Footprints of ancient towns and fields upon which a nation rose

Britain in the Middle Ages
September 8, 2006

Francis Pryor is that rare combination of a first-rate working archaeologist and a good writer with the priceless ability of being able to explain complex ideas clearly. In his previous books, Seahenge, Britain B.C. and Britain A.D ., he used his own excavations and field experience to write stimulating and sometimes controversial accounts of prehistoric and Roman times.

Britain in the Middle Ages examines the archaeology of familiar historical territory. This is not a textbook of political or social history but an exploration of longer term developments - field systems, towns, cities and trade. Pryor, no medieval specialist, looks at this archaeology from outside, but with a conviction that the only way you can examine British history is through long-term trends, which extend far back into prehistoric times. The book, he tells us, is a form of diary, his own exploration of a subject that has long fascinated him.

A succinct introduction about medieval archaeology stresses the close partnership between archaeology and history and describes how commercial archaeology has changed the face of research throughout Europe. The main body of the book is in two parts. Part one covers "Britons, Saxons and Romans", with a chapter on the emergence of England that stresses the continuity in the landscape after Roman times, describes the remarkable and little known excavations at Yeavering in northeast England, and uses the Harvard University historian Michael McCormick's research on early medieval trade to paint a picture of a vibrant Europe with active commercial links with the Mediterranean world.

Pryor shows how the Portable Antiquities Scheme is producing comprehensive information on find spots of coins and other artefacts that enables scholars to trace hitherto unknown medieval trade routes.

From the formation of England we move on to the Vikings, whom Pryor regards as a constructive influence on a Europe that was already realigning itself after Charlemagne's death. Two chapters on rural and urban life in late Saxon times are where the author's vast experience of landscape archaeology comes into full play. Pryor is especially good on field systems and the development of Saxon towns, including London.

The four chapters of part two cover the Middle Ages (1066-1550). We learn of the impact of the Black Death on the urban landscape, with Grimsby and Boston, Lincolnshire, as examples. Pryor takes us to York, where he describes new house construction methods using stone pads and timber frames. Then he moves on to London, describes church architecture and shares with us his delight in unpredictable medieval construction.

Herein lies a great pleasure of Pryor's writing, for he leads one along the highways and byways of archaeology and history on a sort of walking tour through the past, giving one a flavour of the times. Where else would you find an effortless discourse on water supplies in medieval cities? In the subsequent chapter on rural life, he shows how deserted medieval villages cannot be understood without reference to the surrounding landscape. Each was affected by changing economic realities, landlords, taxation and so on.

He stresses a holistic approach to the medieval landscape that emphasises how the nucleation of settlements was part of a new economic system that turned villages into institutional communities equipped to thrive in more productive agrarian landscapes.

The Black Death brought classic Malthusian checks, where drastic mortality led to population decline, more expensive labour and unheard-of opportunities for the survivors. Pryor compares the classic excavations at the deserted medieval village at Wharram Percy in north Yorkshire, abandoned in about 1500, with a large-scale survey of Whittlewood in the Midlands, where Chris Dyer and his colleagues are examining a 100km2 landscape and, instead of using area excavations, are relying on small trenches - "nanoarchaeology", as Pryor calls it. From Whittlewood comes an impression that changes in the landscape and processes such as nucleation were gradual accretions, not the result of simple economic factors but of far more complex developments triggered in part by the all-powerful Church and also by purely local considerations.

Pryor, a farmer himself, stresses the importance of the realities of farming life. He quotes archaeologist and historian Tom Wilkinson: changes in the landscape were often the result of rational adjustments to complex environmental circumstances made by people living in a world structured by the seasons and the demands of the soil. It takes a farmer to understand the processes. Who else would write about manure, mulch and "hot" dung, or copper deficiencies in lambs? Both Wilkinson and Pryor keep sheep. It takes a farmer to understand a farmer - there are perceptions of the changing medieval landscape that can be apparent only to those who have got their hands dirty on their own stock. Pryor argues convincingly that the seeds of the Industrial Revolution were laid in late medieval times with an increase in specialised manufacturing.

"Trade, industry and security" looks at these topics in an eclectic way, covering waterfront archaeology in London, tally sticks and the arcane carpentry of polygonal buildings, such as the lantern at Ely Cathedral. We learn about the complexities of city walls, about hill forts and castles as symbols of power and authority, and about medieval roads and bridges, ending with iron-working, which was on a larger scale than often thought.

In the final chapter, Pryor argues that the Middle Ages never came to an end, that highly visible events such as the dissolution of the monasteries were part of much more complex longer term changes. He believes that today's Europe is still fashioned by its early medieval period.

The author's eclectic interests and his passion for a past he considers deeply relevant to the present, drive Britain in the Middle Ages . This is popular archaeology at its best: engaging, knowledgeable and provocative, propelled by the author's zestful, insatiable curiosity. One can only hope that Pryor makes good on his threat to write a book on the archaeology of the 20th century. It will be an eye-opener.

Brian Fagan is emeritus professor of anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara, US.

Britain in the Middle Ages: An Archaeological History

Author - Francis Pryor
Publisher - HarperPress
Pages - 330
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 00 720361 6

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