Mapping the Medieval City: Space, Place and Identity in Chester c. 1200-1600

Mapping the Medieval City: Space, Place and Identity in Chester c. 1200-1600

by Catherine A. M. Clarke

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This fascinating volume brings together scholars from a wide range of disciplines, including literary studies, history, geography, and archaeology, to investigate questions of space, place, and identity in the medieval city. Using medieval Chester as a case study—with attention to its location on the border between England and Wales, its rich multilingual


This fascinating volume brings together scholars from a wide range of disciplines, including literary studies, history, geography, and archaeology, to investigate questions of space, place, and identity in the medieval city. Using medieval Chester as a case study—with attention to its location on the border between England and Wales, its rich multilingual culture, and its surviving infrastructure—these contributions recover the experience of medieval city living and in doing so provide fresh perspectives and generate new questions about urban space both during this period and beyond.

Editorial Reviews

John Hines

“Few material phenomena are as complex as the city. In its border location, the changing form of Chester dramatically reflects the vicissitudes of military, political, and economic fortune, and social difference and conflict within. This book is a model of multidisciplinary coherency, with a diverse collection of intelligent and thoughtful papers that not only reveal how medieval men and women in Chester made sense of their habitat for themselves, but at the same time map the solid, autonomous reality of the place.”

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University of Wales Press
Publication date:
University of Wales Press - Religion and Culture in the Middle Ages Series
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)

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Mapping the Medieval City

Space, Place and Identity in Chester c.1200â"1600

By Catherine A. M. Clarke

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2011 The Contributors
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7083-2392-2


Introduction Medieval Chester: Views from the Walls


In September 2008, on a research trip to Chester as part of the AHRC-funded 'Mapping Medieval Chester' project, I picked up the leaflet for a 'Walk around Chester Walls': a 'Unique Circular Walk', which promised to be 'Unmissable! – One of Britain's Best Historic Walks'. As I followed the outlined route along the stone walls which encircle the early settlement, the leaflet drew my attention to the wonderful views over the city and its individual buildings, repeatedly emphasizing the multiple strata of history encoded within the urban landscape. Eastgate, for example, was described through a brief account of its various historical incarnations: '[t]he current 18th-century arch replaces a narrow, fortified medieval gateway, which in turn overlay the ruins of the ceremonial entrance to the Roman legionary fortress.' The leaflet's introduction to 'England's Walled City' offered me a concise account of the history of Chester's walls, from Roman fortress and Saxon burh through to medieval towers and early modern promenade. For a visitor to Chester, this walk around the walls presents an overview of the city – both literally and metaphorically – which gives an insight into its long, varied and multi-layered history.

As a privileged vantage point over Chester, the view from the walls recurs as a key motif throughout texts associated with the city from the medieval period to the present day. Most recently, the walls have become a 'virtual' point of entry into Chester for remote 'visitors' distant from the city itself. The very popular website 'Chester: a Virtual Stroll around the Walls' (, produced and maintained by local photographer and amateur historian Steve Howe, leads virtual tourists through the landscape and history of the city via a carefully constructed circular route, receiving visits from internet users all over the world. The digital resources produced by the AHRC-funded 'Mapping Medieval Chester' project ( present an interactive digital atlas of the city c.1500, allowing users to move around the medieval walls and follow links to related descriptions and accounts in contemporary texts. Whilst working in new, digital media and presenting new possibilities for virtual interaction with the city's material fabric, these online resources continue a long tradition of making the city accessible through the view from its historic walls. Across different texts associated with Chester, with their different cultural contexts, ideological positions and symbolic configurations of the urban space, the elevated perspective from the walls seemingly renders the city uniquely legible and comprehensible, whilst simultaneously revealing the desires and concerns of the author. The diverse views over the city presented in these texts offer a useful starting point for thinking about the different perspectives produced by our own studies, and the different versions of medieval Chester formed by our own critical mappings, whether visual or textual.

The descriptions of Chester's walls by the novelist Henry James are amongst the most well-known accounts of the city. As well as the 1903 novel The Ambassadors, which begins with the visit of the American, Lewis Lambert Strether, to Chester, James's collection of travel writing English Hours includes a sustained description of the city and its walls. This account is typical of Chester texts in its use of the walls as a device for comprehending the city: as with many writers before him, James's view from this privileged vantage point reveals his own desires and anxieties mapped onto the urban landscape. For James, the walls of Chester represent the fantasy of the authentic ancient city, preserved in all its original integrity. He begins his account of the city by reporting that 'I have been strolling and restrolling along the ancient wall – so perfect in its antiquity – which locks this dense little city in its stony circle,' celebrating the 'brave little walls' as the exemplar of the English practice of 'an ancient property or institution lovingly readopted and consecrated to some modern amenity'. Already here two key themes are clear: the notion of the 'perfection' of the urban enclosure, and the image (later to emerge as ambivalent) of the city 'locked' inside its enceinte. James goes on to insist further on the perfect compass of the walls, observing that:

The wall enfolds the place in a continuous ring, which, passing through innumerable picturesque vicissitudes, often threatens to snap, but never fairly breaks the link; so that, starting at any point, an hour's easy stroll will bring you back to your station.

However, this perfect circumscription of the city is James's rhetorical construction. The walls had already been damaged and compromised in various ways by the mid-nineteenth century, the most major break in the circuit caused by the cutting for the Chester-Holyhead railway in 1846. In fact, James's character Strether in The Ambassadors adopts a less idealised and more realistic view of the city's walls when he imagines, '[t]he tortuous wall' as a 'girdle, long since snapped, of the little swollen city, half held in place by careful civic hands'. Strether experiences 'delight' at the views from the walls, but his description of the city resists the indulgence of picturesque fantasy admitted in the English Hours. Whilst James's view from the walls reveals Chester as he wishes to see it – the still-perfect embodiment of the ancient European fortress enclosure – he also suggests that the walls represent a 'prime necessity' for the Cestrians themselves in terms of their ability to know and understand their own city.

For through it, surely, they may know their city more intimately than their unbuckled neighbours – survey it, feel it, rejoice in it as many times a day as they please.

Again here, we have a version of the commonplace that the walls of Chester enable the city to be viewed, known and understood and thus enjoyed. For James too, his walk around the walls allows him to regard the city from above, making sense of the different views which emerge '[e]very few steps'.

A shaded mall wanders at the foot of the rampart; beside this passes a narrow canal, with locks and barges and burly water-men in smocks and breeches; while the venerable pair of towers, with their old red sandstone sides peeping through the gaps in their green mantles, rest on the soft grass of one of those odd fragments of public garden, a crooked strip of ground turned to social account, which one meets at every turn, apparently, in England ...

Yet, whilst the walls lift James above the city, allowing him to survey and interpret the urban spaces and activities below, the streets of Chester itself offer a different experience. In his account of the city's famous medieval Rows, James's account becomes more ambivalent, exposing the negative implications of the city 'locked' and 'buckled' within its enclosing fortifications. The streets of Chester do offer picturesque interest and amusement for James, with their 'random corners, projections and recesses, odd domestic interspaces ... architectural surprises and caprices and fantasies', yet the antique charms of the city are intermeshed with the spectre of 'old-world pains and fears'. The architecture of the Rows suggests an oppressive, constricted way of life within the claustrophobic confines of the walled city. James asserts:

Fix one of them with your gaze, and it seems fairly to reek with mortality. Every stain and crevice seems to syllable some human record – a record of lives airless and unlighted.

Although James attempts to imagine these quaint buildings as relics of 'Merrie England', his optimism and idealism fail at this point in his tour of the city.

Human life, surely, packed away behind those impenetrable lattices of lead and bottle-glass, just above which the black outer beam marks the suffocating nearness of the ceiling, can have expanded into scant freedom and bloomed into small sweetness.

Thus, James's fantasy of the authentic ancient city is entangled with anxieties about the confines and pressures of old-world feudal society. The walls of Chester lift James above the crowded, dark and cramped streets of the city, offering him a perspective which transcends the more bewildering and troubling urban spaces within. They offer an elevated view onto Chester's grand historic architecture, expansive surrounding countryside and quaint picturesque scenes: a vantage point which elides the less attractive realities of urban life. However, James's idealised vision of Chester's ancient walls remains implicitly grounded on ambivalence. Whilst the walls fasten the city in an image of perfect, unbroken enclosure and historic survival – a delight for the visitor – they also 'lock' and 'buckle' the citizens into an oppressive, anachronistic old-world geography.

James's paradoxical claim that the elevated, distanced prospect from the walls allows the viewer to 'know [the] city more intimately' resonates across medieval and early modern texts associated with Chester. In many descriptions of Chester, the walls are prominent both as the defining feature of the city, and as the foundation for the structure and perspective of the text itself. The imagined reader, usually constructed as a stranger or visitor to the city, is guided through Chester and its history via a walk around the walls, or through a series of aerial views which replicate its raised vantage points. For example, John Broster's 1821 A Walk Round the Walls and City of Chester frames its account of the city through the model of a walking tour, in which the reader is led along a circuit of the walls. Whether in situ within Chester itself, or as a remote, 'imaginative' visitor, 'the traveller is in this work conducted regularly from scite to scite'. Typically, the view from the walls in Broster's text opens up an idealised perspective on the city which elides the more uncomfortable, untidy realities of urban life.

Chester – with respect to its situation – the salubrity of the air – the singular convenience of the rows – the delightful pleasantries of the walls – and the prospects of the adjacent country – merits the notice of the man of taste – claims the attention of the antiquary – and courts the admiration of the stranger.

Broster's vision of the walls as a place of delight and the picturesque reflects their use in this period as a 'popular promenade' around the city. With their wide, open prospects and clean, wholesome air, the walls become metonymic for the 'situation' of Chester as a whole, subtly transforming the city from a site of urban industry, business and crowded communal living into a space of leisure, recreation and pleasure. Such rhetorical devices in Broster's text participate in the reinvention of Chester's walls – and indeed the city as a whole – in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, transposing functional civic structures or urban dilapidation and decay into a new imaginative architecture of the picturesque and antiquarian. In Broster's text, Chester (and in particular its walls) emerges as a destination for the tourist, recalling the recent visits to the city of notable, fashionable figures such as John Wesley and Samuel Johnson.

Daniel King's The Vale-Royall of England, or, The County-Palatine of Chester (1656) includes a slightly earlier treatise on the city by William Webb, a clerk in the mayor's court, written around 1615. Again, Webb's account of Chester is shaped by the circuit of its walls, and their elevated position informs his imaginative vision of the city. Webb begins with a history of the walls, broadening out to that of the city as a whole (pp. 11–14), before giving an overview of Chester's urban topography.

The City of Chester, is built in form of a quadrant, and is almost a just square, inclosed with a fair stone-wall, high and strong built, with fair Battlements of all the four sides; and with the 4 Gates, opening to the four Winds.

Webb also looks beyond the intramural city, noting that:

The City extends herself in her Suburbs, with very fair streets, and the same adorned with goodly Buildings, both of Gentlemans houses, and fair Innes for entertainments of all Resorts.

This initial overview of Chester encompasses the complete city in one sustained, sweeping gaze. Webb presents a vision of the city laid out like a map or a bird's eye view: it is visible and available in its entirety to the eye of the spectator. Webb begins his perambulation of Chester just a few lines later, from the Eastgate '[a]t which, we begin the circuit of the Wall'. Yet, already here, the elevated prospect from the walls offers Webb an imaginative vantage point over the city which combines the order and intelligibility of a map with the immediacy and aesthetic pleasure of direct sensory experience.

As it leads the reader around the walls, Webb's text continues to view Chester from above, maintaining the fantasy of the fully-visible and fully-intelligible city. Webb looks out over the River Dee where she 'doth here incline to enlarge herself' but is 'soundly girt in on either side with huge Rocks of hard stone'. Enjoying panoramic prospects over the surrounding landscape, he remarks that:

[Y]ou may go round about the walls, being a very delectable Walk, feeding the Eye, on the one side, with the sweet Gardens, and fine Buildings of the City; and on the other side, with a Prospect of many miles into the County of Chester, into Wales, and into the Sea.

Whilst all these views are indeed available in different directions from Chester's walls, Webb here combines them into one (impossible) simultaneous panorama: a fantasy view of Chester experienced both as a combination of 'prospects' and as an aerial view or map. When Webb leads the reader down from the walls into Chester's streets, the text offers a similar conflation of views. He comments that:

As I led you even now about the walls of the city, which was no very long walk; so now I desire you would be acquainted with the streets and lanes by name; which, methinks it is not any disorder to view them as they lie ...

This account of the streets 'as they lie' moves the reader through the topography of Chester, constructing a deliberately subjective perspective which aims to replicate a walker's experience of the built environment and the material fabric of the city. Phrases such as '[a]s you descend from the High-cross down the Bridgegate-street ...' and 'after you have gone certain paces [Cow-Lane] opens into a void place ...' maintain the imaginative conceit of the reader's simulated walk through the city's spaces. Yet these carefully subjective, focalised views of the city are preceded by an outline of Chester's streets in the form of numbered list and discussion which, again, transcends the perspective of a walker within the city and offers an authoritative, objective, elevated view. The conflation of these different views of the city within Webb's treatise – prospect and aerial plan, focalised experience and objective overview – mirrors the different kinds of mapping current in the seventeenth century and, indeed, included alongside each other in The Vale-Royall. Daniel King's volume includes both 'prospect' (panoramic) and 'ground-plott' (aerial, plan) views of Chester, juxtaposed in a single fold-out sheet, offering a dual perspective on the city. For Webb, the overview of Chester from the walls provides the imaginative basis for his textual description, enabling the conflation of multiple perspectives and, most crucially, allowing a vision of the city which is supremely ordered, legible and pleasing.


Excerpted from Mapping the Medieval City by Catherine A. M. Clarke. Copyright © 2011 The Contributors. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Meet the Author

Catherine A. M. Clarke is a senior lecturer in English and associate director of the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Research at Swansea University, UK.

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