London around 1300 was a large European city, with a population of 80,000 to 100,000, comparable to the major urban centers of the time, Venice and Florence. In the city center were streets such as Cheapside, with three or four story buildings filled with people living in cramped conditions.
Many of them were recent migrants from the countryside, and they created a vibrant and productive society. On the ground floor of the buildings were shops and stalls, many of which were grouped together in “selds” – arcades or small-scale shopping malls, offering customers a choice of goods.
The town’s influence extended across the south-east of England, so the farmers of southern Oxfordshire planted the wheat they knew was demanded by London consumers and the farmers of Northamptonshire sent their sons to train as apprentices with London traders. This vivid image of the metropolis was revealed by Derek Keene, who died at the age of 78 from Alzheimer’s disease.
A historian of medieval towns, Derek brought together history, archeology and geography to investigate spaces and buildings and show how people of the past experienced life in towns.
His most important publication was a two-volume study of medieval Winchester (1985), but the project that generated the most enthusiasm was his work in the 1980s and 1990s on the townscape and society of medieval London.
Derek had grown up in London and remembered its post-war ruins, but historic buildings and streets were damaged by commercial development on a scale far greater than anything that had been caused by wartime bombing. . Excavations of Roman, Medieval and Early Modern structures were required before the destructive construction work began, and these investigations were organized by archaeologists from the Museum of London, whose work now has an independent home under the name of MOLA (Museum of London Archeology).
Derek saw that these extensive excavations offered a major research opportunity, as did the archive of written documents, which could shed light on the material remains, but could also complement the city’s larger backdrop. An investigation into such a complex and well-documented place could not be carried out by one person, and in 1979 Derek applied for funding to pay his own salary and hire an assistant. The first of these was Vanessa Harding.
In the early 1980s, Keene and Harding focused on a detailed survey of the housing and people of Cheapside. This led to a revision of the estimated population of London, and its ranking with major Italian cities. The resulting imaginative research published in works such as Cheapside Before the Great Fire (1985, with Harding) meant that Derek could persuade the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research to establish a metropolitan history center in 1987, and he was named its director.
“Metropolitan” was chosen over “London” to reflect the city’s great status and influence, and to encourage comparisons to be made. The center made it possible to explore a succession of themes, such as the suburbs and crafts. His work “Nourrir la ville”, published in 1993 under the title A medieval capital and its grain supply, made the fame of food, agricultural and urban historians.
Derek was the son of Edith (née Swanston), a nurse, and Charles Keene, a police officer turned planner. He grew up first in Holloway, North London, then Northolt, West London. From Ealing High School in 1961 he attended Oriel College, Oxford. His degree was in history, but he enjoyed archeology (having dug since the age of 10) and as a map enthusiast he respected geography.
In Oxford, he discovered the extensive archaeological work underway at Winchester, led by Martin Biddle, and, as a postgraduate student and later a salaried researcher, Derek integrated himself into the Winchester Project, excavating homes in medieval craftsmen in Brook Street, while discovering documents for the same area. With full access to the city’s large archives, he extended the scope of his research to cover all of Winchester, which in the Middle Ages was the 14th largest city in England, until his employment ended. as deputy director of the Winchester project in 1978.
The publication of the enormous two-volume Survey of Medieval Winchester in 1985 was a landmark in British urban history. This book detailed every feature of the late medieval city, including all streets, houses and gardens, and identified all known owners. The details have been compiled into conclusions on people, government, society, economy and religion.
In 2001 Derek was appointed to the Leverhulme Chair of Comparative Metropolitan History at the Institute for Historical Research and was able until his retirement in 2008 to pursue the idea of the metropolis in different periods and countries. He has always been involved in collaborations, most notably when he brought together a group of scholars to write the story of St Paul’s: The Cathedral Church of London 604-2004 (2004).
An example of Derek’s ability to inspire came from the groups of students and visitors he led through the streets of the City of London when he was at the Institute of Historical Research. A favorite route led them from the river to Cheapside, where he could show that concrete office buildings and skyscrapers had not destroyed all traces of a once bustling, colorful and inhabited city. The street plan was very old and Keene would show that Bread Street, for example, was planned around 890 AD under King Alfred.
In his spare time, Derek took long walks in the wilderness of the world, including the Rockies.
He married Suzanne Forbes, now an authority on museum studies, in 1969, while she was managing the archaeological finds at Winchester, and she then held a similar role at the Museum of London.
She survives him, just like their daughter Frances, their son Thomas and their four grandchildren: Ruan, Bryn, Eryn and Eiros.