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Dr Alex Brown

Associate Professor (Late Medieval and Early Modern British History)

Associate Professor (Late Medieval and Early Modern British History) in the Department of History+44 (0) 191 33 41069
Fellow of the Durham Research Methods Centre
Fellow of the Institute for Medical Humanities


Research Interests

I work on the economic and social history of rural England across the medieval and early modern periods. My first book, Rural Society and Economic Change in County Durham, was a study of how rural society in Durham adapted to the economic problems of the fifteenth-century recession and how this affected their ability to respond to the inflation of the sixteenth century. This explored a range of different issues but especially the role of path dependency in shaping the size, rent and tenure of landholdings, three of the most crucial factors in the development of agrarian capitalism. I have co-edited two collections of essays on Custom and Commercialisation in English Rural Society and Crises in Economic and Social History

My current research explores the fear of downward social mobility in late medieval England. This challenges the image of medieval society as ‘an age of ambition’ by examining the ubiquitous fear of social decline, and demonstrating how this fear could contribute to the transformation of society: change can, after all, be wrought by people desperately trying to preserve the status quo. Previous studies have tended to focus upon the success of socially ambitious, generally male, careerists, and to ascribe to these entrepreneurial figures the most agency in the production of change. In contrast, my research reveals the important role played by gender and the life cycle in the articulation of this fear of downward mobility: marriage and old age in particular were moments when social decline seemed at its closest in medieval society.

I have also developed a particular interest in memory and the varied ways that individuals and institutions contested this. Some early modern enclosure riots, for example, were in part the culmination of centuries-long boundary disputes, whilst monks were especially pernicious in cultivating a distinctly myopic institutional memory of particular events. Given that so many of our records were created by specific institutions, it is all the more important that we understand how medieval people were themselves utilising these records, including both why they sought to preserve some documents and conveniently forget others.

Between 2024-27, I am the Principal Investigator on the research project 'Modelling the Black Death and Social Connectivity in Medieval England', funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The team consists of Co-Investigators in Archaeology (Christopher Gerrard and Rebecca Gowland) and Physics (Frank Krauss), as well as three postdoctoral research associates spread across the three disciplines. Utilising the latest computer modelling developed in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, we will simulate the spread of the Black Death in England in order to test hypotheses about the spread of the disease and about the connectedness of medieval society. Using historical and archaeological sources, we will reconstruct the broad characteristics of the late medieval population on the eve of the Black Death, such as their location, age, sex, and occupation. This is the ‘static’ part of our model. We will then infer their ‘dynamic’ behavioural patterns, such as where they spent their time and whom they encountered in their daily lives.

I am also one of the co-editors of the journal Continuity and Change. My recent research includes articles on medieval oaths, social securityinstitutional memory, and forthcoming work on enclosure riots, and social mobility in the medieval stories of Robin Hood. 


I first arrived in Durham as an undergraduate and stayed on to complete my MA and PhD here, before holding the Economic History Society Postan Fellowship at the Institute of Historical Research and the Addison Wheeler Fellowship at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Durham. 

Research Supervision

I welcome enquiries from students interested in any aspect of medieval or early modern economic and social history, especially using the archives of Durham Priory and the Bishops of Durham.

I have had the pleasure of being part of the supervisory team for the following PhD students who have completed their studies at Durham: 

Jamie Irvine, 'Causal origins of the 'religious movement of the Middle Ages': Cluny, Tiron, and the new orders, 910-1156' (2023)

Ryan Wicklund, 'Agricultural decision-making and managerial responses at Durham Cathedral Priory during the long fourteenth century, c.1300-1453' (2022)


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