By Richard Jones and Mark Page
Medieval Archaeology, Vol.47 (2003)
Introduction: Many attempts have been made to classify the complex patterns of historic settlement and landscape in Britain and Europe, by archaeologists, geographers and historians. In some cases broad distinctions have been drawn, such as that which emphasized the influence of geology and the natural environment on settlement, or that which contrasted regions of nucleated villages and modern enclosure with those of dispersed settlement and old enclosure. Other classifications have sought to take more account of local variation. The division of England into farming regions, for instance, revealed a patchwork of different land use and social structure, while a similar characterization divided the country into eight categories of countryside or pays. Some of these ideas have been refined over the years. Thus, the areas of nucleated and dispersed settlement have been redefined, based on the character of rural settlement in the 19th century. Another classification scheme has emphasized the cultural differences between regions divided by major river valleys and watersheds.
In dividing a country such as England into a number of distinct zones, regions, provinces or pays, lines of demarcation have to be drawn, both spatially and chronologically, on the basis of particular characteristics or criteria. This can be problematic. Clearly, the more limited the time period under review or the set of features being examined, the easier it will be to determine the geographical boundaries of different territories. By contrast, the more sophisticated the historical enquiry becomes, the more difficult will be the definition of specific areas of countryside. Boundaries will become blurred and the number of exceptions to the general rule increase. There is often an assumption, however, that particular areas of England have distinctive characteristics – such as the Feldon and Arden districts of Warwickshire – which can be classified and contrasted with those of others. But is this necessarily the case? What about those areas of the country which appear to possess no unifying features, which lie on the borders between one type of countryside and another, and fit neither very well? What is the explanation for the development of areas of settlement and landscape which combine features normally associated with markedly different regions, provinces and pays?
This paper explores the difficulties of characterizing rural settlement and landscape at the local level by examining a sample area of countryside which for a number of reasons might be considered hybrid or anomalous. The area in question formed part of a royal forest in the Middle Ages, was heavily wooded, but lay within a region of Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire usually characterized as champion. Some of the characteristics of champion country were certainly in evidence in the forest, such as common fields, strong lordship, and peasants holding customary tenements consisting of virgates and half-virgates. On the other hand, the dominance of nucleated settlement nearby, for instance immediately south of the forest within the Vale of Aylesbury, or north towards Daventry and Northampton, was not reflected in our area, which was characterized rather by a significant degree of dispersal. A number of the inhabitants, moreover, made their living not from agriculture but by exploiting the resources of the abundant woodland and pasture. The paper seeks to identify the forces which influenced the pattern of settlement and landscape in this area, and to explain why some of the characteristics usually associated with champion and woodland country were present while others cannot be discerned.