contributor.author: Richard Hoffmann

title.none: Williamson, Shaping Medieval Landscapes (Richard Hoffmann)

identifier.other: baj9928.0402.013 04.02.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Richard Hoffmann, York University, medfish@yorku.ca

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Williamson, Tom. Shaping Medieval Landscapes: Settlement, Society, Environment. Bollington, UK: Windgather Press, 2003. Pp. x, 214. ISBN: $30.00 0-9538630-6-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.02.13

Williamson, Tom. Shaping Medieval Landscapes: Settlement, Society, Environment. Bollington, UK: Windgather Press, 2003. Pp. x, 214. ISBN: $30.00 0-9538630-6-9.

Reviewed by:

Richard Hoffmann
York University
medfish@yorku.ca

Landscape archaeologist and historian Tom Williamson has to his credit nearly twenty years of publications on the development of rural England. His slim but weighty Shaping Medieval Landscapes engages a large, important, but arcane topic in medieval agrarian history and present day landscape studies: Williamson wants to explain historical origins and variants of the two classically contrasting English rural landscapes: the visibly planned countryside, called "champion," with large villages and once collectively-managed open fields; and the less nucleated, less communal, more organic, "ancient countryside" (also called "woodland"). The topic, conventionally discussed under rubrics of the "common fields" or "open fields," has a huge scholarly literature, which Williamson carefully reviews in his first chapter. Rejecting mythic continuity "since time immemorial" or traditional academic ethnic, economic, or cultural explanations, Williamson proposes that distinctive landscape patterns evolved in medieval England when environmental and agrarian (technological) variables interacted with social change at the local and regional level. This hypothesis he then elucidates in a regional study area, which covers east-central England, extending from the east Midlands near Leicester and the Chiltern Hills eastward across the fen country to encompass all East Anglia. The historic counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Huntingdonshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Rutland, and much of Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, and Middlesex contained some of the most thickly and the most thinly settled terrain of medieval England, with great variety of soils and physical relief. While Williamson does collect some new data, he mainly undertakes meta-analysis of research published by generations of historians, geographers, archaeologists, and local or county antiquarians. His synthetic interpretation is richly illustrated with graphic, cartographic, and photographic as well as verbal evidence.

Williamson elaborates his closely reasoned, sometimes almost microscopic, arguments in six thematic chapters. The "champion" landscape first emerged across the west and north of the study area during the mid-late Saxon period (8th-11th centuries) under general conditions of population pressure and strong influence by lords on resource management, but well before the Normans forcibly changed England's property and tenurial regime. Yet it correlated at the local level with neither population density nor lordship. "Champion" strongly emphasized arable over pasture or woodland resources and production, to the point it must be recognized as a degraded (i.e., strongly anthropogenic) ecosystem of low diversity. Its counterpart, the "ancient countryside" further east, however, never lacked arable and could provide high yields of field crops. The open fields of "champion" country appeared where settlements were largely nucleated but, argues Williamson, the two phenomena were not simultaneous. Indeed variants of "champion" evolved differently on heavy and impermeable Midland clays than they did on certain light soils in East Anglia. In the former area dispersed agriculturalists began to concentrate into villages during the middle Saxon period (8th-9th centuries) but people in the latter area drew together around local water sources only later and less uniformly.

Chapter 4 begins by identifying "woodland" or "ancient countryside" as typical of a zone south and east of "champion," where several such landscapes occur on clays but also on lighter coastal soils. Diversity was here an almost defining feature, with many uncultivated commons, some open fields, and settlement aligned along edges of the commons. Yet up to the middle Saxon period a slow stabilization and concentration of settlement had little departed from trends in the Midlands. There followed a social transformation, dubbed by some scholars the "middle Saxon shift," toward a more hierarchical society associated with individual land holdings and a simultaneous technological revolution, widespread adoption of the technical complex centered on the heavy moldboard plow. (Williamson correctly stresses that elements of this technology had been well known on clay soils in Roman Britain, but neither the tool nor such soils had evidently been much used in early Saxon times.) Under conditions of population growth and stabilizing property relations prevalent in eighth to eleventh century England, then, different natural environments, most notably distinctive soil characteristics, differently modulated consequences of the new technology.

Williamson argues in chapter 5 the necessity of understanding soil chemistry and morphology in terms of medieval technical requirements and capabilities. Prone to leaching of nutrients, the light and permeable chalk and acidic soils predominant in "ancient countryside" districts, called for different management, especially of manure. Where the principal livestock were draft cattle, fed from rough or wood pasture, their special needs for water determined settlement sites. On the other hand, nighttime folding of sheep on soils, which needed their droppings to sustain regular cropping encouraged, even in "ancient countryside," common flocks and common arable. In contrast, the next chapter continues, on heavy and impervious Midland clays neither water points and nor fertility posed much problem, but seasonal waterlogging and "puddling" that restricted time-critical access by plow teams motivated nucleation, co-aration, and intermixed parcels. Williamson acknowledges that this evolution predated the extant documentary record for these stereotypical practices.

Chapter 7 then turns to effects of differing fodder resources, presenting wood pasture and meadows mown for hay as two ends of a continuum. Meadows were intentional results of human effort, built up slowly in Saxon times and first in the damp valleys widespread on Midland clays. Seasonal labor demand for haying further promoted nucleation. But then the presence of meadows reduced the value of rough pasture (and vice versa), so meadow- rich regions like the Midlands could convert more land to arable while those areas with more natural pasture used a greater diversity of resources. "Ancient countryside" thus remained a more variegated landscape.

Williamson concludes with reiteration of his hypothesis that essential differences between "woodland" and "champion," as well as the principal variants of each, are explained by human agricultural responses to the environmental challenges of soils and topography, all under the impact of social and technological changes experienced in England during and after the eighth century. Lords in "champion" areas developed demesne agriculture and those specific labor requirements compelled more nucleation, certain field systems, and rotations. All this synergy integrated social and landscape structures more tightly, reinforcing their resistance to incremental change. "Ancient countryside" knew no less lordship but being less regular, less communal, and less structured around arable demesnes it allowed more latitude for individual arrangements between cultivators and their superiors and its structures showed more long-term resilience, the capacity to adjust and adapt to further changes. Finally in his last few pages Williamson looks up from his study area to a wider view of parallels elsewhere in England and there, too, sees regional landscapes and customs evolving reciprocally with little regard for ethnicity or settlement chronology. His closing message is strongly put: "the character of fields and settlement patterns cannot be understood in isolation from the practice of farming, and that farming can only be understood in the context of the environment. The fact that any other approach is acceptable to historians merely highlights the extent to which modern urban, industrial society has become dangerously divorced from the realities of food production and the natural world" (199).

Williamson thus serves up strong and important medicine, cutting through and across generations of English scholarship and treating structures fundamental to medieval agrarian life, medieval landscapes, and long-term economic and ecological consequences into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He unabashedly admits that his models go beyond the known evidence and rest firmly on environmental variables. His argument might to some extent be taken as a direct challenge to Bruce Campbell and his collaborators, who dismiss environment -- and explicitly soil types -- in favor of market forces as drivers of agricultural change in medieval southeastern England. Williamson reads landscapes and constructs maps; Campbell reads manorial accounts and constructs statistics. Are their findings commensurable? Or ought scholars now consider a two- phase development from early environmental to later economic causation of changes in medieval rural society and its productive activities? Recent research on commercialization in high medieval England might indicate the transition.

Even most agrarian and environmental historians must leave to local specialists in especially the soils and settlement histories of eastern England one major and precise test of Williamson's theory. Their response on those criteria is critical: does Williamson's complex argument really fit the known local chronology and evidence on the ground? From a larger perspective, Williamson's understandings of the history, technology, and ecological implications of the heavy plow and domestic livestock do coincide well with recent research and thinking on these topics which have outdated much even postwar writing. The thesis is highly plausible. Shaping Medieval Landscapes is thus in all respects an impressive synthesis of interdisciplinary work deserving serious consideration by medievalists of all sorts, whose awareness of basic realities of medieval life often needs reawakening.

And yet, it is disturbing to find microscopic differences in English soils presented as the fundamental explanation for two of Europe's, not just England's, great historic landscape forms. Even before the Orwins published The Open Fields in 1938, Marc Bloch had offered in 1929 lectures at Oslo and his resulting Les caracteres originaux de l'histoire rurale francaise (1931) a division of French agrarian regimes between open (regular and irregular) and enclosed, each with technological and social features recognizably akin to the English. At the time Frederick Seebohm's The English Village Community (1890) and Howard Gray's English Field Systems (1915) were shaping English discourse, August Meitzen's 3 volume Siedlungen und Agrarwesen der Westgermanen und Ostgermanen, der Kelten, Roemer, Finnen und Slawen (1896) [with ideas going back to his 1863 Urkunden schlesischer Doerfer. Zur Geschichte der laendlichen Verhaeltisse und der Flureinteilung ins besondere] was framing the same issues across continental Europe. Of course none would now think any of these works more than obsolete historiographic specimens nor deny England's remarkable wealth in surviving records of medieval village life and agricultural conditions, but a central fact of medieval history remains the strong generic similarity of agrarian regimes and rural landscapes across much of medieval western Christendom north of the Alps. Numerous scholars in several disciplines continue to discuss these issues all across the European mainland. And still the idea that his objects of study may well be regional manifestations of phenomena at much larger scale never once visibly jogged Williamson's pen or keyboard. "Fog in Channel, continent isolated."

We have no right to ask a regional specialist actively to study historical particulars of districts and cultures far removed from his own, but we can ask an author to be aware of the scope of his questions and both to recognize and to advance his theories as the case studies they rightly are. In fact, the evidently robust explanatory power of Williamson's intersecting soil, tillage, pastoral, and social variables needs desperately to be made available for use and testing by agrarian and landscape historians, archaeologists, and geographers all around the medieval west.