16.10.04, Palliser, Medieval York, 600-1540

Main Article Content

Melanie C. Maddox

The Medieval Review 16.10.04

Palliser, D. M. Medieval York, 600-1540. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. pp. 332. ISBN: 978-0-19-925584-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Melanie C. Maddox
The Citadel

The city of York has long been integral to our understanding of divergent aspects of England's history. It is a location where historians, archeologists and other academics can combine their disciplines to see the impact that successive invasions have had on the landscape and community that has been there, in some form, since the time of Roman Britain. In this book, Professor D. M. Palliser guides the reader through approximately 940 years of medieval York's history. He begins by answering the question of whether or not more needs to be written about York, considering the wide range of material that can be found. Professor Palliser's point that a "reliable book-length survey covering most aspects" of York's history was needed is correct and it is in this work that it is admirably achieved (vi). In order to give a full account of York's past, Palliser uses evidence from extant written sources and material culture, place-name evidence, archaeology and numismatics. He described the laying out of the book to be "chronologically by conquest, dynasties, and...by the reigns of individual monarchs" (3). The book's arrangement includes an introduction and conclusion separated by seven chapters. Five of the book's chapters have appendices attached to their ending in lieu of the more common placement after the conclusion.

Before the introduction, Palliser provides a brief but interesting account of York's name and status starting with its Roman beginnings. This feature is extremely useful to readers of the book, but also to anyone interested in place-name studies. The introduction opens with a discussion of York's popularly being viewed today as a medieval city, but with strong links going back to its role as the location where Constantine was proclaimed emperor (2). The location of York is pointed out to be ideal due to its geographical attractiveness in relation to military and economic aims that would indeed keep York as one of England's places of power for most of the time period discussed.

Chapter one starts the discussion of York in relations to its overall physical layout under the Romans and its status within Roman Britain. One of the most frustrating parts in the desire to understand York's early, post-Roman history, is the lack of credible information we have. Palliser points out that between the years AD 314-627, it is impossible to know with certainty what was happening in York. He goes on to layout the history and myths surrounding York's revival after the fall of Rome, including a discussion of the perceived history of the city's beginnings.

Chapter two begins the process of piecing together what is known about York and its inhabitants beginning at the end of the seventh century. It is at this point that Professor Palliser initiates the discussion of the difficulties historians face, with the absence of evidence leading to "two traps". One is "to confuse the absence of evidence with evidence of absence..." The second trap is placing a larger importance on events mentioned in a source, whether or not there is proof of its being important (24-25). The chapter continues discussion of York's rebirth during the time of Edwin of Northumbria and the arrival of the Roman mission (31). Palliser considers Rome's role in choosing York for its episcopal church. The discussion of urban growth as taking place c. 700, shows the evidence of a polyfocal settlement, with the Fishergate wic being a separate section of the settlement from the "central place" elements of the church and kingship (37). There is a well-considered section of the success of the Church of York under men like Alcuin. The chapter does a nice job of showing that this is not only evident through the written sources of the time period, but also through physical church remains found by archaeologists (43).

Chapter three considers Anglo-Scandinavian York by considering what can truly be found in regards to the population's genetic makeup, in relation to Scandinavian names and place-name evidence. Part of the discussion focuses on the Church's working relationship with Vikings rulers of York, as well as an examination of minted coins and their displayed message. The chapter shows how English kings, Viking kings and the Church hierarchy all had coins produced in York to communicate their desired status. One of the interesting section of chapter three is on the topography and economy of York or Jorvik as it was called under the Vikings (66). This section discusses the development that took place in York under the Danes, changing York from a polyfocal settlement into a city that had a large commercial zone and higher occupation. One question Palliser contemplates is whether "the rural and urban flowering [was] a result of the stimulus provided by Viking rulers and settlers, or simply part of an expanding West European economy that coincided with it" (68). Place-name and nomenclature evidence is considered to answer the question. Christianization in York, c. 866-1066, is considered through an examination of stone carvings, as well as what information can be gleaned about the pre-Conquest presence of the church.

Chapters four and five give a rich account of post-Conquest York as a major northern focal center of royal and church administration while being absorbed into a southern-based kingdom. They also provide incredible detail of a growing, robust commercial center, including what types of commerce could be found. Chapter six discusses what can possibly be seen as York's "golden age," when the city lost up to fifty percent of its population through events like the Black Death and revolt, but went on to grow economically and physically, c. 1349-1450 (181). It is at this point that Palliser acknowledges the rising complexity of trying to "do justice" to the proliferating amount of documented economic records that survive from York, as well the monumental task of reviewing unpublished data found in the National Archives (183).

Chapter seven of the book considers the slow decay of York's economic status due to the rise in London's economic power, the agrarian crisis of 1438-40 and the political difficulties of the feud between the Percys and the Nevilles, leading into the War of the Roses between c. 1450-c.1540. One of the moments when the reader can really get a glimpse of the personal struggles dealt with by the city's elite citizens, is the account of their internal conflict to deal with a declining population and civic finances, and their financial obligation to the Crown.

York, like other Romano-British towns, was placed in a location by the Romans where it would achieve its full potential as both a military and urban settlement (294-95). The evidence of recent years, made clear through archaeology, with written records and material remains, has shown that York was an emporium that provided a strong trading port for Northumbria from the seventh to the ninth century (296). Evidence also points to York's growth under Viking control, with its physical growth beyond earlier outer precincts of the city and objects showing trade from Scandinavia to the Red Sea (296). Palliser's book shows that throughout the time period covered, York stood as a location that would remain in varying forms a site of political, religious and economic importance (295). One of the most interesting aspects of the book is its ability to show the reader how York as a geographic location and as a community of citizens had to adapt to cultural, political, religious and military developments from both inside its community and outside forces. The book is somewhat reasonably priced at $62.00, considering the number of plates and extremely useful maps it provides. I believe that overall Palliser has achieved his aim of a well-balanced survey that incorporates a multi-disciplinary approach to covering "most aspects" of York's incredible history. The book gives us an opportunity to see the available information about York and its role as a player on the larger country-wide scale, while providing a detailed glimpse of everyday lives, with their needs and struggles as a community.

Article Details