Division in Medieval Reading

Joe Chick, University of Warwick


The 2018 event at Keele University was my first Social History Society conference. As a PhD student, the event was an excellent chance to share ideas with other PhD students and early career researchers. The society has been making a particular effort to increase participation from medievalists and early modernists and this was very much reflected in a programme that was highly varied in time period.

The earliest map of Reading, from John Speed’s atlas of Great Britain, 1611

My PhD, in its second year, looks at urban society in English monastic towns through a case study of Reading in the years 1350-1600. With virtually every medieval English town having a religious house, my area of interest is more specifically places in which a monastery was lord of the whole town. In these places the relationship between town and abbey was not just a religious one but also a political, economic, and social one.

Medieval monastic towns are traditionally characterised in terms of their repressive lordship and violent town–abbey relations. My research considers this portrayal and engages with a range of other historical themes: local communities, social networks, identities, oligarchy, marginalised groups, monasticism, popular religion, and the Reformation. The project deliberately straddles the medieval and early modern periods in order to compare Reading society before and after the dissolution, an event of particular significance to places under monastic lordship.

St Laurence’s Church in Reading (photograph by Joe Chick)

The organisation of the SHS conference along thematic strands meant that, despite the varied topics, there were a large number of papers exploring common themes. Part of the Deviance, Inclusion and Exclusion strand, my paper – which came joint runner-up in the prize for best postgraduate paper – explored social divisions within Reading society. The focus on the division between abbey and lay society in most studies of monastic towns means that divisions within lay society itself are often overlooked.

My paper looked at inclusion and exclusion in terms of membership of the merchant guild in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Reading. It examined society before and after the dissolution, an event which, for monastic towns, was not only a religious change but also a transition of lordship. The divide between guild members and non-guild members existed both before and after this event, but the dissolution served to add greater emphasis to the division. With the removal of the monastic landlord, the guild needed to create a sense of legitimacy to rule in order to capitalise on the transfer of political power. The result was that their goals became less closely aligned with those of the town at large. Instead they sought to narrow the corporation membership and to develop their image as a governing class in a way that emphasised their elevation above the rest of Reading society.

Reading Abbey Gate (photograph by Joe Chick)

Hearing six papers in the ‘Deviance, Inclusion and Exclusion’ strand increased my awareness of other social divisions that it would be interesting to explore. A large number of these papers looked at exclusion and inclusion in terms of the social divide between men and women. Going into the conference, I was already aware that my research had focused predominantly on male members of society. This was an inherent consequence of exploring society through the records of the merchant guild, an organisation that only allowed male members.

My intention had already been for future research to explore the lives of women in Reading society and the conference provided ideas for how this could be achieved when studying an era in which most documentary sources were written by and about men. I particularly appreciated the feedback of Teresa Phipps who explained how leet court records and wills can indicate women acting in an independent capacity. My future research will also move on to explore parish religion, which was a social hub in which women had far more opportunity for involvement than the merchant guild.

As such, attending the conference was not only enjoyable but also a valuable exercise which will help to direct my research for the remainder of my PhD.


Click here to find out more about the SHS best postgraduate paper prize

You can also find out more about the poster prize by clicking here.


About the Author: Joe Chick is an ESRC-funded PhD student at the University of Warwick, working on a thesis entitled ‘Conflict, Compromise, and Change: Lay–Church Relations and the Dissolution in the Monastic Town of Reading, 1350-1600’. At the 2018 Social History Society conference he was joint runner-up in the prize for the best postgraduate paper.

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