By Oliver Creighton, Bob Croft and Stephen Rippon
The Archaeology of South West England (2008)
Introduction: The period covered by this review runs from the Norman Conquest in 1066 through to the Dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, and unlike the pre-Conquest period is rich in both archaeology (including a continuous ceramic sequence across the region) and documentary sources. Like every region of England, the South West is rich in Medieval archaeology preserved within the fabric of today’s historic landscape, as extensive relict landscapes in areas of the countryside that are no longer used as intensively as they were in the past, and buried beneath our towns, villages, farmsteads and the plough soil. In places this Medieval archaeology has seen intensive research, but unfortunately it is sorely lacking in synthesis. In common with the rest of the country, the study of the Medieval period in the South West has also suffered from a fragmentation of scholarship, with detailed studies of documentary archives, place- names, archaeology and standing buildings all to often being carried out in isolation.
A number of important overviews have been published in recent decades both on a county basis, for example, Cornwall (Preston-Jones and Rose 1986), Somerset (Aston and Burrow 1982; Aston 1988), the former Avon area (Aston and Iles 1986) and Gloucestershire (Finberg 1975), and at a more regional scale (Aston and Lewis 1994; Kain and Ravenhill 1999), though these mostly have a broad landscape focus.
Unlike the preceding millennium, which had seen the upheavals of the Roman conquest and then growing Anglo-Saxon influence, and the related socio-economic transformations reflected, for example, in the emergence, virtual desertion and then revival of an urban hierarchy, the post-Conquest Medieval period was one of relative social, political and economic continuity. Most of the key character defining features of the region – the foundations of its urban hierarchy, its settlement patterns and field systems, its industries and its communication systems – actually have their origins in the pre-Conquest period, and the 11th to 13th centuries simply saw a continuation of these developments rather than anything radically new: new towns were created and monasteries founded, settlement and field systems spread out into the more marginal environments, industrial production expanded and communication systems were improved, but all of these developments were built on pre-Conquest foundations (with the exception of urbanisation in the far south-west). It istrue that the 14th century saw a major demographic decline, and resulting adjustments in the economy, but in contrast to the end of the Roman period the majority of the Medieval rural landscape and its towns continued in use.