15.09.37, Banham and Faith, Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming

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Bradford Lee Eden

The Medieval Review 15.09.37

Banham, Debby, and Rosamond Faith. Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. Medieval History and Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. pp. xii, 336. ISBN: 978-0-19-920794-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Bradford Lee Eden
Valparaiso University
brad.eden@valpo.edu

Despite the fact that farming was the most important part of Anglo-Saxon economy, very little has been written in the way of an introduction or textbook for students of Anglo-Saxon history, language, and literature. The authors attempt to fill that gap with this book.

The introduction is a succinct summary of the topic, along with an overview of the book's content. Part one, comprising chapters two to five and encompassing arable farming in Anglo-Saxon England (its crops along with tools and techniques) and animal husbandry (the livestock along with products and production) has been compiled by Banham. Part two, comprising chapters six to twelve, and encompassing farms in their landscapes, coasts and riversides, woodland, chalk downland, moorland, wolds, and continuities and changes in arable husbandry, has been written by Faith. Both authors worked together on the introduction and conclusions. The time period covered by the book extends from the beginning of the fifth century through the late eleventh. Written evidence is scarce for the early period, and many of the primary sources are from the south and east of England. The term "farming" is defined broadly to include food production, textiles, building materials, and arable and pastoral operations; forestry, viticulture, and horticulture have been excluded. In addition, production rather than processing is the focus when a distinction can be made. Following a short literature review, the authors provide a detailed description of the primary written sources: literature on estate management, laws, charters, secular learning, charms and medical texts, narrative sources, biological remains, artefacts, and landscape (especially in part two). Place-names and linguistic evidence, practical farming experience, visual evidence from manuscript illustrations, and comparative evidence supplement the primary written sources. Finally, the authors identify their scholarly approach as "source pluralism," associated with the Swedish historian of medieval agriculture, Janken Myrdal (b. 1949); different from inter- or multidisciplinary research, yet still drawing on a wide range of sources. Despite the primary written sources available, the authors indicate by the end of their introduction that the topic of Anglo-Saxon farms and farming still remains very incomplete and ambiguous.

Part one describes much of what is known regarding Anglo-Saxon farmers and farming. Crops such as cereals (wheat, barley, the transition from hulled to free-threshed corn, rye, and oats), legumes (peas, beans, lentils, and vetch), and mixed and minor crops (maslin, dredge, bullmong, fodder crops, and fibre crops) are discussed. In terms of farming tools and techniques, the authors examine evidence related to cultivation (manuring, ploughs, ploughing, traction, productivity, mouldboard ploughing, workers, sowing, and weeding); harvesting, storage, and processing (threshing and winnowing); and enclosures and fields. Animal husbandry in Anglo-Saxon England included horses, donkeys, mules, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, poultry, and bees. Banham provides considerable information on the appearance and numbers of these livestock throughout the time period, indicating their value to society through numerous bequests contained in wills. Animals provided a number of products, including dairy, meat, eggs, wool, honey, and craft products, along with traction for farming from horses and oxen. Issues related to how Anglo-Saxons took care of their animals were determined by terrain and resources, and Banham discusses some of the evidence related to housing, feeding, herding, identification, breeding, and beekeeping.

Part two has a much different focus: a detailed description and examination of the various regions in Anglo-Saxon England, and how people managed land and livestock in those areas. Archaeological maps and surveys dominate the discussion, which focuses on how farms fit into their landscapes (livestock management, shepherds and shielings, felds, rivers and meadows, woodland, wolds, downs, hills, and pastoral husbandry and the hundred); coasts and riversides (Thames-side, common rights, parish boundaries, coastal saltmarsh, between the Wye and the Severn, fishing, crafts and skills, incomes and obligations, wood and iron, and droving); woodland (north-west Essex, Warwickshire Arden, the yeoman farm, and agriculture); chalk downland (Berkshire, Hampshire, Wiltshire, and Hamwic); moorland (Dartmoor, the upper Plym and Meavy valleys, and edge-of-the-moor farming); wolds (Walesby, Otby, Risby, upper Lymn valley, Worlaby, Oxcombe, Somersby, Ketsby, and Enderby); and changes in farming practices throughout the time period, including Romano-British farming, strip fields, open-field farming, township boundaries, and dispersed farms.

In the conclusions, the authors detail most of the changes that occurred between ancient and medieval farming in Anglo-Saxon England: free-threshing cereals, extensive ploughing, large-scale sheep husbandry, importance of cattle as a sign of status and wealth, cooperation between farmers related to organization and scale of operation, and the move to strip fields in some geographical regions. In addition, the authors stress that Anglo-Saxon farming was built on sustainability--commonly known as low-input/low-impact, given that the population was tiny and largely rural. It could not be replicated today, although the authors feel that their work could assist in offering examples of workable and thrifty agricultural strategies and methods for the twenty-first century. This book represents the growth of scholarship related to palaeo-environmental, palaeo-osteological, palaeo-botanical, and palaeo-zoological research, and the Medieval History and Archaeology series from Oxford University Press continues to publish impressive titles in this area.

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