Water and wetlands in medieval estate management: Glastonbury Abbey, Meare and the Somerset Levels in South West England
By Stephen Rippon
Ruralia, Vol.5 (2005)
Abstract: Concern over climate change and rising sea level, coupled with recent extensive flooding across Europe, reminds us that wetlands, ranging from extensive coastal marshes to inland river floodplains, still dominate the landscape of many regions. In an era of intensive settlement and agriculture we often see water in such landscapes as a problem, and complex drainage and flood defence systems have been constructed to control their watertables. In the past, however, water was perceived more as a resource, and this paper is an attempt to demonstrate this for one medieval wetland landscape, that of Glastonbury Abbey’s manor at Meare in the Somerset Levels (South West England). A strongly interdisciplinary approach is used, integrating remarkably rich documentary material with evidence locked within the historic landscape: the pattern of fields, roads, settlements and watercourses as represented on the earliest (early 19th century) cartographic sources, and in many cases still in use today. A series of distinctive ‘landscape character areas’ are identified which are derived from different approaches towards environmental management. That these wetlands were highly valued in different ways is reflected in a series of acrimonious disputes between Glastonbury and the Dean and Chapter of Wells Cathedral over their respective rights there, and the inclusion of Meare and a series of other islands in the special jurisdiction of the Glastonbury ‘Twelve Hides’.