Lisa Bitel

title.none: Higham, A Frontier Landscape (Lisa Bitel)

identifier.other: baj9928.0610.010 06.10.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Lisa Bitel, University of Southern California,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Higham, N.J. A Frontier Landscape: The North West in the Middle Ages. Series: Landscapes of Britain. Macclesfield, Cheshire: Windgather Press, 2004. Pp. xii, 273. $35.00 (pb) 0-9545575-6-5. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.10.10

Higham, N.J. A Frontier Landscape: The North West in the Middle Ages. Series: Landscapes of Britain. Macclesfield, Cheshire: Windgather Press, 2004. Pp. xii, 273. $35.00 (pb) 0-9545575-6-5. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Lisa Bitel
University of Southern California

If you pick up this volume expecting one of N. J. Higham's more controversial and broadly reinterpretative works, you are doomed to disappointment. The publisher, Windgather Press, produces very pretty volumes of landscape history and archaeology, including the press's latest offerings, Hedgerow History and The Black Poplar. Higham's compact survey of the medieval landscapes of Lancashire and Cheshire between about 1000 and 1500 is a typical item on their list. Higham has written for an audience more interested in the region than the existing scholarship, yet his study is informative and accessible to those who live miles away from the rivers Dee and Lune.

England's North West has always been a fairly soggy region and, until industrialization, it was also underpopulated and economically underdeveloped. Archaeologists have tended to compare it unfavorably with the arable plains, villages, and markets of central and southeastern England. Recently, though, scholars have re-evaluated the diversity of the island's landscape in regional studies such as this one. Higham resists the geographical Othering of the North West and instead focuses his book on a historical problem: Why did Cheshire and Lancashire not suffer the demographic and agrarian crises that devastated the more prosperous parts of fourteenth-century England? Indeed, the North West seemed to flourish when other regions had hit their demographic limits. He concludes that a unique combination of environment, settlement patterns, and frontier politics led to much later clearance and urbanization in the North West, where reserves of under-utilized lands fueled population growth and expansion a generation or two after much of the island. In other words, the very backwardness of the North West helped its inhabitants survive the climatic catastrophes and pandemics of the fourteenth century.

Each chapter of the book moves chronologically through one particular aspect of the medieval landscape. After basic geography and early settlement history, Higham describes environment, population, and agricultural practices during the eleventh through sixteenth centuries. Chapters follow on woodland/forest/pasture, farm/house/castle, and borough/markets/fairs. Churches and monasteries merit a brief chapter too. The book finishes with a postscript summing up Higham's argument and offering some hints of its greater meaning for historians and other readers. For evidence, Higham relied on a combination of local legal documents (mostly tax records, court proceedings, charters, and the like), later maps and placenames, and excavation reports, not to mention his own considerable body of published work on the region. He uses individual cases and sites to counter other archaeologists' assumptions about English medieval landscapes and thus illustrate northwestern variants. However, he carefully, almost tiresomely qualifies every generalization and consistently complains of scanty proof.

Despite his vow to avoid assumptions about the English landscape, Higham begins with the issue of villages and open fields. Like other landscape historians, he tracks changes in placenames and considers the continuity of site use from Roman times. These discussions are occasionally quite interesting as when, for example, Higham links Celtic boundary names with the most ancient property divisions of Cheshire. However, Higham can't avoid the usual source of evidence for medieval population and settlement, namely, Domesday Book. King William's assessors noted the thin and scattered population of Lancashire and Cheshire after 1066, along with irregular fields, a tenuous and not very profitable manorial system, and big old-fashioned parishes supporting multiple tiny churches. Manors varied in size, churches were generally poorly endowed, and markets almost non-existent, with the exception of the port at Chester.

Higham's main argument for regional diversity focuses on the period after Norman consolidation. In the twelfth century, the climate began to improve and local northwestern politics to settle down. England's kings had taken care of the Welsh and Scots borders, so landowners could concentrate on exploiting their estates by sending tenants off to reclaim the wastes. Legal squabbles over rights to assarting and documented complaints about squatters on manorial lands suggest the region's growing population. The lower aristocracy, largely neglected by their feudal betters, encouraged land reclamation and economic specialization, and also offered toll and tax breaks in order to create local markets. A complex system of forest cattle stations (vaccaries), among other inventive practices, enabled northwesterners to exploit vast reserves of formerly peripheral lands. But the real secret to their enduring success was poor northwestern soil, which led them to promote pasturage rather than farming. When grain prices crashed in the fourteenth century, landlords were still flush; and when the climate worsened after 1300, the local oat crop did not succumb to the damp as did wheat crops in the south. Peasants still had enough to eat.

Over the long haul of 1086 to 1500, much apparently remained the same in Cheshire and Lancashire. The only major town was Chester. A few royal urban foundations and a network of small seigneurial boroughs survived throughout the Middle Ages. Higham speculates that the urban population of the North West increased by at least 15-20% in this period, although guessing is a bit silly given that the population was previously almost exclusively rural. True, more people lived in villages during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries than before, more village were created, and many others grew, so that the region may have had fifty or more urban centers--whatever those may have been--by the Black Death. By and large, folks in these towns practiced the usual assortment of crafts, exported cheap bulk goods to the south of England, and sent some English manufactures across the Irish Sea.

But the region was never wealthy enough to support important monastic foundations or fancy cathedrals. Not even the Cistercians could maintain viable communities. Only one monastery in the area, Norton Priory, has been well excavated, and it is nothing remarkable. Local gentry preferred to support parish churches where their kin were buried. Major castles were few, defensive moated manor houses more plentiful. Not many people could afford stone structures, so timber remained the building material of choice. Despite the increase in markets and villages, plenty of families continued to occupy isolated homesteads or little clusters of four or five farms-what archaeologists used to think of as a Celtic pattern of settlement that now seems more and more English. The sixteenth-century landscape remained almost as varied as the medieval.

Higham concludes with three generalizations. First, northwestern landscapes experienced greater changes during the medieval period than any other time between the last ice age and industrialization. Mais, vive la similarité: even the cautious Higham might write that about all of England. Second, he concludes that "within a national context" the medieval North West "was a marginal land in pretty well every meaning of the term, be it geographic, demographic, economic, or environmental. This was a true frontier landscape." These days, though, for a scholar to wield the term "frontier" is to suggest a kind of in-depth political and cultural discussion lacking in this modest volume. Ultimately Higham's most important lesson for readers is implicit. Sometimes--for instance, when poor land keeps people from using up all their resources and thus allows them to escape a Malthusian crisis--provincialism and underdevelopment turn out to be a Good Thing for historic landscapes, their once-living inhabitants, and their modern observers.