Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
13.06.06, Barnwell and Roberts, eds., Britons, Saxons, and Scandinavins

13.06.06, Barnwell and Roberts, eds., Britons, Saxons, and Scandinavins

"Among the units of territorial organization recorded for medieval Wales were groups of townships which, for the sake of convenience, may be described as multiple estates." So begins a 1971 paper by Glanville R. J. Jones [GRJJ] on his notion, often contentiously received, of the small, culturally defined, nodal region known as a "multiple estate." This is the earliest of GRJJ's papers to be included in a new volume, edited by P. S. Barnwell and Brian K. Roberts, which attempts to trace the trajectory of his work. More precisely, this volume offers a selection of the collected papers of the late professor exploring early medieval estate structures and the evolution of rural settlements in England. The editors demonstrate that his interests were wide while presenting his distinguished contribution to the development of historical geography--concentrated mainly, though not exclusively, on his native Wales.

An appreciation essay by J. B. Smith acts as the first of two introductions to GRJJ's life and scholarship. The second introduction by the editors offers a brief assessment of GRJJ's legacy and scholarly contribution. Together, these comprise the first part of the book, providing an overview of his multiple estate model and an assessment of its continued relevance in the twenty-first century. The editors, in their introduction, pose a sort of overarching question: Namely, what is the role of the normative model GRJJ created from Welsh sources in understanding early settlement characteristics and tendencies in the context of Britain? They suggest to the reader, about to wade through high points from his impressive body of work, that physical structures and land usages are but the elements of the multiple estate; in practice, these were often assembled and reassembled at different times by different people in different political circumstances to create varied political geographies. GRJJ's essays then help to clarify his understanding of the multiple estate as a concept that is neither scale- nor time-bound. The second part of the book presents the selection of his published papers. These are intended as a representative sample of his broad body of scholarship, collected in a single place to allow a new generation of scholars to assess his accomplishments. The main themes treat early medieval estate structures in Great Britain, their links with rural settlement evolution, and the pragmatic, tenurial, and fiscal arrangements which bound individual rural settlements into broader spatial structures.

One of the insights to emerge from this volume of GRJJ's scholarship is the defensive spirit that pervades his treatment of the former occupants of his native land. At the end of his essay "The Distribution of Bond Settlements in North-West Wales" (1964), GRJJ asserts: "To minimize the role of bondmen in early Welsh Society is alike inhumane and mistaken." His sympathy for what Alf Lüdtke and other members of the Alltagsgeschichte School have come to call the "small folk" doubtlessly stemmed from his strong sense of Welsh identity. Born in 1923 in Llangyfelach, Glamorgan, where his family had lived for generations, GRJJ went on to read geography at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. Here he was drawn to the study of medieval rural settlement in Wales under T. Jones Pierce, who supervised his postgraduate study of the defensive measures adopted by the thirteenth-century princes of Gwynedd in their conflicts with the English crown. A meticulous scholar, fluent in the Welsh language, with an intimate knowledge of the Welsh landscape, GRJJ continued his research into medieval Welsh economic organization at Leeds University, where he spent the whole of his career until retiring in 1989. His scholarship is marked by painstaking study of documentary sources, particularly legal material. From his studies emerged a fresh elucidation of the field systems and settlement patterns arising out of Welsh methods of land exploitation and inheritance.

The comprehensiveness of the editors' approach to GRJJ's work allows them to synthesize the larger body of his ideas as a system and, from this, to reveal underlying questions engagement with his ideas can allow. Their introduction also manages to contextualize his work against other twentieth century scholars who shaped his thinking in certain key regards. Primary among them is his academic advisor, Pierce, whose papers were prepared in a 1972 edition by J. Beverley Smith, Medieval Welsh Society: Selected Essays by T. Jones Pierce (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1972). Second to Pierce is William Rees, whose most significant works include South Wales and the March, 1284-1415 (1924); and An Historical Atlas of Wales from Early to Modern Times (1951).

The editors' introduction also summarizes some of the most pointed of the criticisms to GRJJ's multiple estate model. Diverse specialists from a variety of fields, from geographers to landscape historians, have often been hostile to Jones' work in the past. They have tended to see his work as too Celtic, specifically too Welsh, to have widespread value. Often, and somewhat mistakenly, they have assumed that his goal, in analyzing mostly Welsh sources to determine a multiple estates model, was to establish the specifically Celtic, pre- Roman origins of the estates institution. To that end, the editors relate that GRJJ, in a letter to them in 1995, shortly before his death, wrote: "I have never regarded the shire/multiple estate as a Celtic form of estate organization." As he acknowledged at the end of the first paper included in the volume, it is "for the sake of convenience" that the multiple estate was so often treated as a Celtic institution in his work. In Britain, he argued, evidence for such estates is gleaned more readily from Celtic than from other sources. Yet such estates, he concluded, "are hardly likely to have been of exclusively Celtic origin, for they are found in widely separated parts of Europe."

Perhaps the most significant criticisms to GRJJ's multiple estate model are those of Wendy Davies and Nicky Gregson. Gregson, for example, has argued that "there is a tendency towards addiction to the multiple estate model in Jones's work," and that "the entire set up is self-confirming, a classic example of circular argument." [1] GRJJ's response to these detractions, as traced by Roberts and Barnwell, is essentially twofold. First, he conceded that models are indeed a simplified structuring of actuality, presenting apparently significant features in a generalized form. Second, he stressed that multiple estates are not inferred; rather, they were recorded in historical documents. The issue (which leads to confusion) is that pre-Conquest sources in the British Isles are open to interpretation. As such, questions of his work are often but questions of definition. This volume demonstrates that GRJJ's multiple estate model requires a careful assessment coupled with "some imagination" (quoted from the editors, p. 113) to understand its import. As GRJJ put it himself, "a distinction should perhaps be drawn between the multiple estate and its components. The former need not be as old established as the latter. This qualification notwithstanding, to arrive at an adequate understanding of the colonization of England it is essential to look beyond unitary settlements. Rather it is necessary to adopt as a model the multiple estate; for this provides the most meaningful of all frameworks for unraveling the complex interrelationships between society, economy, and habitat involved in the process of colonization."

A further merit of the volume is that it reveals the clarity and grace of GRJJ's prose--a quality the editors, in their introductory chapter, are not quite able to emulate, unfortunately (perhaps, it should be granted, due to the enormity of their task). There is also a tendency toward sloppiness in their citation--i.e., errors in certain important footnotes caused this reader to have to take to outside sources to determine exactly which author they were referring to in one case and what page they had meant to record but misstated in another. Of course, these are small issues in a large accomplishment, but they are impairments to appreciating their points nonetheless. More significant is that, after reading the essays and considering their organization, certain looming questions remain regarding their editorial principles. Why, for instance, is the eighth essay they include on the multiple estate and early settlement so far separated in their organization scheme from the first essay they include on the multiple estate model and the evolution of rural settlement? This editorial decision is opaque, especially as these essays were, in reality, published but five years apart. Their concerns are contiguous but the material situated between them from disparate decades obscures this.

Indeed, the chronology of the essays deserves a closer look. The editors offer a list of GRJJ's publications as well as a table of contents, but these are not next to one another in the volume and they do not cross-reference one another in an easy-to-understand fashion. The volume's table of contents is presented without dates; cross- referencing the dates with the publication list reveals the artificiality of their order. The first essay dates to 1971, the next two from the 1960s, the fourth from 1983, and so forth. Nor do the essays progress with as obvious a thematic coherence as the editors seem to believe. The brief explanation for their order offered in the editorial preface is a small help to the reader in deducing both why they were included and exactly what their present organization is meant to suggest about the trajectory of GRJJ's thought. Moreover, there are some conspicuous exclusions, most notably the 1961 essay, "Settlement Patterns in Anglo-Saxon England," in which GRJJ's notion of the multiple estate initially appears. Also curious is the exclusion of GRJJ's essay "Celts, Saxons and Scandinavians" of 1978. The editors suggest in the prefatory note that it is from this essay that the volume, as a whole, draws its title (which they nonetheless decided to amend, subbing Britons for Celts on the somewhat misguided assumption that this is to a meaningful extent less ethnically specific and value-laden to a new generation of scholars).

The volume would have benefited immensely from short commentaries or brief introductions before the individual essays by GRJJ to explain why in particular each was chosen and why it is situated in the volume accordingly. As these are entirely absent, the reader may stumble to enter into each subsequent essay and contextualize its methodology in terms of those that come before and after. For example, the latest of GRJJ's papers included in the collection (which also closes the volume) treats two books of Welsh law codes: "The Models for Organization in Llyfr Iorwerth and Llyfr Cyfnerth." The essay's place as the final comment on GRJJ's work does not seem to conclude the volume in a satisfactory fashion. Moreover, why the editors chose this as the closing testament to GRJJ's late-career preoccupations--and not, for instance, his 1991 essay, "Medieval Settlement" or his 1996 essay, "The Gwely as a Tenurial Institution"--is far from clear, even though they attempt to forestall criticism in their preface by explaining this essay's place as a testament to GRJJ's late desire to touch upon "what we may call the hidden 'psychological' aspects of early land occupation and usage." In lieu of intertextual introductions, the volume would have benefited immensely from some sort of editorial conclusion after the final essay.

At the start of his essay "Rural Settlement in Anglesey," GRJJ muses: "At first sight the rural landscape of Wales has a bewitching simplicity...But the story of settlement in the humanized landscapes of Western Europe is seldom as simple as first impressions suggest." Plainly stated, this volume offers a practical compendium of some of GRJJ's most significant scholarly papers that is both timely and valuable. These papers, which mostly treat Wales, are lucid, elegant, interesting, and, yes, at times controversial in their conclusions-- all of which make them worthy of serious reflection. The efforts of the editors are much appreciated, even if their editorial decisions are sometimes unclear.



1. N. Gregson, "The Multiple Estates Model: Some Critical Questions," Journal of Historical Geography 11 (1985): 345.