Article Structure

1. Introduction

1.1 'Village Country' and the 'Land of Hamlets'

Why should settlement forms and landscapes vary from region to region across rural England? How have these areas been characterised by antiquarians, historians, historical geographers, and archaeologists? Are the differences observed today longstanding or the result of more recent developments? And depending upon the alternative criteria used in regional definition, are the boundaries of each of the different zones coincident with one another or notable for their divergence?

1.2 Defining medieval villagescapes

What do we mean by the 'villagescape'? Its usage in this article relates not exclusively to the built environment of villages, but has been coined as an inclusive term under which the whole hierarchy of settlement within any given administrative unit can be studied together with the broader landscape setting.

2. Exploring Medieval Village Territories

2.1 The study area

This article is based on the study of a particular block of countryside in the central Midlands. Since exploration of the development of settlement and landscape must begin in the modern landscape, a virtual tour of the area is offered through maps and photographs and the principal components of the area are identified. The basic framework of the area is also provided, including its geology, topography and hydrology.

2.2 Methodology

Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, the major sources of historical, archaeological, palaeoenvironmental, architectural, and linguistic evidence found within the study area have all been examined. This section lists the main sources, providing access to the digital archive where these can be explored in more depth. Over the course of the project much new data have been generated. Links are provided to a series of databases, where this evidence, the basis for the ideas which are developed in this map, have been set out.

3. The Evolution of Post-Medieval Village Territories

Is it better to approach the reconstruction of the medieval landscape by removing later accretions which mask the view of the past, or to begin with an examination of the earlier terrain from which such landscapes developed? A justification for starting in the present and working towards the past is presented.

3.1 Territorial boundaries

Village territories may be defined as discrete territorial units. But just how stable are these divisions? Once established, do their limits become firmly fixed and remain unchanged over long time periods, or might they be subject to change?

3.2 Settlement morphology

The post-medieval period saw important changes to the overall settlement pattern and to individual settlement plans in particular. Where some villages flourished and grew, others shrank, and some were totally abandoned.

3.3 Fields

It might be argued that the greatest changes seen in the post-medieval period were reserved for the fields. This was a period of both private and Parliamentary enclosure, which eventually saw the total erasure of the former open field systems. But this occurred at different times in different places and by different means.

3.4 Summary

The development of village and fields in the post-medieval period can be traced with a large degree of confidence due to the survival of detailed documentary sources and because the physical evidence for these changes has survived. The post-medieval period offers examples of the divergent routes taken by individual communities in the development of their settlements and landscapes, and provides evidence for how, when, and at what pace any changes were effected. Consequently, it challenges us to explore the possibility that in earlier periods, the villagescape may have been equally dynamic, although evidence for this may be more difficult to decipher.

4. The Creation of Village Territories

To understand the new territories, it is of fundamental importance to understand the landscape from which they emerged. Reconstructing this background requires the bringing together of a variety of sources. Most offer only a partial glimpse into this world. But used in combination, it is possible to tease out the principal components of this landscape, and to identify the sequence of events which redrew the administrative and economic map of Whittlewood.

4.1 Reconstructing early estate structures

The arrangement of the administrative landscape that preceded village territories would have an important influence upon their development. Evidence for the extent of more extensive estates, which can be partially reconstructed using later documentary references and place-names is presented, together with evidence for the actual nature of the environment.

4.2 The transition from estates to villages

It is possible to suggest the process by which smaller land units and settlements emerged from a background of larger estates. It is argued that the area offered a range of agricultural options, favouring neither arable nor pastoral economies. The settlement pattern which developed before AD 850 was largely dispersed; however, important variations can be detected, notably the clustering of settlement around early estate centres, with outlying areas less densely occupied.

4.3 Settlements

The emergence of the villages can be linked to the transfer of power away from a small group of major landowners to a new and larger group of lesser landlords exercising power over much more restricted areas. Despite earlier centres losing territory, and the new territories being of much smaller scale, it is suggested that an equitable division of land, offering access to a range of resources, permitted all to flourish.

4.4 Chronology and process

The chronology of the shift from estate to village territory can be established from archaeological data. It would seem that the change occurred over a relatively short period. But locally there is little evidence for universal change: rather the evidence suggests a more piecemeal and evolutionary path, taken in different places for different reasons at different times.

5. The Development of Medieval Village Territories

Once established, medieval village territories, even those sharing a common pedigree, or with access to similar resources, or whose social complexity and demographic level were much the same, might develop along very different trajectories. This section explores issues of commonality and divergence as expressed through settlement patterns and land use.

5.1 Alternative settlement models

The nature of settlement in any individual land unit was to some extent dictated by what already existed at the time of their creation. Whether nuclear or dispersed, it would seem that these patterns became fixed at the constitution of the new territorial units, and these alternative traditions would prove almost impossible to eradicate.

5.1.1 Dispersed settlement

The development of dispersed settlement patterns might occur in different places at different times. Once established, individual elements might be lost or added but rarely was this pattern entirely replaced by total nucleation. Indeed, the decision to create new and geographically distinct settlement foci in dispersed areas, even when expansion around existing cores could easily have been accommodated, demonstrates how communities actively sought to perpetuate these models and their conscious rejection of alternative solutions to the problems of housing a growing population.

5.1.2 Nucleated settlement

A tendency towards nucleation can be identified among the later village territories. It is suggested that this resulted either from their creation around perhaps one existing settlement focus, or that free from preceding settlement traditions, these communities chose nucleation over dispersion because this model was proving so successful in other parts of the Midlands.

5.2 The introduction of the open field system

Open field farming and the development of large, strictly managed, arable fields around villages effectively locked these settlements in place at whatever stage of development had been reached. Dating its introduction and the processes by which it became established therefore becomes crucial to understanding ensuing settlement patterns.

5.2.1 Dating

It has been notoriously difficult to establish the introduction date of open field farming either through examination of documentary sources or by examination of the archaeological evidence. A new approach to the problem, developed in Whittlewood, is outlined, suggesting that open field farming necessitated a change in manuring strategy which can be identified in the archaeological record. This places its introduction to around the time of the creation of the village.

5.2.2 How and why?

How and why the open fields should have developed in Whittlewood is examined in the light of current hypotheses. There is little evidence for agricultural crisis and nothing to support the notion of the total replanning of the landscape. Rather it would appear that open fields were adopted by communities according to their own timescales, probably with local considerations to the fore and, when first conceived, were rather restricted in their extent.

5.2.3 The development of the arable zone

The growth in the area of land brought under the plough can be traced with some accuracy. Particularly relevant in this respect is the historical and archaeological evidence for woodland clearance. Much of this land was taken into the open fields, but elsewhere the new clearance remained in single ownership and were exploited as private enterprises.

5.2.4 Parallels

While recognising the deficiencies of the evidence - whether open field farming was openly embraced by the whole community, or whether its introduction was resisted; whether the transformation was enacted rapidly or over a more extended period - it is argued that whatever processes were at play, close parallels might be drawn with the post-medieval period.

5.3 Changing settlement patterns and morphologies

As the middle ages progressed, significant changes were made to the overall settlement pattern and to individual village plans. This section explores what lay behind these processes and events and why, once again, individual villages might be affected in different ways.

5.3.1 Stimuli and responses

The principal stimulus to settlement change appears to have been population growth. Within each village territory, decisions were made either to expand settlement over former arable fields or to break new ground, often through woodland clearance, to make space for new settlements.

5.3.2 Trajectories and chronology

The decisions that were made differed from place to place. Expansion of cores can be seen from the 12th century and continued through into the early 14th century. Elsewhere, the same period saw the creation of spatially removed new centres of population. Settlement patterns were further complicated by the establishment of major farmsteads away from the main centres, and radical redesigns of earlier village cores undertaken by both resident and absentee lords.

6. Late Medieval Village Territories

Reversal in the fortunes of the late medieval countryside resulted in changes that, in size and magnitude, were just as important as those which characterised their rise. Settlements might stagnate, shrink or even be abandoned. Land might be taken out of cultivation and laid to grass. Reaction to failure brought its own dynamics as individual village communities developed strategies to cope with new social, economic, political and demographic conditions.

7. Conclusions


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Last updated: Mon Sep 4 2006