Spatial development of the city of London in the later middle ages

Brown, Frank Edward (1983). Spatial development of the city of London in the later middle ages. PhD thesis The Open University.


The thesis is concerned with a particular spatial morphology - that of the City of London in the later Middle Ages - and the way that it evolved. It addresses itself to the organisation of space at the meso-scale, i.e. the way buildings were aggregated or arranged on the ground, and the external spaces that were formed. The work has two main aims: firstly, to discover the principles which governed the arrangement of buildings; and, secondly to develop a model which will simulate the actual development of building patterns in late medieval London.

The work is divided into three main parts. Part I provides a general introduction. The overall form and development of the City are described, and the social and economic context considered by reference to secondary sources. An outline is given of some of the main social and economic forces operative in the late medieval period - c.1400 - c.1600 - and in the seventeenth century - the period from which most of the cartographic evidence is drawn. The principal sources - cartographic and documentary - are listed and discussed. Graph theory, the mathematical language used in this study, is briefly discussed, and some basic definitions given.

Part II comprises the morphological analysis, the results of which are in all cases presented in verbal rather than in mathematical form. Firstly, the gross geometrical and topological properties of the urban pattern are described, and the connectivity between buildings analysed by reference to a graph-theoretic representation of a limited area of the City. Attention is then turned to the organisation of space within the house. A substantial body of plans, drawn from seventeenth-century property surveys, is analysed, using graph notation to describe the access patterns within the house. A typology of house plans is proposed on the basis of the access graphs, and a possible functional and social interpretation of the evidence is considered.

Returning to the meso-scale, the urban structure is decomposed into its constituent elements. At the highest level is the block - a region surrounded by streets: at the lowest level is the individual building or unit. The block is divided into two zones - the perimeter zone and the interior zone - and each zone is subdivided into segments. It is argued that the segments correspond to historical property divisions which exercised a decisive effect on the evolution of building pattern. From a state description of the morphology, the analysis proceeds to a process description, based on historical evidence. The historical continuity of the property divisions is supported, and the historical process of segment development reconstructed, by reference to cartographic and documentary sources. From this analysis, the basic rules of building development are identified, and a concise description of the process of development is given for perimeter and interior segments.

Finally, the process description is applied to various hypothetical block configurations. A computer simulation was used to examine two main properties: the access structure through the blocks, i.e. the way access is maintained (or not) from one segment to another: and the overall density of building development. The results obtained from the computer model are compared with the empirical evidence derived from plan analysis, and the similarities/differences discussed. The inference is drawn that the building pattern of late medieval London may be seen to result in large measure from the formal logic of the system, and can be accounted for on a probailistic basis.

Part III summarises the results. The process description is seen as a form of shape grammar, and the relationship of this with other shape grammars is discussed. A programme of further work is outlined, in which it is hoped that the approach may be applied successfully to the analysis of other historical morphologies.

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