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08.10.23, Jones and Page, Medieval Villages

08.10.23, Jones and Page, Medieval Villages

Archaeology and history have not always had an easy relationship. At one time archaeology was unquestionably the "handmaiden" of history, a source of pretty objects and treasure to illustrate solid analyses of documents. However, with the development of scientific methods and the espousal of theoretical constructs to frame them, archaeologists became increasingly reluctant to accept the condescension of historians. The modern practitioner is now aware that documents are artefacts that have to be interpreted like any other, but is as likely to eschew them as biasing an otherwise "scientific" analysis as meet their challenge. Archaeologists and historians still often maintain a wary stand-off across a categorical divide. It is refreshing, then, to come across a study in which archaeologist and historian have set out as equal partners. The result is intriguing.

Medieval Villages in an English Landscape is a study of twelve parishes in Whittlewood Forest on the boundary between Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire in the Midlands of England. It is a local study and yet its avowed aim is not to weave arabesques around a village pump, but to test received models of medieval village and open field formation. The contrast between the "champion" landscape of the central zone of England with its nucleated settlements and open field systems with the dispersed settlement patterns of the east and west has long been recognized. How each came about has remained problematic. Ethnic explanations in terms of the settlement of different Germanic tribes in the migration period are no longer tenable and it is now recognized that the one developed from the other in the central zone later in the Anglo-Saxon period. The most commonly supposed mechanism is the transfer of inhabitants from out-lying farmsteads and hamlets to a central nucleus in the ninth century and four main impetuses to the process have been identified, namely intensification of lordship, population growth, environmental determinants, and culture.

Richard Jones and Mark Page not so much challenge these models as supplement them with another. The first three chapters of their book introduces Whittlewood and its early history. The area was selected for study on two main grounds. On the one hand, it exhibits both dispersed and nucleated settlement patterns and, on the other, there had never been any overarching administration of the area apart from its inclusion in the forest. Chapter Four, "Authoritative Landscapes," sets the scene for changes in settlement, positing a continuity of authority associated with an Iron Age hill fort at Whittlebury into the medieval period through the medium of multiple estates and describing the intensification of lordship which accompanied the break up of the same in the late Saxon period. Chapter Five, "The Origins of the Village," lies at the heart of the book. It argues that there is no evidence for inward movement of populations to central nuclei around 850, as observed elsewhere, but sees a subsequent growth of existing nuclei into the patterns that exist in the documented period. The pattern of settlement, whether nucleated, dispersed, or a mixture, at the earlier period conditioned what came later. It was, then, evolution rather than revolution that characterizes the development of settlement in the area.

Chapter Six examines the impact of the forest on the settlements, arguing that it was a constraint on economic activity in restricting assarting rather than a determinant of settlement forms. Chapter Seven describes the mixed farming regime of the area and Chapter Eight village morphologies. It is interesting that there is no evidence for re-planning of settlements in the late Anglo-Saxon period, as postulated elsewhere, but there is the usual articulation of space to reinforce hierarchies of power. Chapter Nine charts the contraction of settlement which largely mirrors its growth. Finally, the last chapter attempts an overview of the implications of the study. What emerges is the contingency of causes for the developments described. Apart from what went before, it is difficult to generalize as to factors. It was the decisions of different individuals in different place faced with different circumstances that make to the landscape of Whittlewood.

Generalizations are unwarranted, but what does seem clear is that Whittlewood did not experience the pressures for nucleation or bust that applied elsewhere. The constraint on assarting and the preservation of mixed farming discouraged the specialist production of grain; it was probably the kings control of the forest that prevented Whittlewood from turning into champion country. The authors speculate that the same processes may have been widespread. The existing models of village formation have all been based on the study of high status sites like Raunds in Northamptonshire. In more "normal" contexts there may have been less incentives to nucleate at such an early period. Alternatively, Whittlewood may have just been distinctive precisely because it was marginal.

As befits a general, discursive account, all of this is recounted in a lucid, often at times pacey, way. The book is a damned good read! Given the nature of the evidence, it is inevitable that the account of the development of settlement is archaeology-driven and the study brings to bear some innovative archaeological techniques to the problem in hand. The derivation of manuring patterns from pottery scatters recovered from field walking is a case in point. It is often illuminating--all bullshit it is not--although the present writer was not convinced that the absence of pottery of 850-1100 was good evidence for the introduction of open-field cultivation. Problematic too is test-pitting to recover evidence from built-up areas. Given the intensity of land use in settlements, the finds are not always comparable with those recovered from field-walking. So, does the small number of pottery sherds of Middle Saxon type really indicate that the pre-village nuclei had not begun to nucleate at this time?

Documents come into their own in the description of the economy and society of the area, although historical models provide the background for the earlier analysis. Some of the Whittlewood settlements were linked to important estate centres outside the area, but this is not a sufficient reason to assume that the multiple estate and closely related minster hypotheses are appropriate here. Whittlewood was above all a marginal society and one would not expect that such structures were of immediate importance. Nor might one expect assertive lordship at an early period. The authors recognize our somewhat ambivalent view of the forest: on the one hand we have the notion of the kings private hunting reserve jealously guarded and, on the other, the free world of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Jones and Page come down perhaps too firmly on the side of the king. Elsewhere, as in the fens of Eastern England (also partly afforested after the Conquest), the king might claim extensive authority but the reality was a world of free communities of sokemen who do not appear in Domesday Book. Was Whittlewood a similar marginal society?

There are many points at which one might quibble in this way. But it is in exactly this that the strength of Medieval Villages in an English Landscape lies. It is a thoughtful and nuanced account of settlement that stimulates just such thoughts. And it is the more convincing for being a multi-disciplinary effort: the whole is certainly greater than the sum of its parts. The book is an important addition to the literature on medieval settlement which can be read by the specialist and non-specialist alike.