and their means. A range of stimuli can be seen as driving this process; a growing concern with the “privatisation” of the household unit, symbolised both through the increasing use of “private” spaces such as parlours and chambers, but also in the increasing household level undertaking of tasks such as baking and brewing (Hamling & Richardson, 2017, pp. 29, 70–77). Studies of large samples of housing stock in southern England have demonstrated both that this transition was a widespread process, but also that the exact processes are specific to individual houses (e.g. Briscoe et al., 2018; Gray, 2002; Mileson, 2015; Roberts, 2007). A microhistorical approach shifts focus from the broad trend to specific buildings, and also demands us to consider buildings as processual, building and maintenance being ongoing practices undertaken by, or for, the household rather than being the fixed episodes represented by building plans; to understand how the biographies of houses were entangled with those of the households and people who inhabited them (Tringham, 1991, p. 123).

At Cuthman’s Field, Church Street, around 200 m north-west of Fletcher’s Croft, excavations provide clear evidence of this process of rebuilding (Barton, 1986; Gardiner & Greatorex, 1997, pp. 155–161) (Figure 3). Between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, the western half of the site was characterised by the presence of pits filled with domestic waste including pottery and animal bone (Figure 3a). Although no associated building was excavated, the absence of features in the eastern part of the site may be indicative of a ground set building. In the fifteenth century the site was re-developed (Figure 3b). A large timber framed building was erected in the eastern half of the site. In a second phase of development, the building was substantially extended, with a new wing extending over a yard area with new internal sub-divisions being inserted (Barton, 1986, pp. 99–101). This change is dated by ceramic evidence to the period 1500–1550, indicating a fairly rapid process of construction and alteration lasting around 150 years. An oven, the flue of which was filled c1575–1675, is also associated with this building, with a potential use for malting or grain drying (Gardiner & Greatorex, 1997, p. 156). Outside the building, a trackway cut across the yard. This appears to have been prone to flooding on the basis of waterlogged deposits, and the presence of postholes suggests the erection of a bridge straddling this wet ground.

Figure 3 
                  (a) Plan of features at Cuthman’s Field/Church Street, Steyning, dating c1200–1450. (b) Plan of features at Cuthman’s Field/Church Street, Steyning, dating 1400–1700. Reproduced from Gardiner and Greatorex (1997) with permission from Sussex Archaeological Society.
Figure 3

(a) Plan of features at Cuthman’s Field/Church Street, Steyning, dating c1200–1450. (b) Plan of features at Cuthman’s Field/Church Street, Steyning, dating 1400–1700. Reproduced from Gardiner and Greatorex (1997) with permission from Sussex Archaeological Society.

The development here did not occur in isolation. Evidence from a substantial stock of standing timber buildings in Steyning testifies to the widespread nature of re-building and modification. In many cases, the open medieval hall was floored over to create upstairs. In some cases, houses were extended with the addition of cross wings, as is the case with the excavated house at Cuthman’s Field, but in other cases, less substantial “lean-to” type structures were erected (Lacey & Lacey, 1974, p. 19). Sometimes new houses, including the characteristic “Wealden House,” something of a hybrid between the medieval hall house and the modified house, having an open hall (typically floored over at a later date) with jettied end bays, were erected. What is clear from the detailed study of houses in Steyning, as well as in the wider region, is that households and landlords took a range of approaches for modification, adapting to their means, needs, and the character of the existing house structure.

While we can observe a general process of rebuilding and regeneration, thinking through these changes from the perspective of difference allows us to re-evaluate these processes of architectural transformation. Rather than seeking a general process, represented by examples which are normative or deviant, it invites us to question what it was that these houses could do (Cockayne et al., 2017, pp. 589–590). In doing so, we are invited to reflect on the affect of built spaces. Much of the literature on medieval houses emphasises their intended symbolic effect; the role of buildings as representations of hierarchy for example (e.g. Emery, 2005; Johnson, 1997, p. 14–15; Mileson, 2015, pp. 14; Suggett, 2013, p. 12). It is common for the development of rooms such as chambers and parlours to be described in terms of comfort. While these houses probably were more comfortable than their predecessors, it is necessary to explore the affect of buildings in more contextually specific ways, to understand how they were implicated in processes of becoming (Kraftl & Adey, 2008, pp. 214–215).

Therefore, while the building can be situated within a wider process of re-building and urban renewal, the development here is specific to a particular household, to specific processes of home-making (Tringham, 1995, p. 96). The building of a new house begs the question of why an existing house was not simply modified. The first phase of the building is perhaps paralleled by the standing building at 15 Church Street, where a hall stood to the east and two smaller bays to the west (Lacey & Lacey, 1974, pp. 77–80) (Figure 4). This is suggested by the presence of a fireplace in the westernmost room of the excavated building. If the form follows that of 15 Church Street, the initial building at least would have had a second storey, potentially jettying over the street. The excavated features suggest that there was occupation at the site into the fourteenth century, although a period of hiatus, in which any existing house may have fallen into disrepair or have been demolished is a possibility. The lack of an archaeological footprint for an earlier house is typical for this period (Gardiner, 2014, pp. 19–20) and we might hypothesise that any house was not of a form suitable for modification. If this was the case, it raises the question of the process of rebuilding; was the existing building demolished and rebuilt piecemeal, were the household temporarily displaced (drawing into focus relations of extended family and wider community), or was the house built speculatively as a rental property? The dating evidence suggests a gap of two or three generations between the two phases of building, the new house affording modification to meet the changing needs of the household, but what were these? Did the house have new occupants, did the composition of the household change, is the development reflective of wealth, or does it reflect a piecemeal process of extension and adaptation? Thinking about the process of re-building allows us to contemplate these phases not as distinct moments in time, but as ongoing processes (Kay, 2020, pp. 452; 464).

Figure 4 
                  Plan of the standing building at 15 Church Street, Steyning. Dotted line represents the jettied upper storey. Redrawn from Lacey and Lacey (1974) by the author.
Figure 4

Plan of the standing building at 15 Church Street, Steyning. Dotted line represents the jettied upper storey. Redrawn from Lacey and Lacey (1974) by the author.

While the evidence from the site beyond the structures themselves is scarce, a microhistorical approach allows us to think through the process of rebuilding from the perspective of household experience. A key contention of household archaeology is that the household is neither reducible to the house nor to the family (Wilk & Rathje, 1982, p. 618). Rather, it is concerned with the practices of co-resident groups, and how these practices made, among other things, space. While transitional houses might, therefore, be representative of new forms of domesticity (for example the emergence of a “middling sort”) or of household composition, it is more productive to understand the role of houses within these processes, as a medium of interaction (Kay, 2020, pp. 451–452); to ask what the architecture can tell us about how and why co-resident people were living differently, both from how they had before and from others living close by. At Cuthman’s Field, we can clearly identify a household (in the conventional sense of a co-resident group) creating and occupying more built space, implying an increasing concern with separation, be that of people (or example servants and the family) or tasks. The two phases of development point to gradual change. In her discussion of change in archaeology, Crellin (2020, pp. 173–175) draws on DeLanda’s (2011) concept of the “phase transition,” in which change builds up over time, eventually culminating in some marked alteration in the archaeological record. While the similarities between the early house and medieval house forms suggest persistent relations of domesticity, these were imperfectly reproduced, changing in relation to wider contexts. Inventories, for example, show how through this period households were able to acquire more specialised objects, which in turn demanded new specialised spaces, separating out activities, making demand for new types of space (Hamling & Richardson, 2017; Jervis et al., 2023b; Salter, 2006). This evidence demands that we think of modification not only in terms of abstract symbolic concerns with privacy, fashion, or comfort but also as an adaptive response to the changing material practices of household life and, by extension, the needs and experiences of the women and servants undertaking many of these practices.

From this perspective, we can perceive the house as a territorialisation not only of the materials and commercial networks behind its construction but also of the relations constitutive of the practices of which the household was composed. Wood (2004, p. 210) describes domestic practice as having a “creative, insurgent potential.” Deleuze and Guattari (1972, p. 16) termed this potential desire, the driving force behind relations. Desire is boundless, having the potential for infinite transformative relations to be formed as assemblages are open to potential new relations. The power of desire is suppressed by the “coding” of flows through persistent social structures. The continuity seen in spatial organisation can be seen in such terms (Jervis, 2019, pp. 40–41). The household is continually (re)produced through practices which generate and sustain relations, which make demands on domestic space and materialise as particular house forms. While the durability of the house form might be perceived as coding behaviour, rooms could be re-purposed or used for multiple activities (Flather, 2011, p. 174). The proliferation of new objects created new demands on spaces, altering the ways through which space was used. It is through these relations-in-space that we can move from the comparatively stable material form of the house to the emergent, dynamic, and multi-faceted place which is the home (Tringham, 1995, pp. 96–97). The addition of the cross wing to the rear of the property shows that over time these relations broke down elements of the domestic “code,” allowing new relations to form as desire was unleashed as a productive force. To stick with the vocabulary of Deleuze and Guattari, this change can be understood as a process of household de-territorialisation, of the household being pulled beyond itself in some way, responding to new demands or opportunities. Critically, however, the variable chronology and character of building modification was generative of difference. While we can perceive of a broad trend of modification, the relations underpinning modification were specific to particular households.

While at Fletcher’s Croft, our attention was drawn to processes of endurance and its underpinning labour, here the excavated house invites us to question the ways in which buildings mediated persistence while affording change. While urban living created particular demands on architectural form (for example the need to incorporate commercial space or make efficient use of scarce space) (Pearson, 2009), these forms afforded the emergence of urbanity at the household level. Processes of modification and the development of new types of building such as the Wealden house transcended the urban-rural divide (Alcock, 2010; Briscoe et al., 2018, p. 83), while there were specifically urban house forms, in the majority of cases similar types occur in both contexts. Just as with the oven at Fletcher’s Croft, the similarities between urban and rural houses are suggestive of resonances between urban and rural life, but through the specific activities undertaken in space, the objects which could be obtained through the urban market and the de-territorialisation of domestic activities into those of the wider community, new forms of urbanity could emerge. These houses then, are not reflective of urban change, but both constitutive of, and emergent from, unstable urbanities.

5 Discussion: Why a Posthuman Microhistory of the Household?

These two sites would appear to demonstrate contrasting pictures of urban fortunes in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. At Fletcher’s Croft, the evidence is suggestive of decay, endurance, and struggle. In contrast, the evidence from Church Street is suggestive of renewal and prosperity. Yet, there are resonances between these households. Their peripheral situation afforded them space and they were likely engaged in cultivation, growing the produce which was dried in the ovens that both households maintained. The evidence from Steyning as a whole is largely suggestive of prosperity, as seen through the extensive later medieval housing stock. In simple terms, a microhistorical approach, centred on particular households, reveals how this general picture masks variability of experience. Allying microhistory to a household archaeology approach allows us to go further; to begin to explore the relationship between practice and this wider picture of decay and renewal. In different ways, we are able to draw into view households for whom the built environment mediated persistence and continuity, e.g. in the repair of the oven at Fletcher’s Croft, the conservatism in domestic form observable at Cuthman’s Field. Rather than simply perceiving the excavated house as demonstrative of a wider process of architectural modification, we can question why the household responded in a particular manner; building a new rather than modifying an existing home. Even if the evidence is too scarce to give a clear answer, focussing on households and their practices allows us to begin to understand the diversity of experience and the difference inherent within, but masked by, the phenomenon of architectural modification.

Adopting a posthuman perspective allows us to explore the household in relational and generative terms. Beginning from the point of “difference-in-itself” allows us to consider households not in terms of a normative ideal, who lived in a certain type of house and conformed to specific ideas of gender and hierarchy, but as having the capacity to generate new and diverse forms of becoming (see also Crellin, 2021, pp. 128–130). We can question how the coding structures which constrained desire and mediated continuity were broken down in different ways and how the resultant “smoothness” created space for the generative potential of difference to be realised. This difference defies a clear and simplistic definition of urbanity, or indeed of urban fortunes. Buildings such as that at Cuthman’s Field were erected in town and country, ovens are a feature of urban and rural life, as was the cultivation of produce implied by their presence. They show how medieval urbanity cannot be clearly contrasted with medieval rurality, how there are strong resonances between these phenomena. This is the key contribution of a posthuman approach; it provides a means of working through the persistent challenge of definition to acknowledge that urbanity is fluid, contradictory, generative, and situational. While urbanity is not immediately visible in the excavated remains, it might surface in other ways. The relationship between these households and the market, the ways in which households interacted with others in a comparatively densely settled area, the ability to draw on specialist expertise such as carpentry, all generated experiences of urban life in which urbanity was not the essential determinant but emerged as a flickering, relational presence.

We have become adept at using archaeological evidence to illustrate experience of urbanity according to our pre-conceptions of what the urban should be, yet when sites present with scant structural evidence, few artefacts, or with evidence for agrarian production we struggle to engage with the complexity and diversity of medieval urbanity. We comment on the “surprising” lack of finds, or pass comment that urban communities partook in agriculture, without seeking to understand the specific processes and explanations behind these observations. While attending to lived experience at the household scale can illuminate difference, neglecting the multi-scalar character of relations results in an urban archaeology which is fragmented. It is necessary to reflect on how we move back from an archaeology of households to an archaeology of urbanity, and, in doing so, to understand how this difference results in the emergence of variegated medieval urbanities. Mapping urbanisation as relational process necessarily demands us to explore how households are enfolded with other scales of urban life; the neighbourhood, the community, civic organisation, and wider regional networks. These are relations which both act upon the household, constraining and enabling relations and modes of becoming, while also being shaped by the everyday, intimate practices which define the household. The approach proposed here is not, therefore, an attempt to eschew the urban scale for the household scale but rather to pick apart the relationship between scale, abstraction, and generalisation.

It is here that a microhistorical perspective, in which the evidence is considered intensively on its own terms, has the potential to prove transformative by emphasising difference over commonality, by de-stabilising our perceptions of what medieval urbanity was. A posthuman perspective creates an analytical space in which difference can be defined not in relation to a normative pre-conception but as present in everything and generative of multiple urbanities, urbanities which resonate with rurality and with each other, urbanities which cannot be reduced to definition, stereotype, or a linear process of decay and decline. Therefore, what has been mapped out in this study is a framework for engaging with the complexity, diversity, and instability of urbanity; a means of engaging with, rather than flattening our understanding of urban difference.

Special Issue on Microhistory and Archaeology, edited by Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo.


I am grateful to Karen Dempsey for many stimulating conversations about houses and households, which demanded that I ask different questions of the evidence for medieval domesticity.

  1. Funding information: This work was funded by a UKRI Frontier Research Guarantee grant (reference EP/X023850/1) for the project ENDURE: Urban Life in a Time of Crisis. Enduring Urban Lifeways in Later Medieval England.

  2. Conflict of interest: The author states no conflict of interest.

  3. Data availability statement: All data generated or analysed during this study are included in this published article.


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Received: 2023-02-16
Revised: 2023-07-25
Accepted: 2023-12-01
Published Online: 2024-02-09

© 2024 the author(s), published by De Gruyter

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