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A smooth flow of time
on 19 June 2008
Buried deep in this fine work is Francis Pryor's pondering of the question, how much of a 'revolution' was the Industrial one? The question indicates the theme of this book, which stresses continuity. Change was present, but often under very controlled circumstances. For Pryor, an archaeologist-writer who offers his ideas with wit and conviviality, the theme is "continuity" over "revolution". It's easy to highlight changes in a social scene, but as a man dedicated to hard evidence, the background is more important. Here, in the last of a string of books on what his science has found in Britain, continuity is the dominant theme.
Pryor launched his concept with "Britain BC", carried it through with post-Roman times in "Britain AD" and now arrives at the Christian-dominated Middle Ages. The change in religion had little impact on the daily transactions throughout Britain, with the likely shift of taxes from manor to chapel. The time-frame for this book begins about 650 CE and ends with the death of Henry VIII in 1547 CE. Nearly a millennium of time, with plenty of opportunity for "revolutions" - yet no major shifts in daily existence are in evidence. Henry's sequestration of the monasteries produced little in the way of disruption for village or town folk. As Pryor notes in the beginning, the book is about "hedges and fields, waterfronts and trade" rather than about the antics of monarchs or aristocrats. The Black Death had much more impact on society than any of the royals. Apart from the mortality, the economic shifts resulting from this plague were of far longer-lasting significance.
Even before the plague struck, agriculture and manufacturing led to early "free trade" agreements, even reaching across the Channel. Pryor finds such arrangements indicative of wider awareness and interaction than most "classical" histories have granted. Moreover, it's not treaties and other documents that he uses to make these points, but archaeological finds that provide hard evidence of what was transpiring in Britain in the Middle Ages. The Viking and Norse incursions carried a good many people into Britain, but after the initial raids, they came to stay and settled in nicely, thank you. If anything, the Norse' sea-faring skills more likely expanded existing trade arrangements, than disrupted commerce.
Pryor's chapters on urban life are the highlights of this work. After the Norse had become part of British society, population growth became a significant part of the social scene. Numbers rose to a height just before the Black Death that were not attained again until the 16th Century. The author selects various towns, describing their social and economic reactions to the plague and its aftermath. Drawing on his own observations and that of many other workers of recent generations he depicts a scene of nearly continuous development. York, in particular receives detailed attention for a span of nearly five centuries. York has provided a rich archaeological trove for the period - a rising trade community with a reach to distant places.
Reading Pryor is an unending delight, with nothing hidden in arcane academic discourse. He's open about what the evidence says and where uncertainties remain. Only the mildest interest in the past will bring rewards from this book. Readers are encouraged to enter this realm in full confidence that research is sound and the presentation fully accessible. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]