In our 21st-century urban society we may be more likely to appreciate the beauty of wild landscapes (experienced with all the conveniences of the modern world) than to have a keen eye for the productive potential of a piece of farmland. Before industrialisation and Romanticism, though, things must have been different. For many people their livelihood – even their lives – depended on making the most of their few strips of arable and their stint on the common. Yet even in the Middle Ages not all was pragmatism: the everyday world was imbued with religion and with magic, and local folklore might be closely bound up with hills and woods, springs and pits. Our research project, hosted by the University of Oxford and funded by the Leverhulme Trust, set out to understand more clearly how medieval and early modern country people understood their material environment, and how that understanding may have changed over time or varied between different social groups. The investigation spanned AD 500 to 1650, a very long period that included fundamental changes in society, from the formation and growth of villages and open fields to late-medieval population decline and enclosure, and the new era heralded by the Reformation.
The task of uncovering peasant perceptions was far from easy. Historians have pointed out that it is hard to know what medieval peasants really thought about their surroundings since they left no diaries or memoirs. Landscape archaeologists working on historical periods have concentrated mainly on reconstructing landscape change rather than trying to understand the meaning of landscapes for their inhabitants. To-date, the few attempts to get at meaning have been hampered by a lack of close engagement with documents, which, when examined in detail, prove to be rich in information about spatial sensibilities and perceptions of particular landscape features. We have now been able to deliver new insights and perspectives by carrying out intensive landscape fieldwork in light of documentary data about the way the land was used and named.
The study area, Ewelme hundred (a medieval administrative district) in south Oxfordshire, included two distinct landscape zones: clustered open-field villages in the clay vale beneath the Chilterns, and scattered and enclosed wood-pasture hamlets in the Chiltern Hills proper. From the earliest periods, the gravel terraces of the well-watered vale were relatively populous, whereas the Chilterns, which lacked surface streams, was thinly settled. That topographical divide provided a fulcrum for understanding how the landscape itself helped shape the kind of social spaces that inhabitants created.
What can we say, then, about the perceptions and values of the inhabitants? For the poorly documented period before Domesday Book (1086), archaeology comes into its own. For example, excavated remains help us to identify the probable site of an early royal centre at Benson in the west of the hundred. Benson is known to have been the centre of an extensive Anglo-Saxon estate, and recent re-examination of the results of a commercial excavation on the edge of the village suggests the existence of a late 7th- or early 8th-century ‘great hall’. Halls such as this stood at the centre of territories in which inhabitants owed renders of produce to kings and their followers. The Benson site, one of a cluster of halls in the upper Thames valley, was well connected with routes stretching across the area. Its closest links were with the neighbouring settlement of Ewelme, where coin finds suggest the establishment of a trading and/or assembly site, which would have attracted outsiders as well as locals. Longer-distance links were supplied by paths up into the Chiltern woodlands where place-name evidence suggests the existence of a pagan shrine at a large ditched enclosure at Wyfold.
This was a valuable landscape, well worth laying claim to, and that too is visible in the archaeology. In the vale around Benson, earth barrows were used to demarcate the burial places of leading individuals, complementing or competing with longer-established communal cemeteries of the 5th and 6th centuries. Both types of site tended to be highly visible in the surrounding landscape, and they offered views of the setting sun over the Sinodun Hills across the Thames. The Sinodun Hills were the site of an Iron Age hillfort and lay close to the Roman centre at Dorchester, where burial archaeology suggests that the latest Roman activity and the earliest Anglo-Saxon presence overlapped. In the early medieval period, as later, these distinctive hills may have been a significant landscape marker which created a sense of place and belonging for the people who claimed the area as their own. That was no less the case given that the Benson area was a border zone contested between the emerging kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia.
By the 10th century, the Benson estate was being broken up to create local estates and more intensive lordship over inhabitants. That had profound implications for perceptions. In the emergence at that time of clustered settlements and communally run open fields we see the beginnings of later village communities tied to particular bounded territories. In the boundary clauses of charters which granted small territories to their new owners we hear about the markers that mattered to local inhabitants, such as the ‘Cuxham people’ who were mentioned in the Brightwell Baldwin charter bounds of 887. It was these people who knew the land best and came up with the names of its settlements and fields: the name Cuxham itself was said in 995 to be ‘the place the country people call Cuces hamm [Cuc’s hemmed-in land, meadow], a name that fits a stream-side settlement closed in by small but steep hills. Charters also furnish us with the names of some of the real and imagined ancestors who resided in the landscape, men such as Cada and Benesa, who gave their names to Cadwell and Benson respectively.
Significantly, the charter boundaries highlight differences between vale and hills. The Chilterns was already seen as a distinctive landscape zone, as indicated by the early 11th-century description of nearby Princes Risborough as being located ‘by Chiltern eaves’, a fitting descriptor for a place on the edge of the vale, sitting under the steep scarp-face of the hills (which was likened to the eaves of a house). Place-names suggest a vale landscape of settlements in open areas between remaining vestiges of woodland. By contrast, the Chiltern place-names speak of a still semi-wild landscape of clearings and valleys. In the vale, the charter bounds followed closely defined linear features and distinctive points such as mounds, fords, trees, and springs. In the hills, most of the land was still attached to Benson and had yet to be carved up into small manors. Tellingly, where there were charter bounds, these tended to follow ridges or valley bottoms and be less closely defined by way-markers. This seems to reflect a landscape that was less intensively used and claimed.
What’s in a name?
By the 12th and especially the 13th century, we have rich data on perceptions from numerous deeds and other documents recording the names of fields, meadows, pastures, woods, and other features of the landscape. These names (usually bundled together under the term ‘field-names’) were almost certainly coined by local people, perhaps especially the senior tenants who had the greatest stake in the agricultural landscape (rather than cottagers or landless labourers). They reveal not just the peasant farmer’s close knowledge of topography and soils, but also traces of local folk histories and of the religious or supernatural associations of certain features. For example, in the vale parish of Chalgrove a place called Birineshulle (c.1220, ‘Birinus’s hill’) appears to commemorate the local saint, Birinus, Bishop of Dorchester (d. 649), whose name was inscribed on a bell at Dorchester Abbey in the 14th century. Field-names such as this suggest that the high-medieval religious landscape extended well beyond the local church to incorporate a host of features exerting an influence across parish boundaries on practices and identities. In Brightwell Baldwin, a ‘holy well’ (La Holiwelle) was mentioned in 1248; it was perhaps a place of healing, and was presumably regarded as an ancient feature.
Field-names also reveal fragments of popular histories of the area, through which local people invested their surroundings with meaning. Names with an evident historical dimension include those given to the relics of old fortifications in the fields and woods: these features were recognised to be the work of people long ago. Among these was the Buristede (‘burh/stronghold place’), mentioned in the late 13th century, in the fields north of Ewelme, at or near the site of the Anglo-Saxon trading/assembly place. Other such sites included Le Ruene (1430, ‘the ruin’) in Benson’s open fields, and Aldebir(e) (1235, ‘the old burh/old stronghold’) in the woods on the boundary between Nettlebed and Swyncombe. At Warborough, near Benson, ancient burial mounds were observed and described in 1332 as Le Berewes (‘the barrows’). The precise associations behind such names remain out of reach, but we can sometimes see that layers of meaning attached themselves to particular sites. That seems to be the case at Ewelme, where the ‘burh place’ was marked c.1200 by a stone called the Durlvestane, which was rendered as Derlestane or Dernestane (Old English derne-sta¯n, ‘hidden stone’?) in the late 13th century, and where, by the late Middle Ages, there was a wayside cross.
The longstanding vale/Chiltern contrast is again visible. Field-names that suggest rich local histories are clustered more in the larger vale villages with their substantial populations and strong outside contacts. They are less evident in the vale hamlets and the scattered hill settlements. Vale and hill settlements used the same local market towns and yet they appear to have had distinct migration patterns, the people of vale and hills rarely moving permanently from one landscape to the other. Peasant bynames (the descriptive precursors of fixed surnames) of the 13th century suggest that vale settlements were seen as built-up places, where tenants who lived on the edge of the village might be called ‘townsend’. By contrast, the bynames of the Chiltern Hills describe people in terms of natural features – such as John of ‘the winding valley [dene]’, ‘of the pond’, or ‘of the open land’. On the other hand, landscape differences only mattered so much. Across the hundred, bynames – and to some extent therefore identities – related to family affiliation and occupation, showing that the sense of belonging was not just territorial.
Bring on the bells
In every medieval parish, the church was a key shared building and centre of attachment. Parishioners invested in the fabric of buildings in which they worshipped and next to which they would be buried. The church bells served the whole population, creating a common timetable for the day, marking feasts and special occasions, and acting as a mechanism to announce public events and warn of threats such as house fires or floods. Bells were widely believed to have protective powers, driving off demons, dissipating lightning, and preventing crop-damaging storms, as shown by inscriptions on bells themselves, including the Birinus bell at Dorchester Abbey, the text of which invokes the saint’s protection.
As part of the project, we carried out fieldwork experiments to test the likely carry of the sound of local church bells. That involved having a bell tolled for a set period of time while my co-author and I (see ‘Further reading’ box, p.33) moved away from the church along public footpaths until the sound of the bell was no longer audible. This simple technique was thought to be a fair reflection of the sounding of a bell in the late Middle Ages, since the bells rung (which were mainly of 17th-century or later date) were of similar weight to their medieval predecessors and were suspended in towers mainly of medieval date. The results were striking, and the bell soundmarks in three parishes, Brightwell Baldwin and Cuxham in the vale, and Nettlebed in the Chilterns, are shown on p.32.
The range of the bells does not appear to have been very strongly affected by local variations in topography and tree cover, since the soundmark in the undulating and wooded parish of Nettlebed was as extensive as those of the vale bells. Yet the nature of settlement had a strong effect on audibility: because the medieval population was generally clustered together fairly close to the church in vale parishes, the great majority of the inhabitants would have been in range of their home bell or bells in and around the village. In some small vale parishes, in fact, such as Cuxham, the soundmark of the bell coincides almost exactly with the ancient parish boundary, creating a very close match between soundmark and parochial territory. In larger parishes, those working in outlying fields may not have heard the bells and, in one or two cases, there may have been hamlets out of earshot: in Cadwell today it is difficult to hear the bells of the parish church at Brightwell. In the Chilterns, the scattered character of settlement meant that a larger number of hamlets and farmsteads would have been out of bell’s reach, as indicated by the experimental findings in Nettlebed.
These patterns are important because of the way in which bells fostered relationships with the church whence they rang. It seems a reasonable conclusion, given these findings, that church bells would have contributed more towards a sense of parochial community in the vale than in the Chilterns. Documentary evidence shows that some people in peripheral settlements (of which there were a greater number in the Chilterns) attended churches beyond their home parish by the 14th and 15th centuries. Part of the rationale may have been proximity and quality of provision, but the experimental findings indicate that audibility may have been a factor too. After all, one 17th-century rector in a Chiltern parish complained that there were only a few houses near his church and that, when he tolled his bell, no one came! In all probability, settlement patterns influenced the strength of parochial attachment in the Middle Ages too.
Village spaces and social change after the Black Death
So far, we have talked a good deal about the wider landscape, but the project also demonstrated that we can gain a closer sense of social interactions within the built-up settlement itself by considering the form and layout of houses and other buildings. In particular, the orientation of houses and their position within their plot offer clues about the way different households engaged with the more public spaces of the village – the roadway itself, which gave access to the settlement’s fields, public buildings such as the church, and the shared fields and commons, in which access varied according to holding size and status. The presence of more open and more closed spaces is shown by the way peasant families collaborated to maintain shared resources while also strongly enclosing their houses and litigating against eavesdroppers and intruders.
Differently oriented houses seem to have connected their owners with the village in different ways. In the 13th century, many middling villagers lived in houses lined up in the centre of the settlement, close to the church. By contrast, lower-status cottagers sometimes had their own place of abode: in Cuxham, that was round a bend on the cold north side of the road out of sight of the church! Affluent free tenants lived on the edge of the village or even outside it. This social geography seems to have reflected and probably reinforced the strength of local social engagement of these groups, since court rolls show that the middling villagers tended to have the strongest very localised relationships. Free tenants were part of village society but they also had wider networks, while cottagers were more socially as well as physically marginal, more often migrating. In the scattered settlements of the Chilterns, it is notable that the tight row settlement did not exist at all, perhaps speaking of a less tightly knit parish community.
By the post-Black Death period, and especially in the 15th century, we can see how a small emerging elite of ‘yeomen’ apparently used their houses as ways to reinforce their status. Not only were these houses a little larger and better built than those of fellow villagers, but they tended to be set well back in their plot away from the roadway, and often to be oriented gable-end to the road rather than broadside on. That can be seen in two substantial 15th-century houses on the edge of Warborough and Ewelme. Perhaps the owners were emulating in some small way the privacy found at the well-enclosed manor house in its large plot? This was the period, after all, in which the village hierarchy was becoming steeper and yeomen were emerging as a wealthier elite, some of them taking advantage of a reduced population to enclose and privatise open field strips.
Significantly, the variations in house layout remind us that villages tended not to be planned in a single phase by their lord. Inhabitants’ own decisions affected the settlement layout. That can be seen in the changing position of houses, which is visible archaeologically and which occurred at different times in different house plots. It can also be seen in the way in which some families subdivided their plots to establish houses for younger offspring, something which gradually changed the settlement layout and perhaps also the social character of different parts of the village.
A Reformation of the landscape?
A final question is whether the Reformation fundamentally changed perceptions of the landscape. The answer seems to be yes, but that change was gradual and new meanings developed as old ones were curtailed. The religious changes of the 1530s were mainly introduced from above in south Oxfordshire, and there is no evidence for great enthusiasm for pulling down shrines and rood screens. On the contrary, late-medieval behaviour was sometimes actively invoked as late as the 17th century, as at Newington where, in 1605, a parishioner allegedly erected a painted cross in the highway, or at Warborough where, in 1623, several people were ‘superstitiously’ carrying a cross, possibly in a rogation-style procession. More often a sense of the religious past continued to be part of the landscape’s meaning. At Swyncombe, the medieval shrine to St Botolph was remembered in 1609 as ‘Le offering place to St Buttelphe’, identified as a standing building measuring 16 feet by 12 feet. Certain old religious names survived, including the Ladye Brucke in Warborough (1606), and past ecclesiastical landowners were invoked in field-names such as Abbots Fields (Nuffield, 1602), and Preiste Moore (Warborough, 1606).
Creativity is evident in the retention and reworking of tradition. In 1569, a St John’s College manor court at Shillingford fined a man for felling trees in Coxham (Cuxham?) at ‘le hermytage’ there. No hermitage is known at Cuxham or anywhere else in the area, and since St John’s lands were concentrated in Shillingford and Warborough it may be that this was the name given to a small coppice or close there. Wherever and whatever the ‘hermitage’ was, clearly old religious practices still had some traction: they made places more meaningful. It may be that, in the popular world of customary rights, perceived antiquity lent authority, an appeal to better days before the rise of the enclosing landlord and the prominent large farmer.
To conclude, in the study of one small part of Oxfordshire we have been able to show how inhabitants’ perceptions developed over time and varied between settlements, and also between vale and wood-pasture landscapes. For all the significance of lords and outside forces, local people played a major role in creating the social spaces which they shared. Throughout the long period covered by the project (and the book), popular memory mattered. Local names and stories helped people identify their holdings and preserve their use rights. More than that, it helped make life meaningful. Medieval inhabitants might be named after certain local features, and in turn they helped generate the associations villagers shared when talking about particular fields or meadows. These findings can be tested by studies of other regions, especially when close documentary analysis is partnered with archaeological fieldwork.
All images: courtesy of Stephen Mileson.
Source Stephen Mileson is a landscape historian who works for the Victoria County History of Oxfordshire and teaches at Oxford University.
Stephen Mileson and Stuart Brookes, Peasant Perceptions of Landscape: Ewelme Hundred, South Oxfordshire, 500-1650 (OUP, ISBN 978-0192894892, £85).