Monday, February 18, 2013

The Early Medieval Countryside

by Carol McGrath

A knowledge of landscapes can be of use to the historical author to create a faithful atmosphere and background for a novel set in, for instance, the medieval period. There are various helpful writings to help us piece together a picture of the medieval English countryside.  Domesday Book is an obvious starting point. Scribed in 1086 it was a planned record of land tenure and a first census. It gives us a view of the medieval manor and a sense of the countryside as well as towns. It does sometimes omit taxable things such as ship yards but it does include woods which were, in fact, not taxable. Since it records changes from just before the Conquest of 1066 it is possible to get a sense of a demesne typical of a particular region. I consider it an invaluable resource.

Page for Warickshie in the Domesday Book

So what was the medieval countryside like? Regions of England are of great antiquity. County and parish boundaries were often determined a thousand years ago. Landscapes clearly vary. There is a difference between ancient countryside and planned countryside. Both existed in medieval England. Ancient countryside historically contained perhaps a modest extent at most of open fields, but it had ancient hedges,small woods and much heathland. It contained non-woodland trees such as oak, ash, alder, birch and many ponds. Planned countryside however had a strong tradition of open-field farming beginning early on and lasting until the Enclosure Act period. Hedges were modern, woods absent, large heaths rare and there was little bracken or broom. Trees were non-woodland thorns and elders. There were few ponds and interestingly the Normans, as did the Romans, drained fen-land.

A Victorian vision of the medieval wild wood

Further historical evidence of the medieval English countryside lies in plant debris ranging from tree trunks to bud scales. Pollen analysis tells us much about the wild wood in the past.

Anglo-Saxon Charters clothe an archaeological record with vivid detail and describe what specific pieces of the countryside looked like. They show the conveyance of a piece of land usually in Latin. The charter would contain a sermon, the name of the premises, the nature of the transaction, a list of witnesses and a curse, a horrible curse on anyone who would subvert the title. The charter contained details of land management and common rights. Now this bit is my personal favourite concerning land charters. They would have what is termed a perambulation. This would describe, usually this time in old English, the piece of land's boundaries proceeding from point to point in a sun wise direction. From AD 600-1080 there are 840 perambulations that describe landmarks that enclose an area. For example, a grey apple tree marked a boundary of Crowhurst near Hastings, close to the 1066 battlefield at Senlac. Charters are useful for the researcher because they portray the England of 100-200 years before the Domesday Book. I used both Domesday and charters in my research for The Handfasted Wife. They point to features such as trees, linear features such as hedges, streams and hills. And it is interesting to remark here that the word forest was not used until later. When it was used it meant a region where a king has the right to keep deer. Usually a place to keep deer was referred to as a park in the eleventh century.

Hares abounded but rabbits were introduced after 1066.

And so by 1250 woods covered only a few per cent of England. They had definite names, boundaries, and acreages, and they were private property that were extensively managed. They were permanent.

For further information I suggest The History of the Countryside by Oliver Rackham and seeking out Anglo-Saxon Calendars and of course The Domesday Book.

Carol McGrath, author of The Handfasted Wife, a story of Edith Swanneck, King Harold's common-law wife, to be published May 2013 by Accent Press. 


  1. The Forestry Commission suggest the woodland cover was as low as 15% by the 1200s. That's interesting because I'd always imagined it to be more. Domesday frustrates me because I'm interested in areas that were not assessed - north of Lancashire (Domesday didn't survey what is now Cumberland and Westmorland.) There is an extensive bibliography in for further exploration of medieval landscape.

    PS - Rabbits - had been introduced in Roman times but did not escape into the wild in any great numbers until the 12thC.

  2. That is really interesting. I did not realise that Romans introduced rabbits either. I was surprised too at the low percentage of woodland.

  3. There is almost a folk-myth about the extent of our native woodland and the reality is that much of it was lost as early as the bronze age.

    What is perhaps the most difficult thing for us, as writers, to grasp is not the appearance or physical reality of the landscape of 1,000 years ago, but how people related to that landscape. My guess is that for the great majority it was not a place they feared but simply regarded as their workplace.

    1. It absolutely was. Charcoal burners, hamlets, and if it was woodland rather than forest for the most part this so makes sense. But I so love the opening of Scott's Ivanhoe and the fact that so much of it takes place in woods. There are castles and a hall and I think Scott did have the sense that it did not look like deep forested area at all then. And yes it provided livlihoods

  4. Enjoyed your post! I know there have been changes to the landscape and even the terms used to describe property. Its good to know what resources are available to explain the older terms and appearance of the land.


    1. That book is really brilliant and thank you for commenting. I think I only touched the surface of it but hopefully engaged interest.


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