Medieval ‘Footprints’ in BirminghamPosted: July 25, 2013
The title of this blog doesn’t refer to the sort of footprints you leave behind in the mud or snow, but rather the type that define the area or space occupied by a building, or in this instance the boundaries of a burgage plot. By ‘burgage’, I’m referring to the long and narrow strips of land arranged along street frontages that functioned as the basic units of a town that could be built upon.
So perhaps footprints isn’t the best word to use, because I’m actually referring to plot boundaries rather than the actual buildings. But, footprints is, in another sense, an appropriate word to use as it calls to mind the idea of ‘evidence’ left behind and that’s exactly what the landscape historian and archaeologist has to work with when attempting to reconstruct medieval towns. For a city that’s never been overly keen on preserving its most recent heritage, it might surprise you to learn that Birmingham has some of these medieval ‘footprints’ left.
There are around several of these medieval burgages left in the city centre located in the Digbeth area of town, which appear to conform to their original 13th-century boundary lines. The idea of property boundaries surviving is probably slightly underwhelming for a lot of people, who’d much rather see the actual medieval buildings, but the boundary lines are largely, in fact, an older remnant of medieval towns. Moreover, their story of survival is a fascinating product of the early legal status our ancestors attributed to land. After all, it was owning land, a burgage, that made a townsperson a burgess giving them particular privileges like participating in the collective decision-making of a town. Burgess is in fact, derived from the word burgage which itself comes from the Old French word, burgeis, simply referring to an inhabitant of a town. Buildings, although more appealing, were the dispensable attributes of a property, as they came and they went, but land was preserved precisely because of its power to bestow status on a person, and not to forget its potential to make them money.
We need look no further than London after the great fire of 1666 to help explain how and why burgage plots survive. This event brought disastrous consequences on the city burning down a third of London with an estimated ninety-thousand people displaced.
But for some like Sir Christopher Wren and the Royal Society, this was a golden opportunity. They proposed to rebuild London on the basis of an ordered grid system in place of the disordered medieval streets, but this didn’t happen for a few reasons. First, a complete redesign would have taken too long but more specifically here, the property boundaries, although now virtually impossible to pinpoint on account of the absence of the buildings, were still protected by law.
In fact, it would have involved intervention by the government to implement a complete redesign, and the difficulty of compensating people or transferring their property was a messy and complicated task. The actual reality of rebuilding London after 1666 involved surveyors like Robert Hooke walking the charred streets with residents, armed with available property deeds as well as twine and wooden posts to ‘stake’ out their original plots of land. This example serves to illustrate how legality ensured longevity. That’s to say, that it is precisely the early legal status assigned to boundaries that ensured their survival very often into the 19th century and as recent as the present day in many cases.
‘So what’ I hear some people say, but when you appreciate that we have a stretch of original medieval burgage plots still in Birmingham, standing on the same 13th-century boundary lines, that is a remarkable feat of survival by any standards. What fascinates me the most about this survival though, is that these plots would have been carefully measured out by some of Birmingham’s medieval residents using the town’s very own measuring rod or pole to achieve the intended widths and lengths. These boundary lines, now official, would have been recorded in court rolls and subsequent deeds of transfer. In 13th-century Birmingham one of these plots would have cost you eight pence or four pence for half a plot, incidentally much cheaper than the one shilling fee in other parts of the country.
Likewise, burgage widths vary a great deal across the country. In Birmingham, they were probably originally around five metres wide and anything up to 60 metres in length, but in Stratford-upon-Avon the average plot was around 15 metres wide! If you’re lucky, these exact widths and lengths are recorded in official documentation like borough charters as in the case of Stratford. But as Birmingham doesn’t have a borough charter, how do we know that these properties are standing on the same original medieval boundary lines?
Good question, and the answer is a mixture of hypothesis and fact. Local specialists like George Demidowicz used a technique known as deed regression, which involves tracing boundaries back as far as possible by using property deeds. Such documents record the positions and measurements of a townsperson’s land and luckily for Birmingham, we have a handful of surviving deeds which reveal the transfer of ownership for some of the town’s residents. But this isn’t the case for the entire original medieval town, as we only have this information for sections of the buildings around the Digbeth plots. The deeds tell us that the owners in this part of town ranged from early forms of local government like the Guild of the Holy Cross as well as prominent townspeople such as the Inge and Phillips families.
Specialists also turn to map regression, a technique that uses maps from different periods to compare changes over time and also to identify any continuity. By continuity I’m specifically referring to boundary lines that look ‘ancient’. This involves identifying classic parallel sequences of long strips of land which are often found on19th-century maps denoting the presence of burgages. If these same long strips are visible on even earlier maps like tithe and estate records, there’s a very good chance that we are looking at original burgage plots as laid out when a town was founded. A town’s layout up until the 19th century was often very stable and reflected the original burgage pattern of a town. And although burgages were subject to internal divisions, these later divisions did not normally alter or remove earlier boundaries. This has proven to be the trend across the country. In York, for example, burgage boundaries have survived unchanged from the tenth century, and when plot boundaries were eventually destroyed due to new developments, this change normally occurred in the second half of the 19th century.
In many instances, therefore, we can be sure that when we see long and narrow strips of land on 19th-century maps in places with a medieval past, there’s a very good chance we are looking at some of the original property boundaries of a town. Although the majority of property deeds we have for Birmingham only stretch back to the 1500s, the same rule applies as above: if map regression demonstrates that burgage boundaries do not alter until the 19th century, there’s no reason to suppose that they would have altered by the 16th century. That’s where hypothesis comes in, but this hypothesis is based on detailed research as well as numerous case studies from around the country. Although we can’t actually legitimately trace the Digbeth plots back to the 1150s when Peter de Birmingham founded the town, we can, with the help of both map and deed regression along with the presence of 12th and 13th-century archaeology from the plots, confidently place them at the very latest in 13th-century Birmingham. What is even more satisfying though, is that the forthcoming £150m Beorma Quarter set to transform the area with a 27-storey tower as well as 600,000-square feet of offices, retail and leisure space, will still retain the existing boundaries in the design of the new development. So fortunately, it looks like the medieval relics have a long life ahead of them yet!
Birmingham’s burgages are an incredible vestige of our medieval past in a city that’s rarely been sympathetic to its heritage. For me however, they’re simply special because of their ability to take us back to Birmingham’s beginnings as a recognisable commercial and soon to be urban centre. Just as those London residents who walked the streets with Hooke in 1666 staked their claims and protected their boundaries, this stretch of burgages in Birmingham similarly has the power to evoke the presence of people preparing and planning their very own town. In fact, the truly remarkable thing for me about these seemingly trivial features is the knowledge that around 700 years ago a few of Birmingham’s residents were protective of the very same boundaries we can still see today. In this way these medieval ‘footprints’ serve as a gateway with the power to take us back to the point when Birmingham’s inhabitants were laying the foundations of their town and creating the blueprint of what was to become the basis of this great city.
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