Reclamation and regional economies of medieval marshland in Britain
By Stephen Rippon
Recent Developments in Wetland Research, edited by B. Raftery and J. Hickey (Dublin, 2001)
Introduction: This is a study of how past human communities have perceived their environment, and made decisions as to how it should be exploited. In their natural state, coastal marshes are not ideal for settled agriculture and would be described as ‘marginal’: areas of poor quality agricultural land settled only at times of high population pressure. Intensification of the human exploitation of marginal environments has received considerable attention from archaeologists and landscape historians, though all too often discussion has focused simply upon the relationship between population increase and agriculture, and particularly the shift from pasture to arable. However, more recent scholarship is showing that a far wider range of factors affect how a particular landscape is exploited, including the structure of landholding, proximity to centres of consumption and any natural resources that might be available. This study focuses on one type of physically marginal landscape coastal marshland – and attempts to explore the reasons why similar environments are exploited in different ways depending on local socio-economic conditions.
An earlier study by this author of one particular marshland, the Gwent Levels in South East Wales, has already estabiished the need for an interdisciplinary approach to studying wetland landscapes. This was followed by a comparative regional study of all the wetlands around the Severn Estuary in south-west Britain which showed that althoush some of the trends in landscape exploitation seen on the Gwent Levels were typical of other marshes in the region, this was not always the case: even within this one region there was remarkable variation in the patterns of land-use . This paper forms part of a wider programme of research into the exploitation and management of coastal wetlands in the whole of north-west Europe during the Roman and medieval periods, which aims to examine such issues on a far larger scale. A number of papers derived from this work appear elsewhere, and a formal monograph has been published. The particular theme that will be explored in this paper is how medieval communities perceived the opportunities offered by these wetland environments, and in particular the decision to intensify the level of landscape expioitation through wetland reclamation.