The Language of Urbanization in John Stow's: Survey of London

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In the 1580s and 1590s London experienced high inflation, plague outbreaks, and prolonged dearth caused, in part, by the City's phenomenal population explosion in the late sixteenth-century. (1) The Crown and City responded to these conditions with a surge of anti-building legislation. Numerous Royal Proclamations, issued at the urging of the City's officials, blamed unregulated building for the increasingly disturbing changes in London's social topography. John Stow's Survey of London (1598), which provides a detailed account of London's wards and parishes during the reign of Elizabeth I, vividly illustrates the power of the Crown and City's anti-building rhetoric, describing the ecological devastation and social disintegration ushered in by unregulated building. However, Stow complicates the traditional paradigm governing the Elizabethan debates about building, in which building is discussed almost exclusively in terms of urban containment (or, less frequently, urban expansion), by attributing specific negative or positive consequences to particular types of building. By doing so, Stow demonstrates the emerging power of what I call "a discourse of building," which focuses on issues of style, material, and location and emphasizes the type of expansion. More importantly, the striking similarities between the nascent urban planning ideas expressed in the Survey of London and those promoted in seventeenth-century building regulations make a strong case for elevating the role texts such as Stow's played in generating alternative solutions to London's urban expansion problems during the period.

Elizabeth's 1580 Royal Proclamation against building assumed national scope with an Act of Parliament in 1588, effectively sanctioning a discourse of building founded on the idea that banning any new, subdivided, or multi-occupant buildings would curb London's skyrocketing population. (2) A series of Elizabethan anti-building proc lamations was based on the premise that the new and subdivided buildings and the landlords who rented to multiple tenants in already overcrowded houses fueled London's population expansion and thus contributed to higher food and fuel prices, the spread of plague and fire, and the inability of her majesty "to have her people ... well governed by ordinary justice." The remedy was "to command all manner of person, of what quality soever they be, to desist and forbear from any new buildings of any house or tenement within three miles from any of the gates of London ... where no former house hath been known" on threat of "close prison" and "seizure of all building materials." The Crown and the City authorities wished to encourage London's recent arrivals to "provide themselves with other places in the realm where many houses rest uninhabited to the decay of divers ancient good boroughs and towns." (3) London's new and converted buildings acted as material evidence for those outside the capital who accused the City of siphoning off inhabitants, devaluing rental income, and stealing business away from other towns, all of which helped popularize the image of London as the "great wen" or as an "overgrown spleen." One anonymous petitioner from the period complained that "retailers and artificers, at the least of such things as pertain to the back or belly, do leave country towns where there is no vent and do fly to London, where they be sure to find ready and quick market." (4) These complaints should not be dismissed as mere exaggerations. By the mid-seventeenth century, London's high mortality rate coupled with its low birth rate demanded an influx of more than 8,000 new residents annually to sustain its growth, and many, if not most, came from other parts of England. (5)

The rhetoric of the Royal Proclamations placed London's overcrowding and its increased population, and the host of social problems accompanying rapid growth, in a causal relationship to its new buildings and daily altering topography. …


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