Authors of forthcoming publication Planning in the Early Medieval Landscape, John Blair, Stephen Rippon, and Christopher Smart have shared an insight into their new work and how their book offers a completely new perspective on how villages and other settlements were formed.
This collaboration between landscape archaeologists, historians and statisticians puts the early medieval landscape of early England – and indeed of parts of Continental Europe – in a new light. The project demonstrates a far greater sophistication in the planning of Anglo-Saxon buildings, settlements and landscapes than has ever been thought plausible.
Starting from the recognition that some excavated sites show persistent rectilinearity and a recurrent use of modular units, the team eventually identified persuasive or conclusive grid-planning at over a hundred places. These comprise individual buildings, excavated settlements, and a range of still-functioning villages, mainly in the east midlands and eastern England. The module consistently used in those regions was a ‘short perch’ of 15 feet, though an 18-foot ‘long perch’ was used on occasional southern English sites. The standard later- and post-medieval perch of 16½ feet looks like a compromise between these two, perhaps even worked out at the court of King Alfred, with its combined Mercian and West Saxon influences.
We argue that the techniques of professional Roman land-surveyors (Agrimensores), which survived in post-Roman Italy though not in Britain, were re-imported into Anglo-Saxon England after AD 600. They are most visible in the planning of churches, monastic complexes and some royal houses, but were also at least sometimes used on a larger scale for village-type settlements and their fields. The technology may initially have been brought – either directly or by means of manuscripts – by St Augustine’s mission to Kent, and rich ecclesiastical travellers to Rome may have observed it at first-hand. At this stage, grid-planning may have remained largely the preserve of elite monastic institutions, and the ‘ordinary’ rural settlements that display it are perhaps best understood as granges, estate-centres or service communities on the lands of major minsters.
In support of this conclusion is the apparent disappearance of grid-planning after AD 800, when the minsters themselves were in decline. We could thus find no evidence for the technique in the places where it might most obviously have been expected: the so-called ‘burghal’ forts of Alfred and his contemporaries.
Accordingly, the revival of grid-planning around AD 940, just when the new wave of reformed monastic foundations was getting under way, was probably not coincidence. The reformers were influenced by monastic culture in the Low Countries, and imported northern French abridgements of the Agrimensores’ treatises. Used once again for some monastic sites, the technology was now extended to a much wider range of places, including many villages in the east midlands that were not necessarily in monastic hands. While it would probably always have been necessary to employ specialists to carry out the surveys, it seems likely that by AD 1000 the technology was widely available to farmers, village communities and the emergent ‘manorial’ lords.
The discovery contributes to our increasing awareness that Anglo-Saxon buildings and their environments were elegant and highly-structured, bearing comparison with the illuminated manuscripts and precious metalwork of the period. Indeed, far from being more sophisticated than their Anglo-Saxon predecessors, Anglo-Norman towns and villages were based on simpler and less accurate surveying methods: the Roman tradition seems finally to have been lost in England around the time of the Norman Conquest.
These are large claims, and initially met with some scepticism. We believe that we made a strong case through a combination of broad landscape survey with fine-grained spatial and metrical analysis. More objective verification was, however, needed, and we were very fortunate to obtain the generously-provided help of two professional statisticians. Their conclusions are currently provisional, but very encouraging: both the grids, and recurrent modules approximating to those that we had recognised, appear to be non-random phenomena. In the light of this, we believe that the hypothesis has now been proved beyond reasonable doubt. It offers an entirely new perspective on the early English built environment.
Find out more about the forthcoming Planning in the Early Medieval Landscape on the LUP website.