The Medieval Review 11.11.01

Higham, Nicholas J. and Martin J. Ryan. Place-Names, Language and the Anglo-Saxon Landscape. Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies, Volume 10. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2011. Pp. 245. $99. ISBN 978-1-84383-603-2. . .

Reviewed by:

John Baker
Institute for Name-Studies, University of Nottingham

This volume, boasting an impressive list of contributors, is one of two books of collected essays arising directly from a conference held at the University of Manchester at Easter 2007. Martin Ryan's introduction provides a brief history of place-name studies, and this is followed by six chapters dealing predominantly with place-names, and five that deal to varying degrees and in different ways with Anglo-Saxon charters and law-codes. Ryan's is a useful and well-written introductory chapter, even if his assertion (10-11, 19) that place-names of Old Scandinavian origin have been relatively neglected is moot. In the second chapter, Alexander Rumble assesses the increased onomastic engagement of landscape historians, outlines some of the difficulties confronting those hoping to undertake place-name research, and suggests new ways in which place-name data might be categorized.

The following chapters employ a number of different methodological approaches to the use of place-names in the study of the landscape. Ann Cole sets out some of the findings of her research on the Anglo-Saxon traveller, arguing that many place-names served as instructive signposts for those using the transport network. Cole's work has been of great value to landscape research over many years; here again her detailed scrutiny of the landscape allows her to discern differences in the types of track described as weg, pæþ or stīg (52-55), while her application of geographical expertise combined with an evaluation of the relationship of place-names to road networks, helps to make advances in our understanding of a number of place-name compounds, such as those containing OE dræg "place where things are dragged" and a habitative second element such as tūn "a farm, a settlement" or cot "a hut, a shelter" (56-57). In the following chapter, Gillian Fellows-Jensen highlights some of the topographical descriptive terms found in Scandinavian place-names in England, pointing to parallels in other regions where the Scandinavian language was spoken, and discussing their implications for our understanding of the medieval landscape. For instance, the specifics of -bý names often describe the landscape that characterized a settlement (e.g. proximity to a lake, location in a valley), the agricultural or economic activities undertaken in its vicinity (e.g. deer husbandry), or the presence of particular resources (e.g. woodland) (72-76). Simon Draper's contribution summarizes some of his earlier work on place-names and archaeology in Wiltshire, and argues strongly that greater cooperation between archaeologists and toponymists can help to inform both disciplines. Linda Corrigan and Richard Watson provide case studies on Scandinavian settlement and place-names in north-west England, and Watson's discussion of the microtoponymy of Amounderness Hundred in Lancashire and its implications for the reconstruction of medieval wetland landscapes (131-33) is particularly enlightening.

The next three chapters concentrate on the evidence of Anglo-Saxon charters, providing three different approaches. Della Hooke deals with the Anglo-Saxon woodland economy and landscape, looking in detail at Kent and the west midlands, and demonstrating on a wider level how charters can be used as a source of information on the medieval exploitation of the landscape. Duncan Probert takes a more localized focus, examining the pre-Conquest charters of Crediton minster (Devon), alongside post-Conquest material relating to its relationships with neighbouring churches. This approach allows him to examine the significance and function of the land-unit described in early boundary clauses. Peter Stokes uses a comparative study of the original of the only Anglo-Saxon charter of Pershore Abbey (Worcestershire) with the evidence furnished by a sometimes neglected later copy. In this way, he is able to reconstruct and suggest corrections to sections of the boundary clause, demonstrating also how the wealth of material gathered by the LangScape database can help us to evaluate the merits of proposed reconstructions of boundary points. Both Probert and Stokes show clearly how close scrutiny of charters and their bounds can allow detailed understanding of earlier land units and landscapes.

The final two chapters move away from place-names and charters, touching instead on Anglo-Saxon legal administration and organization. Ryan reassesses the origins and significance of the hide, suggesting that its appearance might be tied in with the major social restructuring of the middle Anglo-Saxon period implied by changes in the archaeological record; and Dorn van Dommelen takes a geographer's look at King Alfred's military reforms, emphasizing the ground-breaking significance of the burhs as newly created legal collectives. This approach is very welcome, but it is not clear why fuller reference to the considerable secondary literature on early medieval defensive organization and Alfredian military reforms has been omitted. The editors might have exercised greater influence on this point, and on the matter of terminology. Van Dommelen's use of terms such as burh and borough raises difficulties that need to be addressed, and the paper might have benefited from a longer discussion of these terminological problems.

There is no doubting the generally high level of scholarly research behind the contributions, but the book as a whole appears to have a slight imbalance. For instance, both Ryan's and Rumble's chapters are surveys of past scholarship and of the changing relationship of the disciplines of place-name study and landscape history; as such, they read like separate introductions to the rest of the volume. A better balance might have been achieved had Rumble been asked to expand his chapter, and had Ryan written a concluding discussion rather than an introductory one. Moreover, the almost complete focus on place-names in Ryan's first contribution would make sense in a volume devoted entirely to that field of study, which is not quite the case with this publication. There is a risk that the final two chapters, in particular, will seem out of place in this book, as if simply tacked on at the end as an afterthought. Indeed, it is perhaps to be regretted that the decision was taken to publish two separate volumes from the 2007 conference, or at least to divide the material in this way. If the essays in the first of the volumes are linked by their landscape archaeological approach, those in the present publication, as Ryan observes (21), are not necessarily linked in methodology or subject matter. [1] They are left, therefore, with a disjointed feel of being somehow the remnants, when in fact some of the papers would have fitted very nicely within a more fully multidisciplinary volume. It seems sad, and curiously contrary to the collaborative desire sensibly expressed by Draper, and to the multidisciplinary approach adopted by several contributors to the volume, that the papers from the 2007 conference should have been separated in such a way.

The volume will be of interest to landscape historians, providing as it does an insight into a range of careful methodological approaches that use place-names and charters to examine aspects of the Anglo-Saxon landscape; but the issues outlined above make it difficult to define the book's true purpose. Ryan's assertion that it comes "at a particularly significant moment in the study of place-names in England" (18), suggests an intention to set an agenda for future work, but he seems to link this moment to perceptual changes and research trends that were set in motion in the last decades of the twentieth century. A number of the chapters present new research and are therefore very welcome, while others are certainly forward-looking, but readers will find that they are familiar with the discussion in some of the papers, several of the authors drawing on their own earlier research and summarizing arguments they have made elsewhere. The work set out in this way is no less important, and the papers will be a great aid to those confronting the subject for the first time, as a kind of textbook on the uses and potential of place-names and charters in the study of past landscapes. On the other hand, many of the methodologies employed here are not especially new and some are very well established. There is much to be commended in the individual contributions, some of which are exemplary in the care with which they make use of their sources. For some readers the volume as a whole may fail to live up to expectations, and will perhaps seem to be less than the sum of its parts, but it contains some excellent material that many will find very rewarding, and it will surely encourage further use of onomastic and documentary sources in the exploration of landscape history.



1. Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan, eds. The Landscape Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge, 2010).