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Society and culture

In the year 1000 AD, there was nowhere in Wales which could be considered to be urban.

In the 300 years from the start of the 11th century, scores of towns were founded: Bala, established in 1309, was the last fling of Wales's medieval town creators.

Although towns became central to the economy, townspeople could hardly have been more than 10 per cent of the total population. Cardiff, with perhaps 2,200 inhabitants in 1300, was almost certainly the country's largest town. With the population overwhelmingly rural, patterns of land tenure were central to the function of society.

With an improving climate and a developing economy, the population of Wales probably doubled between 1050 and 1300. The increase involved a more intense use of land, with extensive clearing of forests, the development of villages, the building of mills and the growth of a more sophisticated social structure.

In places like the Vale of Glamorgan, the land was organised into a series of knights' fees, each capable of maintaining a mounted warrior and supported by a manorial system sustained by villeins who were often incomers.

The centuries after 1000 also saw changes in native Welsh society, particularly the growth of the concept that a crime is an offence against the ruler rather than against the kin, and the increasing replacement of renders of food and services by payments in money. The growth in the circulation of money indicated the growth of trade, a process which transformed traditional relationships.

The Welsh climate deteriorated after 1300. Wet summers, disease among domestic animals and soil exhaustion caused agricultural problems. By 1320, the population was in decline and would not return to the level of 1300 for another 250 years.

A century after the Black Death, there were signs that the Welsh economy was in recovery. A pattern of trade based on cattle and sheep became apparent, which would dominate the economy until the Industrial Revolution.

Drovers took cattle across Wales to the great fairs of the English cities, and cattle sales became the chief way of introducing ready money into the countryside. As fulling mills multiplied, fleeces were spun, woven into flannel and sold at the markets of the English border towns, Shrewsbury in particular.

With a reviving economy came better housing - the half-timbered buildings of the borderland, for example. By the early 16th century Wales had around 260,000 inhabitants, compared with perhaps 300,000 in 1300.


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