Archaeology, common rights and the origins of Anglo-Saxon identity
Early Medieval Europe: 19, 2 (2011) 153-181
It is generally accepted that rights over land, especially rights of pasture, played a formative role in establishing the identity of early Anglo-Saxon ‘folk groups’, the predecessors of the middle Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. This speculative paper sets early medieval and medieval common rights in the context of the archaeological longue durée of the period before 400 AD. It argues that ancient traditions of common governance, integral to Anglo-Saxon identity, might have offered an attractive legitimacy to middle Anglo-Saxon kingdom-builders. While not seeking to establish any answers, the paper hopes to contribute to a wider research agenda.
Although their demographic and political histories diverged before and after the Roman period, documentary evidence suggests that since at least the early Middle Ages British regions have shared an understanding of what is meant by rights of common and how these should be organized and regulated. While specific details of custom and practice varied from place to place, from circumstance to circumstance, and from period to period, the structures which underlay them were universal: governance and management as the prerogative of right-holders; an oral tradition based on collective participation in decision-making; regular meetings of assemblies and courts; decisions made on the basis of custom and practice; and the election of representatives to settle disputes and/or enforce judgements.