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Surviving ancient woodland on the Wakefield Lodge Estate, Whittlebury (Northants) 

Introduction

Our knowledge of medieval rural settlements has developed through a series of multi-disciplinary research projects, beginning with the work at Wharram Percy. The cumulative result of this research has been to transform our knowledge of the origin, growth, planning and replanning, shrinkage and desertion of nucleated villages.

The received wisdom that villages were formed at the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions, or that the free village preceded the manor have been shown to be mistaken. Now we can see that villages were created during a complex of changes in economy and government between the 9th and 12th century which are still not fully understood. Comparable changes, also the subject of debate, were taking place in continental Europe. Village settlements, both here and abroad, were confined to specific regions, and much of the rural population lived in hamlets and single farms.

Aims and Objects

The purpose of this research project is to explain the origin and survival of contrasting patterns of nucleated villages and of dispersed settlements. Questions to be investigated include:

  • the influence of prehistoric and Romano-British use of land

  • the chronology of medieval settlement formation

  • the significance of such factors as environment, demography and lordship on the settlement patterns

  • the functioning of the settlements in the 13th and 14th centuries

  • their varied experience of contraction after 1350.

Through the comparative method, we can investigate how, when, and why people took divergent paths towards nucleated and dispersed settlements.

Whittlebury Church (Northants)

Why Whittlewood?

After a systematic assessment of the four counties of Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Leicestershire (including Rutland) and Buckinghamshire, the Medieval Settlement Research Group has selected a group of 11 parishes in and around Whittlewood as the area with the best range of evidence. Criteria for selection included:

  • the presence in close proximity of nucleated and dispersed settlements

  • the quality of the documentary evidence

  • the availability and potential of the archaeological remains

  • the positive attitude of landowners

The project area (100 km2) is relatively large to obtain an adequate sample of the land and settlements of varied type, with different types of lordship and peasant communities. The modern parishes to be studied are, in Northamptonshire: Deanshanger; Passenham, Potterspury, Silverstone, Whittlebury and Wicken; and in Buckinghamshire: Akeley , Leckhampstead, Lillingstone Dayrell, Lillingstone Lovell, Luffield Abbey, and Stowe.

Methodology

Beginning in the spring of 2000, a two-year pilot project will prepare for a long-term multi-disciplinary project using documentary evidence; place-names; archaeology (both above ground and excavated evidence); and standing buildings. Extensive periods of fieldwork are envisaged including fieldwalking, earthwork survey, environmental sampling, geophysical survey, and at a later stage small-scale excavation.

Questions to be addressed

1. What was the late medieval form of settlement?

This information will come from retrogressive analysis of modern maps, early cartographic evidence, observation of existing settlement, survey of earthworks from ground observation and aerial photographs, and pottery scatters.

2. What were the uses of land and field systems in the later middle ages?

Again the technique of retrogressive analysis will be used, starting with modern maps. Earthwork evidence of ridge and furrow, enclosure banks, and pottery scatters from manuring will be plotted, together with documentary evidence for agriculture

3. What was the size of population, status of the inhabitants, community organisation, administrative divisions, lordship, tenures?

This will depend on mainly post-1086 documentary evidence, though we can also attempt to reconstruct the pre-Conquest administrative framework.

4. What were the settlement patterns and uses of land in the early middle ages, and before 400?

There is some indirect documentary evidence, and information from place-names, but the main method of research will be field-walking, aerial photographs and environmental analysis, followed up at a later state by selected geophysical survey and excavation.