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Trees in Anglo-Saxon England

Trees in Anglo-Saxon England: Literature, Lore and Landscape

Della Hooke
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 322
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  • Book Info
    Trees in Anglo-Saxon England
    Book Description:

    Trees played a particularly important part in the rural economy of Anglo-Saxon England, both for wood and timber and as a wood-pasture resource, with hunting gaining a growing cultural role. But they are also powerful icons in many pre-Christian religions, with a degree of tree symbolism found in Christian scripture too. This wide-ranging book explores both the "real", historical and archaeological evidence of trees and woodland, and as they are depicted in Anglo-Saxon literature and legend. Place-name and charter references cast light upon the distribution of particular tree species (mapped here in detail for the first time) and also reflect upon regional character in a period that was fundamental for the evolution of the present landscape. Della Hooke is Honorary Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Research in Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-884-1
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations and Tables
    (pp. vi-viii)
    (pp. ix-ix)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. x-x)
  6. PART I: Tree Symbolism

    • 1 Trees and Groves in Pre-Christian Belief
      (pp. 3-20)

      Life, death and rebirth – these are all aspects of the symbolism attached to the tree, and are united in much mythological tradition. ‘The symbolism of trees is complex: their roots and branches evoked an image of a link between sky and Underworld; their longevity represented continuity and wisdom; the seasonal behaviour of deciduous trees gave rise to a cyclical symbolism, an allegory of life, death and rebirth.’¹ Some early European traditions envisaged a World Tree, called in Norse mythologyaskr Yggdrasill, ‘the ash-tree Yggdrasill’, a steed (drasill) on which the god Óðinn (also called Yggr) was thought to have hung...

    • 2 Christianity and the Sacred Tree
      (pp. 21-57)

      It has been shown how Roman historians confirm that tree worship was a potent force in Europe at the beginning of the first millennium AD and that, in common with other world-wide beliefs, it was often thought that trees themselves had souls or, at the very least, were inhabited by spirits. Christianity abhorred such beliefs. While the Church was probably genuinely disgusted by some of the pagan practices associated with trees and sacred groves, it is likely to be the fear of a powerful competitive belief which led to such forcible attempts to expunge tree worship. The conflict was an...

    • 3 Trees in Literature
      (pp. 58-95)

      Some literary sources referring to magical or religious belief were discussed in Chapter 1 and there are other forms of literature in Anglo-Saxon England which provide a bridge between the two, in particular runes, riddles and leechdoms. Runes were a form of writing used by Germanic peoples that involved incised letters, at first on wood, deliberately conceived as a series of easily made vertical or slanting strokes. The series of twenty-four letters is known as thefutharkand can be archaeologically dated as far back as the second century AD, although it is likely to have its origin a century...

    • 4 Trees, Mythology and National Consciousness: into the Future
      (pp. 96-110)

      As shown in Chapters 1 and 2, trees had long been used, along with stones, mounds and other features (including giant posts) to mark places of assembly. In pre-Christian times diviners and enchanters met at large, significant trees which were held to be sacred to carry out their offices. As Flint expresses it, these were focal points of reverent expectation, places to which people came to stave off terrors, appease their anxieties, pour out their desires of their hearts, to seek comfort and help in sadness.¹ The giant oak at Geismar destroyed by Boniface, the Irminsul destroyed by Charlemagne, and...

  7. PART II: Trees and Woodland in the Anglo-Saxon Landscape

    • 5 The Nature and Distribution of Anglo-Saxon Woodland
      (pp. 113-137)

      An unbroken cover of dense woodland waiting to be cleared and broken up by enterprising Anglo-Saxon colonists owes more to cinematic images of the American frontier than to reality; such a scenario is unlikely to have existed much longer than the early Holocene. Scholars like Vera and Rackham argue that the wildwood always consisted of an open woodland cover or even a park-like landscape, browsed heavily by herbivores. In temperate regions dense woodland will not form unless animals – both wild and domestic stock – are deliberately excluded.¹ Even before prehistoric farmers cut down trees to obtain land for agriculture, or allowed...

    • 6 The Use of Anglo-Saxon Woodland: Place-Name and Charter Evidence
      (pp. 138-164)

      After the Roman withdrawal, native farming turned more towards traditional methods of pastoralism and the use of resources gathered from the wild by hunting and fowling, and although the woods may have been less carefully managed they were valued, primarily as sources of timber and as areas of wood-pasture. In early medieval England, under the Anglo-Saxons, the use of wood-pasture was an important part of farming practice and herds of swine and cattle were taken to, or kept in, wooded regions across the country, the swine, in particular, feasting and fattening upon acorns and beech-mast in the late summer and...

    • 7 Trees in the Landscape
      (pp. 165-188)

      There must have been numerous clumps of trees and individual trees scattered across the early medieval landscape of England, both in farming regions and as prominent features in more heavily wooded areas. It is likely that the regionalpays(landscape regions) of England were strongly recognisable in the Anglo-Saxon landscape, probably more so than in many later periods. Arable had retreated from the downlands of southern England, the Weald and elsewhere to be replaced by pasture and woodland. Many regions in which woodland had once again regenerated became typical of the kind of landscape associated with ‘ancient countryside’, a landscape...

  8. PART III: Individual Tree Species in Anglo-Saxon England

    • 8 Trees of Wood-Pasture and ‘Ancient Countryside’
      (pp. 191-221)

      Most common species of trees are encountered in pre-Conquest charters and place-names but some were more common than others. The most frequently mentioned trees in boundary clauses are the oak, the ash and the thorn (see Chapter 7). This is mirrored in their incidence in place-names and as hundred names (trees often served to mark the meeting-places of these early territorial divisions, as noted in the previous chapter). Species distributions change dramatically, however, across England and one needs to ask whether any significance can be attached to this. Why, for instance do the oak and the ash occur so frequently...

    • 9 Trees of Wet Places in Early Medieval Records: Alder and Willow
      (pp. 222-231)

      There were large areas of undrained land in Anglo-Saxon England. The underground drains of later historical times were, of course, not available and arable land probably already relied heavily upon ridge and furrow ploughing to remove surplus rainwater. Undoubtedly there were also deliberately cut ditches to alleviate flooding but the many references to marsh and fen in charter boundary clauses clearly indicate the presence of scattered patches of ill-drained land throughout most of the countryside. Extensive fenlands such as those around the Wash in eastern England were not to be drained on a large scale for many centuries and the...

    • 10 Trees of Open or Planned Countryside
      (pp. 232-244)

      While most trees recorded in pre-Conquest contexts were naturally found where ancient or relict woodland was plentiful, two species stand out as being referred to rather more often, at least in charters, in farmed landscapes: the thorn and the elder (Fig. 17). Species of thorns were common everywhere but both the blackthorn (the sloe) and the whitethorn (the hawthorn) readily colonise abandoned arable land, pasture fields and pockets of waste ground. In addition, both these species have been planted as hedgerow trees as they form a quick-growing and effective barrier. The elder, too, grows readily wherever there is a high...

    • 11 Other Trees Noted in Charters and Early Place-Names
      (pp. 245-274)

      Fruit trees frequently appear as boundary landmarks in pre-Conquest charters, although it is not always the improved varieties that may be being referred to. Apples and pears are frequently referred to in charter boundary clauses as well as in early place-names but references to the cherry are much rarer and this can, of course, be to the wild variety. Even rarer is a reference which may be to theMespilus germanica, the medlar, in the name of Kirby Misperton:Mispeton1086, Yorkshire North Riding. It may be significant that at least part of this estate was Church land, as the...

    • 12 Trees not Readily Apparent in the Early Medieval Written Record
      (pp. 275-282)

      There are no references to pine, fir trees or other conifers in pre-Conquest charters. Certainly this tree appears in Old English literature but not in an English context: it was a pine-tree that St Martin encountered close to a temple ‘protected and accounted very holy in heathen wise’.¹ The Scots Pine,Pinus sylvestris, re-entered Britain after the last Ice age but retreated to Scotland and some mountains of Ireland in the Atlantic period (6200–3800 BC), with only localised stands elsewhere, mainly in the Lake District and the Fens. Both pine and yew colonised raised peat bogs in these areas...

    (pp. 283-284)

    The trees of early medieval England offer us glimpses of a lost landscape. But our familiarity with their modern counterparts allows us to reconstruct these landscapes in our mind’s eye. We can understand our ancestors’ interest in trees as a valuable resource and something of the awe imposed by a great wood, often remote from the world of their everyday existence. They, too, cannot have been immune to the beauty of individual trees. The different species then bore, for the most part, the same names by which we know them today and each species, had, or was believed to have,...

    (pp. 285-302)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 303-310)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 311-313)