12.01.07, Amor, Late Medieval Ipswich

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Mark Ormrod

The Medieval Review 12.01.07

Amor, Nicholas R.. Late Medieval Ipswich: Trade and Industry. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 300. ISBN: 978-1-84383-673-5.

Reviewed by:
Mark Ormrod
University of York

Nicholas Amor's new book makes a substantive and useful contribution to a long and distinguished tradition of scholarship on the economic and social history of medieval English towns. In the East Anglian context in which this study is framed, that tradition is especially strong, and Amor very consciously fixes his own work on Ipswich in relation to old and new research on coastal and inland communities including Yarmouth, Dunwich, Colchester, Norwich, and Lynn. The book is at once less and more: less in the sense that it restricts itself quite rigorously to the fifteenth century and almost exclusively to the material aspects of urban life; more in that the author's strong engagement with the primary evidence, and his alertness to the paradigms in which it might be interpreted, serve to deliver a richly-textured account of the urban experience in a late-medieval port town on England's east coast.

Ipswich offers the historian a secure base of archival evidence, both in the leet and petty court rolls that are the staple of this study and in the wider tradition of antiquarianism that goes back to two early modern recorders of the town, Richard Percyvale and Nathaniel Bacon. Amor also draws on a selection of materials drawn from the National Archives (which he calls the Public Record Office) in London, most especially the customs accounts that form the core of his analysis of overseas trade. He is evidently a "pen and ink" historian, in that the very significant range of additional sources available to him through the National Archives' own on-line facilities and other customised websites seem to have entirely passed him by. His range of secondary reading on the urban history of late medieval England is impressive, but he sometimes makes unwarranted assumptions about topics that are beyond his own brief. The view that the Wars of the Roses caused a "general breakdown in law and order" that impacted, in turn, on Ipswich (229) remains unsubstantiated. And, given his relative neglect (and usually rather negative assessments) of central government policy, it remains unclear how he thinks that strong kings such as Edward IV and Henry VII were really responsible for the economic upturn of the end of the fifteenth century (191).

The tendency to assume a little too much also applies to Amor's more general descriptions of his subject. The violent demographic and economic disruptions of the fourteenth century are taken largely for granted, and the boom that affected some (but not all) English towns in the generation of the Peasants' Revolt is often referenced but never sufficiently explained. The presence of alien residents (especially Dutch), which Amor acknowledges to have been a distinctive and influential element in the town's economy, could have benefited from further sustained discussion. And the strict adherence to the discussion of economic trends means that a great deal that might be expected by way of a broader understanding of the urban experience is simply set outside the parameters of discussion. The remark that the late fifteenth century was "an age of new aisles and belfries" (206) is a vivid reminder of the ways in which urban wealth was channelled into the saving of souls. Yet, beyond the use of church-building as an index of prosperity and occasional mentions of the Corpus Christi feast, Amor has nothing to say about the religious and cultural life of the town.

These cavils do not, however, detract from what remains a very significant study of the ups and downs in the economic fortunes of late medieval Ipswich. Amor is at his very best in describing the commodities of trade and their implications for the economy and society of the town and its hinterland. Imports of wine, for example, are dealt with in vivid detail. We witness the ways in which East Anglian consumers adapted, albeit reluctantly, to the collapse of imports from Bordeaux by developing a taste for sweet and fortified wines from other areas of Europe and, in particular, by turning to the consumption of seemingly vast amounts of ale and beer. The decline of wine also contributed in some manner to an increase in the importation of other luxury goods, with the second half of the fifteenth century witnessing a notable increase in the consumption of linen, furniture and household utensils from the Low Countries. Within Ipswich, there was a wide variety of trades and crafts, especially in the production of woollen cloth, leather goods, and metalware.

Amor's principal aim is to examine the impact of wider trends in politics, diplomacy and the economy upon the particular experience of Ipswich over the course of the fifteenth century. For it, as for all English port towns, this story is necessarily developed in the context of the export of wool and woollen cloth. The early fifteenth century saw Ipswich increasing its share of the national market in wool exports, perhaps because of the ease of the sea crossing to Calais. The good times did not continue for long, and exports fell away alarmingly from the 1440s onwards. Meanwhile, in spite of the increased production of woollen cloth in Suffolk and a significant rise in the number of high-quality cloths exported in the middle years of the century, the value of this trade did not supersede that of wool until the 1460s, by which time the volume of exports in both commodities had in fact fallen significantly. The challenge here, as in so many other provincial ports, was how to re-configure the economy both by stimulating local production and by attracting new imports.

In assessing the causes of the so-called "Great Slump" of the mid- fifteenth century, Amor has comparatively little time for the more searching kinds of investigation that attempt to determine the prime mover of economic change. Instead, he tends to see the serious recession into which England fell in the 1440s as the product of an accumulation of factors, including not only the bullion crisis and the resulting collapse of credit but also the impact of longer-term and endemic problems such as the absence of demographic growth, a general lack of investment and technological development, and an increasing resort to economic protectionism. The town's strong reliance on the Hanseatic league, and especially on the merchants of Cologne, to manage its overseas trade put it in a particularly vulnerable position once the Hanse withdrew in the 1460s.

Ipswich fared somewhat better in these challenging times than did many of its neighbours. The reasons were many. Local entrepreneurs took to the brewing of beer, the making of tiles and bricks, and the manufacture of pewter. While the production of cloth remained the town's staple industry, this trade also became more diversified. One interesting feature of the town's recovery in the latter part of the century was the increase in inland and coastal trade with London. Wisely avoiding any kind of magic formula for success or failure, Amor prefers to see Ipswich's survival and revival as an "almost Darwinian process" (226) in which such factors as resilience, inventiveness, and enterprise played just as significant a role as did natural resources, geographical location, or policy.

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Mark Ormrod

University of York