The Plains of Norwich –
a possible Occitan connection?
The Plains of Norwich have long been regarded as a curiosity, an example of local usage conferring a degree of individuality on the city. In Norwich, a plain is an open space that, in another urban context, might well be called a square. Richard Lane, in his book The Plains of Norwich[i], describes fifteen or sixteen, if Redwell Plain and Bank Plain are regarded as separate entities. The addition of All Saints Plain (now always All Saints Green) would, if accepted, make the total seventeen; Lane rejects the name , finding it mentioned only in A.W. Morant’s Map of the City of Norwich of 1873. However it can also be found in W.P. Millard and Josh. Manning’s Plan of the City of Norwich of 1830. So in terms of quantity, Norwich is undoubtedly the centre of the Plain phenomenon , although, as the author Richard Lane points out, there is a handful of examples to be found in nearby towns[ii]. In spite of the renown of the Plains of Norwich, they have received remarkably little attention as the subject of onomastic (onomastics, the study of proper names) research. The English Place-Name Society volume that deals with the streets of Norwich[iii] does not comment on the usage, although other distinctive East Anglian words such as loke (lane) and cockey (sewer) do get a mention.
The reason for this omission may be that plain is not itself a dialect word. As a geographical term, it constitutes part of the standard English vocabulary. In this sense it occurs in the appropriate volume of English Place-Name Elements[iv],
with the given example of Salisbury Plain. Also noted is a secondary meaning, a piece of flat meadow-land. The word can be traced back through Middle English to Old French, meaning an open tract of land. The specific use of the word to describe an urban space is not mentioned, although it is easy to see a connection with the more general term. The difficulty arises not from the word’s meaning, but from its usage, which appears to be restricted to a small area of East Anglia.
Because the word, unlike most local formations, comes from the Romance linguistic
tradition, rather than from the Germanic, it is reasonable to associate it with the arrival of large numbers of French speakers in Norwich after the Norman Conquest. There is no doubt that Middle English acquired numerous loan words from French in this way, but they tended to be applicable to such subjects as law, government, the military arts and other areas of interest to the ruling class.[v] In contrast to the earlier influx of Scandinavian settlers, the Normans did not contribute much to street nomenclature. In Norwich such minor place-names as Cowgate and Tombland include Scandinavian elements, but obviously French street names like Avenue and Boulevard entered the language much later, in the early seventeenth and mid eighteenth centuries respectively. If the residents of the French Borough (part of Norwich) used words from their own to tongue to name its streets, none has
remained to help locate its site, which was probably in the Mancroft area. The
Plains of Norwich are too widely dispersed to be linked with this earliest concentration of French settlement, and the word does not appear to have been
applied to similar urban features in either Norman French or Anglo-Norman. The
appropriate French word would have been Place, from the Latin Platea, which is also
the origin of the Italian Piazza and Spanish Plaza. In fact several of the Norwich plains have also been termed Place at some stage in their histories; for example the area in front of Gurney’s Bank was known as Bank Place in the early nineteenth century, before it was called Bank Plain. Used in this sense the word Place had already entered the language before the Conquest, in Old English
translations of the Latin Vulgate.[vi]
The earliest reference in the EPNS volume on the Place-Names of Norwich is c1720[vii], although Lane quotes the use of the word Playne to describe St Martin at Palace Plain c1550.[viii] The fact that no Plains have been found in the written record before this date does not imply that none existed in medieval Norwich; we may suspect that it is probable that they did, but we cannot prove it. There is a reference in the
Anglo-Norman poem La Vie Seint Edmund Le Rey by Denis Piramus ‘En bois, en plains, e enz e hors’. [ix] The author was a monk art Bury St Edmunds Abbey, writing in the middle of the thirteenth century, so the text emanates from East Anglia. It is most likely that plains is here used to mean meadows, but as the line consists of two
contrasting pairs (woods/plains, inside/outside) it is possible that the writer intended to juxtapose features of town and country. The context does not help to resolve this question.
A curious parallel with the Plains of Norwich can be found in Beziers in the south of France where the streets are named both in their Modern French versions and in their old Occitan equivalents. Occitan is a Romance language that was formerly spoken along the Mediterranean coast and hinterland between northern Italy and Spain. Following a revival in the nineteenth century the language is still spoken, but the number of speakers is in decline. In the middle ages it was identical with Catalan. The street of Beziers provided the backdrop for some of the most horrific episodes in the Albigensian Crusade against the heretical Cathars. In 1209 the Romanesque
cathedral, where many of the citizens had taken sanctuary from Simon de Montfort and his forces, was destroyed with much loss of life. The open space beyond the west end of the present cathedral still bears the name Plan dels Albigeois. Although most of the streets of Beziers also have modern French names, the old Occtitan names
are also displayed, providing other examples of the use of the designation Plan. Like Plain, Plan is derived from the Latin Planum, a noun formed from the neuter gender of the adjective, meaning something flat. Plan does not appear to be the usual Occitan equivalent for Place, which is, as in Catalan, Plaça. Although most recent street names employ Modern French forms, the use of the old Plan has been retaine in at least one instance. The Plan Mgr Blaquière commemorates a 20th century churchman, perhaps reflecting the same concern to preserve local identity that has given us in Norwich University Plain and Millennium Plain.
The explanation for this apparent connection between two cities that are widely separated and share little common history is not clear. More onomastic research might show that the use of a word derived from the Latin planum was once more commonly used in naming town squares across Europe.
Other plains in Norfolk and Suffolk
Connaught Plain, Attleborough
White Hart Plain Old Costessey.
Church Plain Dereham
School Plain, Dereham
St James’s Plain, Diss
Brewery Plain Great Yarmouth
Pier Plain Great Yarmouth
Theatre Plain Great Yarmouth
Priory Plain Great Yarmouth
Hall Plain Great Yarmouth
St Peter’s Plain, Caister on Sea, Great Yarmouth
Church Plain Great Yarmouth
Obelisk Plain, Holt
Shirehall Plain, Holt
St Margaret’s Plain, Ipswich
Church Plain, Loddon
The Plain, Long Stratton
Baxter’s Plain, Kings Lynn
South Lynn Plain, Kings Lynn
Royal Plain, Lowestoft
Church Plain, Mundham
Station Plain, Reepham
Lifeboat Plain, Sheringham
The Plain, Foulsham
Malthouse Plain, North Walsham ….,27
Sharpes Plain, Stamford
Church Plain, Wells-next-the Sea
THE NORWICH PLAINS
St Catherines’s Plain
Agricultural Hall Plain
St Paul’s Plain, Barrack Street.
St Andrews Plain
St Martin’s Palace Plain
St Giles’ Plain
St Benedict’s Plain
St Margaret’s Plain
St Andrew’s Hall Plain
St Mary’s Plain
St George’s Plain
There are over 30 Plains around East Anglia, concentrated on the Norwich area, but with outposts as far afield as Spalding in Lincolnshire and Ipswich in Suffolk. They are of various ages; Church Plain (Wells-next-the-Sea, Great Yarmouth, Loddon, Mundham and Dereham) could be hundreds of years old, while Station Plain (Reepham) is obviously nineteenth century, and as recently as 2000 Millennium Plain was named in Norwich. Obelisk Plain in Holt dates to the erection of First World War Memorial, and Lifeboat Plain would have followed the Upcher family’s provision of a lifeboat in Sheringham.
In Plymouth there is a road called Mutley Plain, but as it does not appear to refer to widening in the street it appears to a different meaning in Devon, more akin to the geographical meaning of a plain.
From the blue plaque in Norwich
“Plains of Norwich The Dutch and Flemish who came to Norwich in the 16th century left their mark on the Norwich landscape and local language. From the Dutch ‘plein’, the Norwich ‘plains’ define the squares and open spaces of land, in the midst of the narrow maze of streets. Maddermarket Plain, St Giles’ Plain, St Benedict’s Plain, St Margaret’s Plain and St Andrew’s Hall Plain can be found in the Norwich Lanes area.” (e.g. Stationsplein, Eindhoven.
Lane, The Plains of Norwich The Larks
Several in Great Yarmouth, and one each in Holt, Loddon, Lowestoft and Ipswich
K. I. Sandred and B. Lindstrom The
Place-Names of Norfolk Part I EPNS 1989
a self-denying ordinance the EPNS volume excludes any word first recorded after
the late fifteenth century.
Otto Jespersen Growth and Structure of
the English Language 6th edition, Blackwell
and Lindstrom Place-Names
Lane, . The source is