Marginal Landscapes and the Medieval English Economy
By Mark Page
XIV International Economic History Congress (2006)
Introduction: The economic and social significance of non-arable landscapes in medieval England, such as woodland, heath, moor, marsh, and waste, have been increasingly recognized by historians since the 1980s. Such landscapes are no longer regarded as marginal in economic terms, although they may have been more remote from centres of settlement than areas of widespread cultivation. These marginal landscapes were found throughout England in the middle ages, notably in the uplands of the north and south-west, and in areas such as the Sussex Weald and the Suffolk Breckland. They can be found too within the central belt of England dominated by nucleated villages and large grain-producing open fields. How can we explain the appearance of these often quite small areas of nonarable land use in landscapes dominated by cultivated fields? Were the soils and topography unsuitable for growing grain? Was their economic value, as a source of wood or other resources, recognized by contemporaries who sought to preserve them from the plough? Or was their preservation a political and cultural decision, determined by those in authority? This paper seeks to answer these questions by focusing on a number of woodland parishes on the border of Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire, which lay in the forest of Whittlewood. It argues that only by examining the physical landscape of this area can its economic and social history in the middle ages be fully understood.