‘A fond thing vainly imagined’: Archaeology and medieval studies

‘A fond thing vainly imagined’. Archaeology and medieval studies

By Christopher Gerrard and Stephen Rippon

Online version of the article, “Artefacts, Sites, and Landscapes: Archaeology and Medieval Studies,” published in A Century of British Medieval Studies, edited by Alan Deyermond (Oxford University Press, 2007)

Introduction: The role of archaeology, broadly defined as the study of all material culture and monuments, in medieval studies has a long history. One of the earliest recorded ‘excavations’ is described by Roger of Wendover in his Flores Historiarum, when monks at St Albans exposed ten human skeletons at Redbourne, believing one to that of St Amphibalus. The first published illustration in British archaeology, in Camden’s (1586) pocket bestseller Britannia, was of a medieval monument – the Saxo-Norman chancel arch at a church in Lewes (Sussex) – whilst the earliest illustration of medieval (or certainly early medieval) artefacts was by Sir Thomas Browne (1658) in his Hydriotaphia, or Urne Buriall. Before the last quarter of the nineteenth century, however, medieval interests were mostly confined to the surviving remains of the great and the good, notably ecclesiastical architecture, the earthworks of castles, and high status metal objects (notably coins, arms and armour) which were among the regular finds made when ground was dug for new services, railway lines and buildings.


As the nineteenth century drew to a close, medieval architectural history had become a sophisticated study, major blocks of primary medieval documentation had been transcribed and published, certain monument classes such as monasteries and castles had received cursory archaeological attention but, predictably, there was, as yet, little interest in urban or rural settlement and artefact classification and dating were crude. There were no ‘medieval archaeologists’, and neither the body of evidence nor the conceptual or methodological binding to suggest any sort of disciplinary unity or awareness.

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