14.10.18, Williamson, Environment, Society and Landscape

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Austin Mason

The Medieval Review 14.10.18

Williamson, Tom. Environment, Society and Landscape in Eary Medieval England: Time and Topography. Anglo-Saxon Studies, 19. Woodbridge:Boydell Press, 2013. Pp. viii, 270. ISBN: 9781843837374 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Austin Mason
University of Minnesota

Tom Williamson is a landscape historian with a long and wide-ranging publication record examining different aspects of the English landscape from prehistory to the present. In this book, he locates the origins of that landscape in the early medieval period (defined here as c. 400-1200), arguing that many regional patterns in the historical and archaeological record that have traditionally been interpreted as evidence of the conquests of warrior elites or the deliberate planning of "great men," instead "arose gradually and naturally from the interaction of local communities with their environments" through the more subtle influence of time and topography (243). In deliberately provocative style, Williamson seeks to reassert the fundamental historical importance of the natural environment to a generation of scholars largely cut off from the land in their daily lives--due to the ready availability of tap water, air travel, and grocery produce--and trained to favor human choice over geographical determinism, which he sees as "an entirely false dichotomy" (4). People in the past certainly made choices about where to settle and how to use the land, but Williamson argues forcefully and persuasively that such choices were conditional and constrained by the physical environment: the lay of the land, the local climate, the availability of water supplies, the quality of the local soil. Far from taking agency away from the inhabitants of early medieval England, the author gives them credit for having an intimate knowledge of the land that they settled and exploited, asserting that "landscapes are the consequence of human agency...exercised knowledgeably, in a real world" (4). The resulting book is a compelling reframing of England's post-Roman history from the ground up, which successfully reveals "the hidden hand of nature" lying behind many well known early medieval social and cultural developments (234).

The book is organized into nine chapters that can be divided roughly into three sections. The first features broad surveys of the major historical developments in early medieval England (chapter 1) and the physical geography of the island in which they took place (chapter 2). The middle section explores the ways in which these human and non-human factors interacted in the pre-Conquest period, as Williamson traces the environmental contexts of some fairly contentious topics: the nature and extent of settlement by Anglo-Saxons and Danes (chapter 3); the formation of economic territories like shires, hundreds and wapentakes (chapter 4); and the "gradient of freedom" in Anglo-Saxon social structure between lords and various levels of peasantry (chapter 5). The final third of the book (chapters 6-9) attacks some long-standing orthodoxies of landscape history and offers a new framework for understanding the development of settlement patterns, the origins of nucleated villages, and the uneven distribution of woodland, pasture and open-field systems in the later Saxon and post-Conquest periods. The breadth of topics covered, and the explicitly interdisciplinary methodology employed, ensures that there is a little something for every audience here. The book should both educate junior scholars and stimulate considerable debate amongst established researchers in a wide range of disciplines.

Williamson begins with a chapter that outlines the major areas of historical and archaeological debate between the collapse of Roman Britain and Domesday, which would make an excellent state-of-the-field primer for graduate students or those new to the field. Sections addressing the thorny problem of ethnicity and the Anglo-Saxon adventus, the (un)reliability of pre-Conquest demographic data, the development of farming technologies like the moldboard plough, and the nature of social and economic organization are not likely to ruffle many feathers, even while they complicate the standard textbook narrative of these topics. But Williamson also previews some more controversial arguments here (elaborated in subsequent chapters) that challenge prevailing orthodoxies, like Glanville Jones' multiple estate model. Instead of seeing manorialism as developing primarily from above as large royal estates were broken up and granted to local lords, Williamson suggests a more complex process in which some, at least, of the manors recorded in Domesday Book arose from below "as successful ceorls acquired more land than they could farm themselves, and offered the surplus to less fortunate individuals of the same social group in return for a rent, paid in part in labour" (34).

Why these processes took place in some regions of England and not others, Williamson ascribes to the environmental context, concisely summarized in chapter 2: "Nature's Frame." This chapter makes a strong case for the role that geology, climate, and soil types played on settlement patterns and cultural developments and should be eye opening for readers trained in more traditional, text-based historical methods. The environmental variables are many, and readers not already familiar with Britain's geography may find them initially daunting, but Williamson is a sure guide. By repeatedly returning to the same key factors throughout the book, and stressing the role they played in shaping and influencing various aspects of early English society, he convincingly demonstrates the explanatory potential of natural forces.

Examples are legion, but this potential is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the author's recurring demonstration of the "neglected" importance of water (184, 194). Flowing in rivers, for instance, water influenced where migrant populations settled and how imported material culture spread, since "river systems formed the arteries along which ideas and styles were transmitted, exchanged from group to group and person to person" (56). Elaborating on a model that he first proposed in Sutton Hoo and its Landscape (2008), Williamson shows that the patterns of contact and communication dictated by rivers and their watersheds offer a better fit for various distributions--'Anglian' and 'Saxon' artifacts, cremation cemeteries, Danish place-names--than more traditional theories that rely primarily on social factors like ethnicity, political organization or religious affiliation. As precipitation, water can also help explain regional differences in Domesday population densities, since higher levels of rainfall on the boulder clays found in the west produce a shorter growing season and less fertile, more acidic soils than those in the dryer east where population growth was less likely to be hindered by periodic harvest failures (52-53). Access to fresh water is also shown to be a crucial factor in the regional variation between "woodland" areas of dispersed settlement and "champion" landscapes dominated by nucleated villages. Rejecting as "largely mythical" the argument that there was a "village moment" of planned settlement nucleation in the ninth-century Midlands, Williamson proposes instead that villages grew organically where limited groundwater led farmers to cluster beside reliable water sources, while settlements remained dispersed in areas where well water was widely obtainable (183). Water did not determine the shape of the medieval landscape, as the author readily admits, but after reading this book it is hard to deny that it (along with other environmental factors) had more influence on social and cultural developments in early medieval England than historians and archaeologists usually acknowledge.

Given the evident strengths of the arguments on offer, it is a shame that more effort was not spent ensuring a higher production standard for the volume. Numerous cross-referencing errors and out-of-order citations made it past the proofreaders into the printed edition. More importantly, the arguments are ill-served by the poor quality of the black-and-white illustrations. The forty-one figures consist mostly of GIS-generated maps, and while many of them are densely layered with the evidence necessary to support the book's claims, it can be very hard to distinguish between up to nine shades of gray used in their legends. This reviewer, at least, would have gladly paid a little more money for a few color plates illustrating the most important information.

Minor quibbles aside, however, this book deserves to be read and referenced by all students of early medieval England. Its definition of "early medieval" is wide enough, and the range of topics covered broad enough, that almost everyone should find something new and stimulating here. Although Williamson's revisionist claims are not always as radical as he makes them out to be and in many cases confirm, rather than challenge, the recent work of other landscape historians, this volume offers a welcome corrective to the top-down, politically-driven narrative of landscape change that still dominates too many historical and archaeological treatments of the period.

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Author Biography

Austin Mason

University of Minnesota