‘Dark Ages’: Landscape & Gardens

There is little agreement about what happened to the English landscape after Britain ceased to be part of the Roman Empire in the early 5th century. By the time of the Norman Conquest, however, England was a country which had been inhabited and farmed for centuries.

Offa’s Dyke, the 8th-century linear earthwork along the Anglo-Welsh border

Offa’s Dyke, the 8th-century linear earthwork along the Anglo-Welsh border

RETREAT

Certainly there was an influx of new people, in unknown numbers, from northern Europe. There were also significant changes in political organisation, as the former Roman province fragmented into a host of diminutive tribal territories.

But the most significant effects on the landscape seem to have been the consequence of a collapse in the population and a loss of technological knowledge. Settlement and cultivation retreated from areas with heavier, more intractable soils. Even on light, well-drained land, settlements tended to be more mobile and less permanent than in the Roman period, shifting every few generations.

An aerial view of Lydford Saxon Town, Devon

Lydford was one of four fortified towns or burhs in 9th-century Devon. Elements of the Saxon street plan – a central street with lanes leading off at right angles – are still evident in the village today, and the earthworks of the town’s defensive rampart are clearly visible in the foreground.

AN ANCIENT LANDSCAPE?

How much of the Romano-British landscape survived these dramatic changes is unclear.

One theory, based on landscape evidence, is that in parts of England the medieval and modern field patterns developed directly out of those of the prehistoric and Roman periods. In some districts, such as the Dengie peninsula in Essex, semi-regular grids of fields extend over areas larger than any medieval manor or parish, suggesting ancient planning. Elsewhere, Roman military roads seem to slice through ancient field patterns which appear to have survived up to the present, presumably because of continuous agricultural use.

But others view this kind of landscape evidence as illusory, and believe that the medieval landscape, while incorporating some Roman elements, largely developed on a blank slate.

REVIVAL

From the 7th century the population began to recover. Christianity was accepted, monasteries were founded, and larger political units emerged, able to orchestrate such immense feats as the construction of Offa's Dyke.

In spite of the upheavals caused by the Viking incursions of the later 9th century, the population and economy continued to expand. Both grew even faster as England became a unified kingdom following the reconquest of eastern parts of the country from the Danes.

This illustration from a calendar of about 1030 shows a group of men using a team of oxen to pull a plough.

This illustration from a calendar of about 1030 shows a group of men using a team of oxen to pull a plough. Across much of England farming was a communal activity: shared ploughs like this were used to cultivate the long narrow strips that were individually tenanted but farmed under an agreed plan of cultivation.
© British Library Board/Bridgeman Art Library

COMMUNAL LANDSCAPES

By the 10th century, in some regions of England – a broad band running from Yorkshire through the midlands to the south coast – villages had developed which clustered around a central point (‘nucleated villages’), farming extensive ‘open fields’. These were highly communal landscapes, in which farmers’ holdings lay scattered and intermingled in a myriad of unhedged strips. Ploughs were shared, and crop rotations and other matters were administered by a village assembly or manorial court.

Why such landscapes developed, or failed to do so, is a matter of debate. Across large areas of western and south-eastern England, settlement became increasingly dispersed, and while open fields often developed in these areas, they took less organised and communal forms.

Some scholars see open fields and villages as an approach imposed by local lords on the peasantry, while others believe that village living was a response to population pressures, and that areas of more scattered settlement had lower population densities.

Another theory is that local environmental factors provide the best explanation for variations in settlement and field systems. Nucleated villages, for example, may have emerged because the limited availability of water encouraged the clustering of farmsteads.

AN OLD COUNTRY

Whatever the explanation for these emerging variations in landscape, by the time of the Norman Conquest England was already an ‘old country’, which had been settled and farmed for centuries.

But many aspects of its more modern forms were yet to be created, while others had yet to crystallise into the forms with which we are now familiar.

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