The Archaeology of Medieval Towns: case studies from Japan and Europe

The Archaeology of Medieval Towns is an interesting proposition: a book which aims to act as a bridge between the medieval worlds of Europe and Japan, introducing each to the specialists of the other. The editors are careful to make this balancing act productive rather than reductive: this is not a volume that seeks to force both regions into a single theoretical mould, or to examine a specific single shared aspect in both, but rather seeks to explore towns as a variety of concepts and functions, and introduces key case studies to Europeanists who may not have encountered Japanese examples, and to Japanologists who may not have encountered the European ones. This ambition is, in the main, well-realised. As a Japanologist, I found the level of detail on Japanese sites was sufficiently deep as to be informative and helpful, while the European material introduced me to interesting parallels and differences, a process that will no doubt work for those travelling the other way too.

The quality of research is uniformly high. By choosing to translate key existing work on Japanese sites, the book introduces the reader to a selection of classic case studies of central importance to the development of medieval Japanese urban environments, such as the palatial headquarters of the Asakura family at Ichijōdani and the coastal trading city of Sakai. These are complemented by a range of materials on European urbanism, ranging from short informative summaries to longer developmental histories of towns such as Lübeck.

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons, 663highland.

There are some weaker points, such as a few clumsy explanations of the background to the Japanese case studies which may leave non-specialists with the wrong end of the stick. The translators’ introduction to Kamakura, for example, states that ‘In the 1170s Minamoto Yoritomo, descendant of the Minamoto clan, exiled from Kyoto, married into the powerful local Hōjō family, regents for the shoguns, who were often replaced and sometimes were very young.’ This can be read as implying that the Hōjō family were already regents to young shoguns when Yoritomo arrived, when none existed at all until the shogunal system was created by Yoritomo and his Hōjō in-laws in later decades, with the first child shogun not appearing until the 13th century. There are also some infelicities of translation of primary sources, which may be due to reliance on a now-defunct personal website as a basis for the Azuma Kagami text rather than a standard published edition.

However, these are only minor detractions from what is otherwise an excellent book: in general, it is superbly translated, well-supported by maps, diagrams, illustrations, and some photographs of the European case studies. The book is accessible without losing detail, and will be of interest to archaeologists and historians of both West and East.

Review by Philip Garrett.

The Archaeology of Medieval Towns: case studies from Japan and Europe, Simon Kaner, Brian Ayers, Richard Pearson, and Oscar Wrenn (eds) Archaeopress, £32 ISBN 978-1789694260.