Seasonal Settlement in the Medieval and Early Modern Countryside

Review by Stephen Mileson.

This latest, well-produced, and richly illustrated contribution to the Ruralia series tells us much about medieval and early modern use of the mountains, moorlands, forests, and remote coastlines that lay beyond Europe’s more populous lowland valleys and plains. The geographical reach is admirably wide: 30 short papers from a conference held in 2019 summarise the findings of landscape projects from Scandinavia in the north to the Iberian Peninsula in the south, and from Ireland in the west to the Czech lands and Hungary in the east, with an outlier as far away as Qatar. Case studies include the Welsh hafod (or summer residence); Wealden routeways and huts; Scandinavian outlands and iron production sites; Cantabrian, Serbian, and Tyrolean mountain pastures; Provençal woodland dwellings; Hungarian roadside cattle stops; a herring market on Danish Lolland; and Finnish reindeer herders’ camps.

The book showcases many of the strengths of landscape archaeology. The authors draw variously on documents, place-names, pollen data, excavated structures, and ethnographic parallels. There is an alertness to the role of kings and lords in shaping land-use as well as to that of the mainly poorer groups commonly engaged in pastoralism and woodland crafts. While a contextual chapter by Richard Oram asserts the significance of climate change for shifts in land-use, individual contributors helpfully flesh out the role of economic and political developments. Certain studies touch on the social implications of regular short- and long-distance movement and the nature of ‘outland’ society, themes that might be developed further.

Inevitably, some papers are more substantial than others. That partly reflects the novelty of this research focus in many regions, but it also stems from the challenges of interpreting typically sparse archaeological data and limited documentation. As Piers Dixon points out, identified individual settlements may actually have been permanent or temporary rather than seasonal – as suggested, for example, by evidence for cereal farming or phases of occupation. Seasonality, in other words, cannot be assumed in particular cases, and, although it was undoubtedly important in general terms, it should not be the only lens through which we look at these dynamic landscapes.

Seasonal Settlement in the Medieval and Early Modern Countryside, Piers Dixon and Claudia Theune (eds), Sidestone, £65 (free online), ISBN 978-9464270099.