The prehistory of medieval farms and villages: from Saxons to Scandinavians

The prehistory of medieval farms and villages: from Saxons to Scandinavians

By Gabor Thomas

Medieval Rural Settlement: Britain and Ireland, AD 800–1600, edited by Neil Christie and Paul Stamper (Oxbow Books, 2012)

Man plowing, from British Library, Burney 272, f. 18

Introduction: The vast majority of rural settlements occupied in the British Isles during the later Middle Ages first appeared in the landscape long before their earliest recorded documentation: for England the first significant historical horizon is Domesday Book at the end of the eleventh century; but for many other regions – Ireland, Wales and Scotland included – sites of habitation went unrecorded for significantly longer.

Consequently, those seeking to unravel the biographies of settlements, communities and landscapes back into the Early Middle Ages must chiefly rely upon material evidence locked up in the landscape, to be extracted and interpreted using approaches drawn from archaeology and related disciplines.

What distinguishes these studies from those undertaken in the depths of prehistory, however, is that the early medieval landscape can be glimpsed from non-material perspectives including place-names and historical sources. The process of integrating these comparative strands of evidence poses particular challenges in the pre-Norman era, when historical sources are thin on the ground and generally bereft of the rich topographic detail characterising manorial records and other later medieval documents.

Yet, if such endeavour often exposes the tensions existing between different disciplinary perspectives, it also creates a dialogue from which modern researchers stand to gain a more sophisticated understanding of how the landscape was experienced and imagined by early medieval people in their daily lives.

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