Introduction | Exploring Medieval Village Territories | The Evolution of Post-medieval Village Territories | The Creation of Village Territories | The Development of Medieval Village Territories | Late Medieval Village Territories | Conclusions

6. Late Medieval Village Territories

By the 14th century, all the parishes of Whittlewood contained more than one settlement. Their principal centres had grown into sizeable villages and, beyond these, hamlets of up to a dozen households had developed, together with a rash of more recent large farmsteads, hunting lodges, mills and other manorial assets. The landscape was dominated by open fields, although significant areas of wood pasture had been preserved on the more inhospitable higher claylands and the main river valleys still carried much meadow. From perhaps as early as the 10th century then, with the initial growth of a few settlements around pre-village nuclei and the near contemporary laying out of the open field cores, the transformation of the countryside had largely progressed in a linear fashion: settlement grew, the number of settlements increased, arable expanded at the expense of woodland and pasture, and their territorial boundaries had become firmly established.

The first signs of major reversal to settlements appear during the first half of the 14th century, although some villages may have begun to suffer earlier. An exceptional local case was Wakefield, which seems to have been erased to make way for the royal hunting lodge and lawn which took its name and which lay at the heart of the forest, an extinction dated perhaps as early as the mid-12th century. There are signs also of decay at the edges of settlements such as Lamport in Stowe, indicating some shrinkage in the 13th century. But generally, settlements appear to have been robust, only slowly beginning to falter as a result of the late medieval economic crises and the arrival of the Black Death. Black Death accounted for not a single settlement desertion in Whittlewood, although figures indicate that the population here declined nearly by half, in line with national estimates (Benedictow 2004). The result on settlement morphology, however, was significant. But how villages dealt with reversal in their fortunes appears as varied as how they had managed their rise. In places such as Akeley (test pitting in 2001 and 2002) whole blocks of peasant tenements seem to have been abandoned, giving the impression that when the number of plot occupiers fell below a certain level, those remaining relocated into other parts of the village where tenements had become vacant. Shrinkage was most acute in the smaller settlements, such as the settlement clusters that made up Leckhampstead, or in hamlets of Elm Green and Dagnall. But in places such as Wick Dive, Whittlebury and Silverstone, abandonment was more piecemeal, individual tofts falling vacant but the coherence of the rows in which they were located surviving. In part, the structure of these rows was preserved by engrossing peasants, able to bring a number of plots into single ownership, evidence for which survives in documents for Whittlebury, Silverstone and elsewhere.


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Last updated: Mon Sep 4 2006