18.10.01, Christie and Herold (eds), Fortified Settlements in Early Medieval Europe

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Søren Michael Sindbæk

The Medieval Review 18.10.01

Christie, Neil, and Hajnalka Herold, eds. Fortified Settlements in Early Medieval Europe: Defended Communities of the 8th-10th Centuries. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2016. pp. xxviii, 332. ISBN: 978-178-5702-358 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Søren Michael Sindbæk
Aarhus University

Early medieval Europe was not a peaceful continent. This is reflected in the large number of highly varied fortifications from this period, which remain in virtually every European country. Many are traditionally seen as places of sanctuary--Fluchtburgen--for populations who spent the great majority of their time elsewhere, and only gathered behind walls and ramparts in times of imminent threat. Such a view has discouraged an integration of settlement archaeology and research on fortifications; and between early urban centres--often fortified--and other kinds of defended spaces. Fortified Settlements in Early Medieval Europe: Defended Communities of the 8th–10th Centuries aims to challenge this view by exploring how, and to what extent, fortifications worked as settlements. Where and when did fortifications contribute to defining and empowering "defended communities"?

This ambition presumes an archaeology of fortifications, which goes beyond traditional limits in several ways. Many surviving early medieval fortifications are located in remote places, in landscapes where they rarely invite major interventions; or, by contrast, they form the nucleus of still-existing towns, cities or villages, and are inaccessible for major excavations. For this reason, their study is often limited to a consideration of broad classification of form and chronology, the sort of facts which can be established when it is necessary to deal with coarse-grained data and few substantial excavations.

In recent years, excavations in many parts of Europe have offered more detailed insights into fortified places, providing data which allows researchers to consider material expressions of activities, lifestyles and contacts. Such excavations form the point of departure for the present book, which builds on conference sessions held at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds and at Oxford University, both in 2013.

While much new work has appeared recently on fortified sites in different parts of Europe, this book stands out by offering a cross-regional comparison, the scope and coverage of which go far beyond a simple collection of conference papers. The twenty-three geographically organized contributions review the theme of the book by means of regional surveys and case studies, in landscapes ranging from Northwest Europe to the Mediterranean and Adriatic. Nearly a handbook, albeit without the consistency but also redundancy characteristic of that format, Fortified Settlements presents a continental panorama on its subject, currently offered by no other study.

The drive to extend a consistent comparison beyond traditional boundaries is a great strength of the volume, and makes it essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the social patchwork of the early medieval world, or anyone seeking a grounded understanding of any single region or site in a wider setting. The insistence on carrying a defined perspective across regions of a highly varied continent, however, also has some weaknesses.

To term and approach the different fortified structures across early medieval Europe collectively as "defended communities" creates new and often interesting insights. The contributions by the editors make it clear that the perspective works fruitfully to create interesting comparisons between their respective points of departure in Late Saxon Wessex (Christie) and Carolingian-Ottonian Central Europe (Herold). It is also pursued to good effect for Slavic settlements in Northern Germany (Bierman), strongholds in Piast Poland (Urbańczyk) and cities in Italy (Citter) and Northern France where Ryan Lavelle, however, rightly points out that there "is a subtle but important distinction here between the 'defended settlements' considered in this volume as a whole, and specifically urban settlements (and their communities), which were not necessarily--or at least not primarily--defended"(159).

The term becomes more vague and less helpful, however, when applied to monastic sites (Christie and Hodges) or the seats of rural elites, such as Spanish castles (Castillo), Irish cashels (Comber) or even dispersed farmsteads, such as the c. 45,000 ring forts recorded in Ireland--essentially single-family dwellings surrounded by earthen banks or by a drystone wall (O'Sullivan). In Ireland, and also in Scotland (Noble) and Wales (Seaman), it is also clear that the chronological focus of the book to the 8th-10th centuries is of limited value in a situation where most fortified sites appear in the 5th and 6th centuries. A similar situation exists with regard to the many hill-forts of Norway and Sweden, which, regrettably, are not considered in any contribution in the volume. In respect of these regions, the perspective of the book appears to lump material which has little in common.

On the other hand, some highly interesting common themes tend to lose focus among the diversity of case studies. As the editors point out (Introduction, xxiii), the appearance of specific types of defended sites was, in many cases, a reflection of state or royal initiatives, as on the frontiers of the Frankish Empire under Louis the Pious, the burhs of the Wessex kings (Christie), the strongholds of Henry I's Burgenordnung (Boschetti) or the Danish 'Trelleborg'-type ring fortresses (Petersen) built during the reign of King Harald Bluetooth. These initiatives typically appear to have been launched in response to emergencies, and to have been accomplished by means of a very substantial mobilization of resources.

While the case for unity, planning and common origin may be overstated for some regions (cf. Tys et al.), such "fortress networks" emerged as a distinctive and pervasive development of military and political tactics in Europe, in the very period considered by this book. They almost certainly express an aspect of centralized military organization, able to intervene across regional polities and communities. The early medieval fortress networks differ clearly from traditional places of sanctuary, and equally from urban communities as commonly perceived. While obviously comprising "fortified settlements," it is not clear to what extent they can be classified as "defended communities," i.e. the central sites of socially (and regionally) embedded groups.

Another theme, which is repeatedly suggested by the contributions, is the common trends emerging in the border regions of the Carolingian/Ottonian Empires. The editors hint at the common themes of response, resistance and imitation (xxiii), and the contributions (e.g. Ollich et al., Jurković, Gelichi) are a rich trove of observations; but the theme has potential for a more focused and comprehensive treatment. Old ideas easily persist: In Central Europe, the Hungarian invasions are considered the incentive for defence (Boschetti), while all five contribution bearing on the British Isles seek a similar role for Vikings as catalysts for fortifications. How much has really changed since 1939 when Mark Bloch hailed Hungarian horsemen and Scandinavian sea rovers as the external forces who "galvanized" medieval Europe and its Société féodale?

A further issue emerging from the panorama of sites and regions is the greatly varying--and mostly imperfect--quality of data available. In this respect, it is not only clear that research is still limited by the rarity of substantial area excavations, which are always an expensive privilege. As the editors note, the limits of chronological resolution is equally acute for many regions. While programmes of dendrochronological dating have been successful in creating a high-definition view of fortifications in some regions, notably in the Slavic settlement areas, sites in other regions are still compared vaguely on a timescale of centuries. This predicament impedes any serious attempts to integrate fortifications into justified narratives, and bars the way for a historical archaeology of the sort envisaged by the present book. Dendrochronology will remain unavailable for many earthwork or dry-stone fortifications, but with the increasingly refined application of Bayesian modelling, radiocarbon dating is becoming a realistic alternative. In reading through the contributions to Fortified Settlements, one is struck by the potential of radiocarbon dating to revise and refine our understanding of some of the key archaeological remains from the early medieval period.

The book is meticulously edited, adequately illustrated, and neatly produced. It will serve as an inspiration and a reference for students and researchers for years to come. It will do much to restore early medieval fortified sites--and their communities--as a hotspot of archaeological research.

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