Society, economy and environment in England, c.600-1100: new evidence and new problems

Principal investigator: John Blair
Level: Large scale research AHRC

Only fifty years ago, most historians would have viewed the landscape, local economy, and human environment of Anglo-Saxon England as intellectually marginal, and in any case impossible to investigate. Now, partly thanks to the huge increase in archaeological data and partly because inter-disciplinary collaboration is more popular, we no longer look at early medieval England solely from the top downwards. More generally, historians' awakening interest in physical evidence has contributed powerfully to the growing realisation that the mid to late Anglo-Saxon period was of formative importance for everything that followed. Bringing into the mainstream the lives, experiences and environments of ordinary people has been so notable an intellectual achievement that the possibility of another big leap forward is hard to imagine. Yet since the 1980s the quantity and quality of usable source-material has been increasing at an astonishing rate, and on so many different fronts that the aggregate gain is hard to comprehend. These developments can be summarised under eight main headings:

First, the charters and related texts which constitute the prime written sources for what was happening on the ground are being expertly re-edited, with extensive commentaries, in the British Academy's Anglo-Saxon Charters series. This provision of accurate texts, with guidance on using them, is breathing new life into old material and enabling it to be more effectively used.

Secondly, the detailed boundary-clauses of tenth- and early eleventh-century charters have received much more elucidation in their local context (above all by Della Hooke), and are now the subject of an AHRC-funded project (`LangScape'), run by Joy Jenkyns, which is making texts and commentaries available on the internet. These uniquely detailed records of micro-topography   -  windows on the most local of Anglo-Saxon worlds  -  are still far from fully exploited.

Thirdly, the study of place-names has entered a new phase with a new generation, and is being practised by scholars with a heightened awareness of the social and landscape contexts in which names were formed, as well as the linguistic context. A current series of seminars is demonstrating the effectiveness of this approach, which opens the field more readily to historians whose primary expertise is not philological.

Fourthly, the growth of landscape history as a discipline has produced much stimulating work on the geographical and economic background, regional diversity, and ways of characterising the human impact on landscape and settlement: one thinks of Roberts and Wrathmell's monumental mapping of settlement types (in their nineteenth-century form), or Tom Williamson's energetic arguments for the formative influence of soil-types on farming and thus settlement patterns. If some work in this area wants something in historical depth, it affords a great deal for the historian to work with.

Fifthly, more focus is starting to be added to these broad-brush approaches by intensive and analytical local studies, combining fieldwork and documentary research with carefully-selected archaeological samples obtained by test-pitting. The best of these hitherto is the Whittlewood Project: see R. Jones and M. Page, Medieval Villages in the English Landscape (2006). Work like this is providing some answers, but also raising new questions for more general studies to engage with.

Sixthly, numismatics has been hugely enriched by the great increase of single finds through metal-detecting, and the accessible logging of them in the Fitzwilliam Museum's Early Medieval Corpus. As well as revealing the extraordinary scale of the early eighth-century `sceatta' coinage, this enlarged database gives a much clearer impression of where and when coins were being lost, throwing a great deal of new light on monetary circulation, travel, and transport.

Seventhly, we now know far more about small-scale material culture: partly from the classification of pottery types and the charting of their distributions (L.A. Symonds's study of the Lincolnshire kilns is a model here), partly from the greatly increased recovery of small personal objects, again by metal-detecting, and their logging by the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Eighthly, a huge number of archaeological evaluations and excavations have been carried out under the current planning regime of developer-funded archaeology (`PPG 16'). As described below, the records of this work can be inconvenient to obtain and problematic to use, but it would be folly to reject the opportunities offered by so much material, much of it carried out in locations (notably the centres of small towns) that have previously seen little investigation.

These developments are well-known to specialists; in all the areas listed, excellent work has recently appeared in print. So far, however, there has been no response to the increasingly obvious need for general reappraisal and synthesis. Partly this is because the professional responsibilities of many of those involved leave inadequate time for analysis and reflection; partly it is because a range of very different skills and approaches is involved. But the opportunities are exciting for anyone prepared to operate on a broad front, and that is the object of this application.

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  • Created: 9 years ago
  • Created by: Daniel Pett
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  • Updated by: Daniel Pett

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