3.1 Critiquing the urban-rural dichotomy

This section has deliberately refrained from employing the traditional terminologies of urban and rural settlement, in order to move away from the reductionist straitjacket that these categories have occasionally imposed. This is particularly relevant for the urban debate in Scotland, which has moved far beyond the ‘checklists’ of town profiles that were common in medieval archaeology during the 70s and 80s. The urban concept has at least as much to do with mental constraints as with physical or economic ones, and a crucial question for early Scotland must be the lack of urban centres among all ethnicities. Why are there no Pictish towns or Viking foundations?

Entering what might be called an explicitly cognitive arena, it is important to understand the renegotiation of urban form, and the way in which the town is shaped according to requirement and circumstances (Price 2010). The question of definition – what is a town? – has occupied medieval archaeologists for decades, but a crucial characteristic of the urban mind is that it resists the easy check-listing of allegedly diagnostic attributes that have for so long dogged the study of towns. A multiscalar analysis is crucial to a broad appreciation of cognitive urbanism, not least in understanding the imbalances of town metabolism in different areas and cultures. At the most basic level, what constitutes the urban is not merely a matter of socio-economic choice in any given context but also affects the actual shape of the ‘towns’ themselves, which may appear in utterly variant form dependent on circumstance. Not least, the supposed urban-rural divide is called into question.

According to the constituents of their identities (themselves subject to contextual variation) the various peoples of early medieval Scotland may have lived side by side, but yet still have inhabited cognitively different worlds. In all this work, the role of communication and choice must be stressed, conscious or otherwise, and the questions this raises are endless. In a Scottish context, this crucially connects with what is known of the mobility inherent in its medieval cultures. What did medieval people tell each other about their experience of urban life? Did they think of it in something approximating those terms, or did they not feel that a distinction existed? What did those who had never seen a ‘town’ think such an entity looked like? Did a town confer reputation, and if so, to whom and in what way? To what degree does the urban preclude or presuppose the rural, perhaps fused in the notion of hinterland, or is there indeed a border at all? Were city-dwellers aware of an external dependence, if it existed? Are there circumstances in which urban living can be perceived as a kind of mental discourse, an ideal image of circumstance externalised and given a physical reality? And if so, when and why does this happen, and what form could it take?

To take an external perspective, that of the Scandinavians, there can be seen clearly the multivariate reality that lay behind previously simplified paradigms of medieval urbanism, usually based on supposed descent from, or rejection of, Roman models (Clarke and Simms 1985; Brink and Price 2008). In the eighth to eleventh centuries AD, Scandinavians travelled to cities such as Byzantium, and partially founded substantial towns like Novgorod and Kiev (Price 2000a), and yet in their homelands made do with single-street beach markets for centuries (see Skre 2007 for the type-site at Kaupang). In their North Atlantic colonies such as Iceland and Greenland, pressing environmental constraints meant that towns never developed, and urbanism is largely a modern phenomenon there (Fitzhugh and Ward 2000; Barrett 2003). In terms of Scandinavian cultural contacts, the societies of Anglo-Saxon England and Carolingian Frankia were firmly urban (Price 2000b), as were the Arab Caliphates in the Middle East and Iberia (Price 2008). In Ireland the situation was different again, in that the native elites (whose power was based on control of people rather than territory, together with influence over uninhabited but numinous sites of prehistoric significance) did not build towns themselves but enthusiastically allowed the Vikings to do so around the coasts (Valente 2008). The resulting symbiotic relationship of urban Norse and rural Hibernians was not without its conflicts, but was generally of mutual benefit and resulted in a number of hybrid identities across the social scale. In Scotland the Vikings did not adopt or create urban trading centres.

In all these disparate cases, it should be remembered that the Scandinavians involved were often the same individuals, moving with apparent ease through the immense cultural range of their military and commercial activities. The cognitive space of the Vikings is not easy to chart with accuracy (Price 1998), but clearly their urban perceptions were shifting, usefully inconsistent and above all adaptable in context (Hillerdal 2009: 41-83, 201-288).

Interestingly, it is clear that the Viking Age Scandinavians did not possess, or coin, a specific term for what would now be called towns. This applies not only to such places in their homelands, where an urban definition is in any case arguable, but even to massive conurbations such as Byzantium. Garðr, later gård, is the term from which the modern English ‘yard’ derives, and literally denotes an enclosed space, most often with connotations of habitation. In more tangible, cognitive terms, it appears to have generally meant something close to ‘settlement’. As well denoting individual farms – the most common usage of the term – garðr was also employed at a variety of levels from the cosmic to the undeniably urban. The different worlds inhabited by humans and supernatural beings are generally named in this way, including Ásgarðr (‘Place of the Æsir [gods]’) and Miðgarðr (the ‘Middle Place’, where mortals live). Larger settlements of different kinds were also so named, thus Byzantium was Mikligarðr, the ‘Great Place’, Novgorod was Holmgarðr, the ‘Settlement on the Island’, and so on. In most instances there is nonetheless a sense of boundedness and enclosure, ranging from a domestic fence to a defensive palisade or a city wall, which is not found in places given other kinds of names.

There are intriguing parallels for this ambiguity among some of the Vikings’ cultural contacts, for example in the complex melting pot of Ireland. Here again, terminology is problematic, with a broad semantic range in evidence. The sort of language that would refer to urban centres in Latin (civitas, urbes) was co-opted in Ireland for ecclesiastical centres, and this extended to Irish words such as cathair, which could describe a city, a monastic settlement or even a high-status dwelling. Baile was used to denote an urban site in the Middle Ages, and still today, but this also embraces ‘townlands’ as an administrative unit. When the Viking ports are explicitly mentioned in the sources, words emphasising defence (dún) are often employed, rather than anything with economic overtones. Crucially, there is no shift in terminology when the Viking coastal ‘towns’ take on serious urban status in the High Middle Ages, though the word longphort is exclusively used to refer to the defended camps of the early incursions. Not until the Anglo-Norman influences of the 1170s and later do can the importation of English urban terminology be seen, and this clearly comes from outside. In short, there is no specific word for ‘town’ in the early medieval Irish sources either. The question of an urban language, or at least terminology, is important here when considering how Viking Age Scandinavians (and those they encountered) understood the nature of these settlements.

All of this takes on new meaning in the context of the other peoples of early Scotland. The Picts and Scots definitively rejected urban centres. Technologically and socially, they could easily have developed towns, but chose not to do so. They clearly enjoyed close trading links with urban cultures to which they regularly travelled, but still without pursuing a similar agenda in their home environment. A possible explanation may lie in precisely this elusive question of urban definition and urban form – a concept that begins in the mind long before it is articulated in reality. In searching for these sites, are researchers looking in the wrong place, or not recognising what is seen? Maybe Pictish ‘towns’ appear quite differently to what might be expected. Should the concept of monastic urbanism be revived, for example in connection with centres such as Whithorn and Portmahomack, or should notions of what urbanism might mean in regional and/or environmental context be completely revisited? These questions can all be explored in depth through a closer engagement with the archaeological data coupled with a conscious decision to refrain from their immediate labelling and categorisation.

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Does this relate to Hall’s discussion of Perth as Sigtuna to Scone’s Uppsala and Hamwic only being mentioned textually only once in I Frankish Chronicle?