Levels of wealth in a medieval society are at all times difficult to measure, and though Domesday has its value in this; as we have seen, it is made the more important by the fact that there is nothing in any way to take the place of the Domesday record before the lay subsidy returns of 1334, now at last in print, 1 even these telling us less than the earlier document can usually be made to do. However, it is at least clear that the most important characteristic of the English economy, in the thirteenth century through from the twelfth, was growth; not evenly sustained and not equally beneficial at every level of society, but a fact to be lived with all the same. It was swelling marketable surpluses on the land which financed the stone castles of the king and his magnates, which built the new monastic houses, and which found permanent and visible expression locally in the transformation of the parish church. It was to dispose of these surpluses, and in turn to encourage and create them, that the towns of England flourished and then multiplied.
Undoubtedly, the Normans played their part both in the foundation of new towns and in the enlargement of the old, using them, as they had done the castle and the monastery, very deliberately as instruments of colonization. But the great period of borough foundation, unconnected with the Normans, occurred rather later, in the century 1150 to 1250. And it was then, too, that urban communities in England most commonly acquired their precious identity in the law, further promoting their growth. Of urban institutions, it is enough here to say that they had achieved, within this period, substantial independence from the countryside, with valuable freedoms and specially tailored exemptions which helped develop the professionalization of trade. 2 Alongside this, the physical evidence, though less subtle, is considerably more dramatic. It shows us first the proliferation of trading communities, at just this time, with a claim to be described as 'towns'. And then, as excavations continue on urban sites throughout the country, it is beginning to establish for us, in a number of ways, the lines along which such growth may actually have occurred.
Few counties, perhaps, are likely to illustrate this proliferation of boroughs