The Medieval Review 17.12.22

Butcher, David. Medieval Lowestoft: The Origins and Growth of a Suffolk Coastal Community . Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2016. pp. 388.

Reviewed by:

Tom Johnson
University of York

This is a useful work of local history about a small port community on the northernmost stretch of the Suffolk coast. Although Lowestoft was clearly a town by ca. 1500, with a population of around one thousand inhabitants and the occupational diversity and complexity characteristic of an urban settlement, it was never founded as a borough, and indeed, it was not officially incorporated until 1885. For most of the Middle Ages, then, Lowestoft seems to have been merely the largest of the many coastal communities on the island and half-hundred of Lothingland.

While this immediate area was dominated, in terms of commerce and governmental jurisdiction, by the major port and borough of Great Yarmouth, just north across the river Yare in Norfolk, the communities on Lothingland benefited from favourable geographic circumstance. The 'Kirkley Roads', a series of sheltered navigable channels just off the island, formed by outlying sandbanks, created a safe anchorage for ships, as well as providing visiting merchants with the possibility of avoiding the duties which were levied by Yarmouth's customs officers.

There is much here which will be of use to historians interested in this corner of coastal Suffolk. The author has assembled information from a wide range of printed sources--including but not limited to Domesday book, the lay subsidies, the Chancery rolls--alongside the smaller selection of surviving archival material for this area. This has been collated into a wealth of data: there are six appendices, seven maps, and fifteen tables, some of which are substantial, covering more than a page. This data is written up solidly within seven broadly chronological chapters full of subheadings, which serve to break up the text into themed sections.

However, Butcher is not a medieval historian but rather an early-modernist--his previous book was on the history of Lowestoft 1500-1700--and it is worth noting that he has not drawn on the full range of archival evidence available. For example, there is a valuable, if highly damaged series of rolls from the late fifteenth century recording the hundredal and admiralty courts of Lothingland, which contain much useful information about the locality, as well as its commerce and government. Given the general paucity of local sources for this area, it would have been valuable to tap on the pre-1500 archival materials contained within the Lowestoft branch of the Suffolk Record Office.

This also has consequences for the rest of the book, the content and arguments of which are sometimes rather skewed towards the early-modern period: sources and information from the sixteenth century and beyond intrude frequently into the text. A lengthy digression into the town's early-modern economy is pre-emptively defended on the grounds that "the situation prevailing then had begun during an earlier phase of the town's existence" (259). This is a fair enough suggestion, perhaps, but it precludes a discussion of broader economic continuities and changes over this large span of time, and how they related to Lowestoft in particular.

Similarly, there is a very little engagement with the broader historiography of the maritime world in medieval England (relatively small though it is). There is some useful information compiled here, especially in the fourth and fifth chapters, on fishing and mercantile governance respectively. But the book makes no attempt to illustrate any wider issue; the bibliography of secondary literature is quite short, and includes fewer than fifty items that do not relate specifically to East Anglia. In its steadfast focus on the immediate geographical subject area, it tends more to an accretion of analytical description, rather than extended argument.

Indeed, the book is often at its weakest when it attempts to go beyond this. There is no little unfounded speculation, ranging from excusable diversions on how the common heathlands of Lowestoft might have been used for grazing (45) to more questionable deductions that probe the ridiculous: it is suggested that a mound (montem) mentioned in Domesday Book was an Anglo-Saxon royal burial site in the manner of that at Sutton Hoo, based on the fact that a friend of the author, in the 1970s, had a conversation with an elderly lady who remembered calling it "The King's Hill" as she played on it as a child. This, Butcher suggests, might be "a vestigial folk-memory, passed down in local lore for more than a millennium" (10).

This particular flight of fancy may stretch credulity, but it is indicative of the book's antiquarian tone, a mode of local history-writing which, while it has largely fallen out of fashion, has many positive features. No one would confuse Lowestoft for a glamorous place: on the easternmost point of the British Isles, it is a postindustrial port town which, like many others in this area, has suffered badly from the decline of its offshore fishing fleet. Yet its history deserves to be written as much as anywhere else, and in Butcher, it has an historian who is amply able to provide a narrative treatment. If he is given to a little romanticism about his hometown--the book is dedicated to 'Hluda', the projected toponymical originator of the Lothingland townships--then most of the work is serious-minded and unfussy in its treatment of the material. If it is a little parochial as a result, it is nonetheless a laudable essay towards a medieval history for Lowestoft.

This region still awaits a maritime historian who will grapple with its difficult and scattered archival sources. The reward of such an undertaking would be the possibility of understanding a complex but probably rather common type of medieval maritime hinterland community, neither fully urban nor fully rural, which grew up in the backwaters of a major port. In the meantime, this book will serve as a useful reference point, both for local readers interested in the history of their town, and for academic researchers who wish to probe further into the coastal settlements of Lothingland during the Middle Ages.

Copyright (c) 2018 Tom Johnson

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