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Environment, Society and Landscape in Early Medieval England

Environment, Society and Landscape in Early Medieval England: Time and Topography

Tom Williamson
Volume: 19
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Environment, Society and Landscape in Early Medieval England
    Book Description:

    The Anglo-Saxon period was crucial in the development of England's character: its language, and much of its landscape and culture, were forged in the period between the fifth and the eleventh centuries. Historians and archaeologists have long been fascinated by its regional variations, by the way in which different parts of the country displayed marked differences in social structures, settlement patterns, and field systems. In this controversial and wide-ranging study, the author argues that such differences were largely a consequence of environmental factors: of the influence of climate, soils and hydrology, and of the patterns of contact and communication engendered by natural topography. He also suggests that such environmental influences have been neglected over recent decades by generations of scholars who are embedded in an urban culture and largely divorced from the natural world; and that an appreciation of the fundamental role of physical geography in shaping human affairs can throw much new light on a number of important debates about early medieval society. The book will be essential reading for all those interested in the character of the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian settlements, in early medieval social and territorial organization, and in the origins of the England's medieval landscapes. Tom Williamson is Professor of Landscape History, University of East Anglia; he has written widely on landscape archaeology, agricultural history, and the history of landscape design.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-053-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-vii)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. viii-viii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-5)

    This book is about early-medieval settlement in England, and in particular lowland England. It does not purport to be a comprehensive account of this complex and fascinating subject, concentrating instead on a limited number of themes. It examines such matters as why eastern England in the early Middle Ages was distinguished by complex manorial structures and large numbers of free tenants; why the Midland areas of England came to be characterised by landscapes of large villages, and complex and extensive open fields; and why patterns of Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian influence and settlement took the particular spatial forms that they did....

  6. 1 Settlement and Society
    (pp. 6-35)

    Historians, archaeologists and others have suggested a number of key social, economic and technological developments which may have had a determining influence on the emergence of regional variations in the English landscape, and English society, during the early Middle Ages – in the period, roughly, between the fifth and the twelfth centuries. Invasions of people from the Continent, in the fifth and sixth centuries and again in the ninth, may have introduced new customs, social institutions and forms of territorial organisation to particular parts of the country, leading (for example) to different kinds of manorial organisation, or inheritance practices, in...

  7. 2 Nature’s Frame
    (pp. 36-60)

    The basic geology and physical geography of England, let alone of Britain, displays an extreme complexity which is born not only of the varied ways in which rocks were first formed, but also of the various subsequent processes of uplift, distortion and erosion, which operated across almost unimaginably long periods of time. But we may begin by making the old-fashioned but nevertheless useful distinction between the Highland Zone and the Lowland, traditionally if crudely separated by a line drawn from the mouth of the River Exe in Devon to that of the Tees in Northumberland. The areas to the north...

  8. 3 Culture, Ethnicity and Topography
    (pp. 61-81)

    The term ‘settlement’ has a useful ambiguity in early-medieval studies, being used not only as a term for the location and morphology of villages, hamlets and farms, the subjects of subsequent chapters, but also to describe the immigration of new peoples – the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes – into England. Major debates surround the character and scale of both of these settlements, as noted in Chapter 1, but as yet little attempt has been made to examine either within a geographical or environmental context. This, in essence, is the purpose of the present chapter.

    As discussed briefly in Chapter 1,...

  9. 4 Small Shires, Deep Roots
    (pp. 82-106)

    In earlier chapters two models for the development of early settlement and territorial organisation in England were introduced and discussed: Glanville Jones’s idea of the multiple estate, and the concept of river and wold, formulated by Alan Everitt and elaborated in a variety of ways by Harold Fox and Charles Phythian Adams.¹ Although the two models were largely developed in isolation from each other, and approached early settlement and land use from rather different perspectives, it is clear that there is a measure of congruence between them, both dealing as they do with forms of territorial organisation significantly larger than...

  10. 5 The Gradient of Freedom
    (pp. 107-124)

    The previous two chapters argued that natural topography, in the sense of the configuration of landforms, was an important influence on the development of cultural identities and of economic territories in early England. But topography, and in particular the contrast in relief between the east and the west of the country, also had an effect on climate, and was thus the main influence on national variations in late Saxon population densities, as discussed in Chapter 2. The principal argument of this chapter is that climatic variations were, in addition, a major determinant of the long-term social development of different regions...

  11. 6 Two Countrysides?
    (pp. 125-146)

    Interesting though spatial differences in Saxon social and tenurial organisation may be to some researchers, most landscape historians and archaeologists have concentrated their attention on other aspects of regional variation in early-medieval England, and in particular on the ways in which patterns of settlement, and the character of field systems, developed in radically different ways in different parts of the country. By the thirteenth century the central areas of England were characterised by what many describe as ‘champion’ countryside. They possessed a settlement pattern of nucleated villages whose inhabitants practised highly communal forms of agriculture. The holdings of individual farmers...

  12. 7 Village, Farm and Field
    (pp. 147-183)

    Many explanations for the divergence of ‘woodland’ and champion landscapes begin from the assumption that the latter represent the core areas of early settlement, denuded of woods and pastures and densely populated by later Saxon times, while the former were characterised by lower population densities, and by extensive tracts of woodland and grazing. These features ensured that ‘woodland’ districts did not experience the kind of resource crisis envisaged by Thirsk, and the consequent reorganisation of settlement into nucleated villages and of the arable land into extensive, regular open fields. The settlement patterns of such districts remained dispersed, and became more...

  13. 8 Landscape and Settlement
    (pp. 184-206)

    It has become fashionable amongst some researchers to emphasise the role of human agency in the formation of landscapes.¹ Forms of field and settlement were not determined by the environment, natural or social, but were instead the consequence of choices made by social actors. Accepting for a moment the usefulness of such an approach, we might begin this stage of our enquiry by asking what kinds of factors may have influenced the decisions made by early-medieval people, whether peasants or members of a social elite, concerning where they should live; and in particular over whether manors, farms and cottages should...

  14. 9 Woodland and Pasture
    (pp. 207-233)

    Some readers may be sceptical about the arguments set out over the previous chapters not so much because of the evidence there presented relating to fields and farms, but rather because of the character of certain other aspects of England’s medieval landscapes. In particular, we are accustomed to hearing how ‘woodland’ areas must have been colonised later than champion ones, and must always have lagged behind them in terms of agrarian development, because they were characterised by extensive tracts of common grazing and woodland. Indeed, these are still sometimes treated by historians as little more than environments awaiting transformation into...

  15. Conclusion: Time and Topography
    (pp. 234-246)

    Throughout the course of this book I have argued that patterns of regional variation in early-medieval England were largely a function of environmental factors: of climate, topography, geology and soils. Although this is an unfashionable suggestion, the hidden hand of nature does appear to be implicated in many of the distributions studied by landscape historians, historical geographers, archaeologists and others; and by examining particular social and cultural patterns within their environmental contexts we can often, as I have suggested, contribute significantly to an understanding of their true significance.

    I have thus argued that spatial variations in the character of the...

  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 247-262)
  17. Index
    (pp. 263-270)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 271-273)