If You Don’t Need It, Why Keep It? Urban Edition

One reason people assumed for so long that the period from AD 410 CE to 800 was an age of darkness and end of civilization was that in England, cities disappeared. A few of the Roman cities continued on, but most lapsed into disuse and faded from memory as other than a great place to find pre-cut rock for other things. More mainland Roman urban areas lasted through the Dark Ages/ Late Antiquity and into the Medieval period, far more. For English language historians [glowers at Gibbon], the conclusion was obvious: The end of Rome meant a dark age of poverty, hunger, ignorance, and barbarity until the slow, faltering rebirth of the Classical period in the Renaissance.

Besides Gibbon having a large bone—Columbian mammoth sized bone—to pick with Christianity, a lot of the assumptions made by early historians came from not knowing what they didn’t know. If you depend on government records, and you don’t have a literate government, well . . . Also, it was assumed that Rome had used all stone all over, like the cities in Italy or Gaul. Thus, the absence of evidence meant that nothing remained because someone had quarried the ruins, namely the benighted barbarians. The last assumption was that once founded, cities lasted forever because, well, they were cities. Cities don’t just go “poof” and vanish. People need cities. Right? Yes?

That is, until they don’t. In the past 50 years or so, more and more historians are working with archaeologists and climate people and physical geographers and realizing that, “No one needed that town/small city, so why keep it around?” If the garrison marches off to Rome never to return, are the suttlers and tavern-keepers and “professional ladies” going to stay around? What about the farmers who supplied Rome, and who had to pay taxes in grain, or wine, or fabric? If the market no longer exists, why produce for it when you can do better by farming or raising other things? Or by letting more land go fallow to regain fertility? If your national government stopped requiring tax payments of any kind, would you work as hard if you could make the same income in fewer hours? That’s what happened in Roman Britain, and other places on the fringes of the empire. In some districts, when the army was recalled closer to Rome proper, dependents, the government, higher clergy, and everyone else who could went with them. So who needs towns?

The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes didn’t. They had a lower population density, and farmed. They collected “taxes” in animals, some grain, and so on. A lower population concentration didn’t need cities. If marginal trade routes had been abandoned, why put towns there? Especially when the plague of Justinian combined with sucky weather in the Northern Hemisphere in the 500s-600s to lower the overall population of the continent and Britain? Towns faded away. London, York, a few others continued but smaller, built with wattle-and-daub rather than stone. A Saxon lord’s “palace” was a large wooden hall, not a stone praetorium. Those don’t leave a lot of archaeological evidence, unless you realize that you need to look for discolored patches of dirt in a pattern. It can be very, very subtle. A hearth, loom weights if they were abandoned, post holes, lost bones from a meal, perhaps bits of pottery . . . That’s not a lot to go on. No wonder everyone focuses on graves and hordes! Metal is much easier to find nowadays.

So a lot of Roman towns and villages went away, abandoned gradually as the need for them faded. Rome didn’t come back, the new arrivals (when they arrived) didn’t need them, or the towns were in bad locations for defense. Many would revive later, in the 800s-900s, and after as trade increased once more and the weather became drier and warmer. London became a city with stone again, as did York and others. New towns and cities grew as needed, or as planted to take advantage of resources. The sea ate a few old towns, such as Dunwich.

In a way, we’ve seen the same thing in the US. The Great Plains and West had a lot more towns and villages before the 1930s, because people needed schools, post offices, shops, and government services within reach, and the population had not concentrated as much in urban areas. After the Depression and WWII, cities seemed to be where prosperity and trade flourished. Mechanization and then automated irrigation meant that each acre farmed needed fewer people. The Green Revolution of the 1960s-70s allowed fewer people to grow far more food. So the tiny towns disappeared, then the small villages, then the smaller towns . . . When the grocery store closed and the post office went away, that was often the death-knell. Now we can add hospitals and medical clinics to that list, thanks to events of the past 20 years or so.

A city unneeded goes away. And often gets recycled. Why not? We historians just didn’t realize that, because we didn’t know what we didn’t know, and we’d never observed the process in our lifetimes. Now we know, and a lot makes more sense.

But it was still a pretty dark age if you were in the wrong (or right?) place at the wrong time.


14 thoughts on “If You Don’t Need It, Why Keep It? Urban Edition

  1. I so hope you’re teaching your studenta that climate changes even when we don’t all drive pickups and luxury ‘SUVs’. Or have heated swimming pools on Martha’s Vineyard.

  2. I’m living on the land that used to be a mill and a company town. When the market for box shook (made from Lodgepole pine) went away and the remaining Lodgepole was more easily transported by truck, the railroad, the mill, and the company town went away.

    The buildings were burned down as an extremely cheap way of demolition, and after 50 years, the main evidence consists of inconveniently located metal (especially nails, usually found point up 😦 ) and glass that had been buried in trash pits.

    I have a picture of the mill & town (taken from a high point nearby) and a rough map drawn by someone who lived there, but the evidence is definitely subtle without them.

  3. Having grown up near one of those small towns becoming unneeded, and having expended effort in trying to save it, I have to say that it’s a bit more complicated than that.

    In our case, the biggest impediment was the town officials.
    Let me rewind, and sum up.
    The churches were the core of the community. But for the churches to come together in common areas, requires permits from the town. There are a lot of very well-funded and extremely litigious anti-religious organizations. The town (with a precipitously declining tax base) did not have the resources to fight off the inevitable baseless lawsuits, so the permits were not approved. (They weren’t denied. There was no basis to do so. They just weren’t approved, which is a de facto bureaucratic denial.) And the communal foundations my ancestors helped lay down, crumbled a bit more.
    A common place to gather is a self-evidently a good and desirable thing. Preserving what your ancestors created, is likewise. The question is whether external pressures overcome those.

    • I wonder if that happened on occasion back in the post-Roman Era, with church leaders (often also politically connected) deciding that the big church needed to be in “that town over there” and taking the market privilege and other things with them?

      • Mostly you wanted to move somewhere defensible. So… hill towns in the old hillfort areas. And often towns inside or just outside old Roman forts, or inside the old stadium for the gladiatorial fights. (IIRC.)

  4. I remember reading about how the original church which became York Minster was founded close by the Roman fort establishment in York, and eventually grew up and over the larger establishment – bits of the old Roman praetorium are still visible in the crypts.
    I also remember reading an interesting little book in the CSUN library, which theorized that Roman London survived to a greater extent than thought originally – possibly some sturdy and well-maintained buildings existed in Elizabethan times, and that many of the odd place names in London reflected what had been part of the Roman establishment, place names handed down through several languages over the centuries by people who went on living there: a little alley called Catt Street might have marked where the wheel which raised and lowered the chain across the Thames had been situated, that the old churches of St. Peter might have been the various lock-ups of various Roman HQs, and the various St. Botolph might have been a customs post at the various city gates. Cannot remember the name of the author or the title of the book, and I’m not an expert in languages to know if the author was on to something or merely riding his own hobby-horse… but still interesting.

    • I think Peter S. Wells mentions a bit of the story about London’s monuments in his book *From Barbarians to Angels*, where he looks at the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages/Late Antiquity.

      And yes, York/Eboricum overlaps a good bit. It’s sorting out where the overlap is, since later arrivals didn’t keep the exact Roman street pattern (unlike Vienna, for example, or Regensburg.)

  5. Haven’t studied that, but it makes sense. And you can see plenty of examples in the west with the old mining towns.

  6. Ellis Peters wrote a book called City of Gold and Shadows (I think) which discusses this exact topic. The story is a mystery set in Roman ruins and she is evocative when describing how the Roman city died.

  7. Another reason for the disappearance of small towns in the West and Midwest from ca. 1900 to post WWII was Henry Ford’s Model T and other affordable cars and trucks. Many small towns were situated within an hour or two from surrounding farms. A trip to town for church, mail, goods and services not grown on the farm was worth it if it took less than an hour or two. Not so much if an overnight stay was required. With automobiles and trucks becoming almost universal, the distance one could travel in two hours increased several times compared to a horse drawn wagon. Towns consolidated to take advantage of a larger market population, especially if on a rail line and those towns in-between faded into obscurity.

  8. I think part of the issue is the fixed-in-stone idea that the future *MUST* progress in a straight line.

    But it doesn’t have to!

    Two steps forward, one step back, then three steps sideways, followed by another step forward in another direction works too.

  9. After the collapse of the USSR a bunch of cities were abandoned. They had been built to fulfill some forgotten Soviet diktat and people were sent to live there. When they didn’t *have* to live there any more, the residents un-assed the scene and headed elsewhere.

    Among the ‘urban explorer’ types, there’s a whole subset who do abandoned Soviet cities. Some of them look like the Marie Celeste; everyone dropped whatever they were doing and hauled ass, sometimes not even bothering with personal possessions.

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