Territoriality and the Early Medieval Landscape: the countryside of the East Saxon kingdom

Review by Nick Higham.

Stephen Rippon must be congratulated on a handsome, well-illustrated book that is a new must-read for anyone interested in the East Saxons or what the transition from Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England meant to the ordinary people working the land. The book is well-supported by 88 illustrations (mostly maps but some black-and-white photographs as well) and 18 tables. The work builds, of course, on other major studies led or authored by Rippon in recent years – particularly The Fields of Britannia (2015) and Kingdom, Civitas, and County (2018) – but goes further in two main areas. First, Rippon argues that successive reorganisations from the 7th to the 10th centuries AD (when shires and hundreds were imposed north of the Thames) so affected territoriality that pre-1974 shires provide only a poor framework within which to research earlier periods. Instead, he breaks down the landscape into ‘early folk territories’ within a tribal/kingdom unit. Second, the in-depth investigation of several different categories of material evidence is used to distinguish areas where 5th- and 6th-century ‘Anglo-Saxon’ settlement occurred from others where it was minimal, allowing Rippon to argue that, while Britons were pretty much everywhere in early England, there were more in some territories than others.

Taking these two foci separately, Rippon lays out his method of approaching early territoriality in Chapter 2 and Chapter 3, then provides a detailed case study (of the Rochford Peninsula) in Chapter 4, followed by the less-detailed examination of other regions. The approach is multidisciplinary, combining topographical, environmental, archaeological, and historical data. This draws, of course, on older research into the ancient divisions long-recognised in Kent, the small shires characteristic of the early medieval North, and the ‘multiple-estates’ envisaged by Glanville Jones in the 1970s; but there is an important step-change here, with one model applied systematically to the entirety of an important early medieval kingdom (and beyond) using previously unimaginable quantities of data. In the process, the approach is tested and shown to work. One of the strengths of Rippon’s model is that it was developed in and for eastern England, and one could envisage it being applicable anywhere in that region (and potentially outside it).

Clearly, this study brings us much closer to how eastern English territories were managed in, say, the 5th century AD, but the nature of the evidence still makes that a probability rather than a certainty. That early territorial boundaries ran along little-populated watersheds or through heathlands, woods, or wetlands is entirely reasonable, but we cannot be sure that these ‘natural’ units of exploitation were not already compromised in the Roman period, given the wholesale, governmental appropriation of land, villa-estate formation, and the tenure of extensive areas by overseas owners. That the pattern of land-management seems so similar in areas with and without much archaeological evidence of Anglo-Saxons is certainly best explained by these territorial arrangements being indigenous and inherited – stemming from a baseline continuity in the population across the Iron Age/Roman and English transition. Rippon’s differentiation of territories with little or no indicative Germanic material culture from territories that have yielded such finds is certainly consistent with variable patterns of settlement by incomers in the 5th and 6th centuries AD (but fails to explain why it was ‘Anglo-Saxon’ elites who took control, or why British communities eventually adopted the incomers’ language and place-naming traditions).

Overall, the work is well-structured and its arguments convincing. There is quite a lot of repetition, but this is generally justified by the necessity of reusing key pieces of information in different ways. There are some typological slips, a few of which necessitate sentences being read twice, but this reviewer only noted a couple of serious errors, notably concerning the Tribal Hidage on p.12, which stipulates 30,000 hides for the Mercians, not 300,000.

Territoriality and the Early Medieval Landscape: the countryside of the East Saxon kingdom, Stephen Rippon, Boydell Press, £60, ISBN 978-1783276806.