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Didier Boisseuil
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Pierre Chastang
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Laurent Feller
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1re section. Commercialisation, marchés, crises

The Crisis of the Early Fourteenth Century. Some Material Evidence from Britain

Christopher Dyer

Texte intégral

1When in 1998 Monique Bourin drew up her ambitious programme of seminars on various themes in the social and economic history of medieval Europe, she included the intractable problem of the crisis of c. 1300. She had hoped that archaeologists could be drawn into the discussion of this theme, but this did not prove possible. This essay aims to fill that gap, though it will do so in an inevitably incomplete and hesitant way as it comes from a mere historian with archaeological interests.

  • 1 B.F. Harvey, “The population trend in England between 1300 and 1348,” Transactions of the Royal His (...)

2The very existence of the crisis of the early fourteenth century was once doubted. While many British historians believed that there had been decisive changes in trade, population, production and prices before 1348, perhaps at the time of the Great Famine of 1315-1317, or at an even earlier date, others saw the early fourteenth-century setbacks as mere episodes, and preferred to regard the Black Death epidemic of 1348-1350 as a decisive turning point.1

  • 2 R. Britnell, Britain and Ireland 1050–1530, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004, 491–494.
  • 3 L.R. Poos, “The rural population of Essex in the later middle ages”, Economic History Review, 2nd s (...)
  • 4 E.g. P. Contamine, M. Bompaire, S. Lebecq, J.-L. Sarrazin, L’économie médiévale, Paris, Colin, 1993 (...)

3Now there is a stronger consensus that the mid-century epidemics in the long term hastened and emphasised trends that had begun in earlier decades. The volume of trade, measured for example by wool exports, was diminishing. Movements in grain prices seem to have been going downwards in the long term, and labour was becoming scarcer.2 Populations were not falling everywhere, but the evidence from Essex shows an impressive and consistent downward trend in some villages in the first half of the fourteenth century.3 If English historians had a less insular approach they might have been more confident in recognising the crisis around 1300, as it has long been documented in many parts of the continent, and has come to be regarded almost as a commonplace.4 Like many other trends in the economy the crisis is found on both sides of the Channel.

  • 5 C. Briggs, “Creditors and debtors and their relationships at Oakington, Cottenham and Dry Drayton ( (...)
  • 6 E.g. P.R. Schofield, “Dearth, debt and the local land market in a late thirteenth-century village c (...)

4The consensus that the crisis began around 1300 does not mean that historians are in universal agreement on the detailed changes of the period. The statistical series of prices, wages, rents and cereal yields are capable of many interpretations. The sudden surge in sales and purchases of land in bad harvest years in the 1290s or the 1310s might show that poorer peasants sold land to buy food, or more likely reflect the difficulties of paying debts as incomes were cut.5 The chronology is debated. There are some landmark years on which we can all agree, such as 1305, which saw the end of the growth in wool exports, or 1316 when the famine reached its heights of misery, but some scholars point to the difficulties of the 1290s as a key episode in initiating economic, social and political troubles. And others discuss the enigmas of the period between the famine and the plague, that is from 1318 to 1348.6

5Perhaps, some historians suggest, there were some difficult episodes, such as the Great Famine, or the destructive Scottish wars, but these bad patches were often followed by recovery so there were few deep, sustained or permanent signs of recession? Everyone agrees that some regions were more adversely affected than others, which makes it possible to represent the first phases of decline as concentrated in the poorest regions.

  • 7 W. Abel, Crises agraires en Europe (xiiie-xxe siècles), Paris, Flammarion, 1973; G. Duby, L’économí (...)

6These doubts and disagreements however are relatively simple when compared with the problems of explaining the cause of the crisis, or of characterising its place in the long term evolution of society. The whole issue came to prominence when historical thinking in the mid twentieth century, led by such formidable figures as Abel, Duby and Postan, portrayed the middle ages as part of a great cycle of expansion and depression driven by changes in population and ecology.7 Around 1300 the expansion of the previous two or three centuries came to an end as poor quality marginal lands which had been colonised under pressure of population growth had to be abandoned; fields everywhere, starved of manure, suffered from a depletion of nutrients; and millions of families struggled to survive on small holdings and low wages.

  • 8 R.H. Hilton, “Y eut-il une crise générale de la féodalité?”, Annales E.S.C., 6 (1951), 23-30; id., (...)
  • 9 M. Prestwich, Armies and warfare in the middle ages. The English experience, New Haven, Yale Univer (...)

7Historians on the left explained the crisis in terms of the internal contradictions of feudal society. The lords exploited the peasantry excessively by extracting rent, and prevented them from making technical improvements in their farming, while themselves investing little and instead spending lavishly on luxuries.8 The expansion which allowed the feudal order to celebrate its greatest material and cultural achievements in the thirteenth century ended with a fall in landlords’ incomes. Factors in the decline in estate revenues included peasant resistance to rent, and diminishing agricultural profits. Wars were encouraged by the hopes of profit from ransoms and plunder, and the military campaigns in turn contributed to the economic problems by destroying buildings, damaging crops, disrupting trade, and requiring large levies of tax.9

  • 10 R. Britnell, The commercialisation of English society 1000–1500, Cambridge, Cambridge University Pr (...)
  • 11 J. Munro, “Industrial transformations in the north-west European textile trades, c. 1290-c. 1340: e (...)

8The new generation of historians who have emphasised commercial growth as a driving force behind other changes in the middle ages can point to the signs of recession similar to the more recent ups and owns in the trade cycle.10 In the early fourteenth century the volume of trade diminished, and merchant fortunes were threatened. Newly founded towns and markets failed. The market, for cloth in particular, was glutted, trade routes were disrupted by war, and taxes ate into commercial profits.11

  • 12 M. Bailey, “The concept of the margin in the medieval English economy”, Economic History Review, 2n (...)

9The debates have helped to refine the arguments. We no longer accept the characterisation of ‘marginal lands’ associated with the ecological camp, nor yet are rents thought to have crippled the peasant economy as suggested in some versions of the Marxist view. Those of the commercialisation school who see farming as aiming at a saleable surplus have identified technical innovations which were once denied by those who have singled out population growth and feudal exploitation.12 There are some convergences, in that everyone agrees on the central role of agricultural productivity. Those who identify commerce as a prime mover notice the reduced consumption of traded and manufactured goods, and this is to some extent compatible with the Marxists’ perception of the shrinking purchasing power of the wealthier consumers.

  • 13 B. Campbell, “Nature as historical protagonist; environment and society in pre-industrial England”,(...)

10The debates outlined so far reflect the disagreements of economic and social historians, all of whom believe that the crisis relates to human activity, whether it was demographic behaviour, social interaction or the commercial impulse. Among the ecological school there is some allowance for environmental factors, such as rising sea levels and increased rainfall. The bad weather that caused food shortages, however, is interpreted in social and economic terms, in that it is thought that misfortune exposed weaknesses in society and the economy. Those influenced by environmental history argue that exogenous factors provide alternative explanations of the crisis. The crisis, we are told, was an accident of nature, brought about by inexplicable events, such as volcanic eruptions or climatic cycles. Recently evidence from dendrochronology has been introduced in support of the view that the crisis was a byproduct of a dramatic global shift in climate.13

Archaeological evidence

11The reference to tree rings reminds us of a very large body of archaeological and architectural evidence for the late medieval period which has not been properly exploited by historians. Many archaeologists are aware of the broad patterns of change in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but have not ventured into the complex detail of the arguments outlined above. Historians know about archaeological work, but have not sought to apply it to the crisis debate, partly because they feel unsure of the techniques of research. There are many obstacles to interdisciplinary communication, including the reluctance among archaeologists to become mere ancillaries to history. Also archaeologists commonly believe that the material evidence should stand alone, independent of the information that can be gleaned from documents. Too many historians are ignorant or dismissive of the archaeological evidence.

  • 14 D. Miles, “Refinements in the interpretation of tree-ring dates for oak building timbers in England (...)

12The nature and timing of the crisis are questions posed by historians, and it is only right that a historian should pursue them. There are many traps and difficulties, above all the problems of assigning accurate dates to the buildings, settlements, industrial sites, boundary features and signs of cultivation which might be relevant to the inquiry. Pottery and carbon 14 are incapable of providing very precise dates. Even a coin only dates the context in which it is found to a period later than the year of minting, and coins are scarce. Tree rings can provide a precise indication of the year of felling, but even they are not as clear and unambiguous as we would wish, as allowance often needs to be made for the missing sapwood which might mean that the tree was felled 20 years after the last visible ring, and there are a number of technical problems.14

  • 15 G. Beresford, “Three deserted medieval settlements on Dartmoor: a report on the late E. Marie Minte (...)
  • 16 J.P. Allen, “Medieval pottery and the dating of deserted settlements on Dartmoor”, Proceedings of t (...)

13Knowledge advances: an important hamlet site on Dartmoor in Devon, Hound Tor, was once believed to have been abandoned before 1348 when the inhabitants encountered problems in cultivating the high moorland soils in deteriorating climatic conditions.15 It is now thought that the site may have been occupied for some time after 1350 as some of the pottery found could have been made in the late fourteenth century.16 Climate change therefore seems a less important factor in its decline. Proving a negative is as problematic in archaeology as in documentary history. In towns, for example, finding pottery and other artefacts depends on the method of rubbish disposal. If household refuse in the thirteenth century was buried near the house, the date of occupation can be judged from the contents of the associated pits. But if a new method of rubbish disposal was adopted in c.1300 by which the material was carried away, the absence of fourteenth-century pottery and artefacts would create the illusion that the house was no longer inhabited.

14In spite of these uncertainties, we ought not to abandon the expectation that the material world can tell us something about the crisis, as long as we do not accept the evidence at face value. One general warning concerns the difficulty of dating pottery exactly, so that the last phase is sometimes ascribed to the ‘mid fourteenth century’. These places may have ceased to exist some decades earlier than 1350, and even if they were depopulated suddenly by the mid-century epidemics, they are likely to have been weakened by earlier difficulties.

15The inquiry into the archaeological record will be here divided into four related questions: when did the crisis take place? Where are the symptoms most visible? How profound and long lasting was the depression? And what were its causes?

When was the crisis?

16The first point that must be made about the chronology of the economic and social changes is that there is no obvious evidence of a crisis on most excavated sites. In the case of rural settlements the abandoned villages and hamlets on which work has been concentrated were usually deserted in the late fourteenth century or more often between 1400 and 1600. Urban sites on the other hand have often been in continuous existence up to the present day, and the typical houses or backyards of British towns have been occupied throughout the later middle ages. Perhaps in both the rural and urban settlements that have been excavated there was a period of temporary abandonment during the early fourteenth century, or an episode of relative poverty and reduced activity, but such transient signs of recession would be difficult to detect.

  • 17 P. Frodsham et al., Archaeology in Northumberland National Park, Council/or British Archaeology Res (...)
  • 18 A.L. Davies, P. Dixon, “Reading the pastoral landscape: palynological and historical evidence for t (...)

17Land or settlements can be shown to have been abandoned by about 1300. Fields are rarely excavated, but former cultivated land was sampled near the rectory at Ingram in Northumberland, which produced a good number of potsherds of the thirteenth century.17 This material had presumably been deposited on the ploughed field with cartloads of household rubbish mingled with manure, and the most plausible explanation of the absence of pottery datable to the fourteenth century was the conversion of the arable land to pasture around 1300. The results of excavation have been set in a wider context by landscape survey and pollen analysis, which show that the territory of Ingram was cultivated, even on high ground, but much of this land was converted to grassland and was subject to woodland regeneration in the fourteenth century.18

  • 19 R.F. Parker, A.W.F. Boarder, “A medieval settlement site at Fillington Wood, West Wycombe”, Records (...)
  • 20 A. Thorne, “A medieval tenement at Deene End, Weldon, Northamptonshire”, NorthamptonshireArchaeolog (...)
  • 21 A. Maull et al., Excavation of the deserted medieval village of Coton at Coton Park, Rugby, Warwick (...)

18An isolated farmstead in the Chiltern Hills in Buckinghamshire, near Fillington Wood in West Wycombe, was inhabited, judging from the pottery, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.19 Deene End, part of the scattered ‘polyfocal’ village of Great Weldon in Northamptonshire, contained a house with three rooms and a walled yard which had belonged to a relatively prosperous villager who apparently gained an income from both farming and iron working.20 The structures were abandoned and demolished by about 1300, a date which could be established with some confidence because a distinctive type of locally made pottery of the early fourteenth century was entirely absent. Only rarely is there evidence for the complete abandonment of a whole settlement, but this apparently happened at Coton near Rugby (Warwickshire) where occupation on about a dozen house sites ceased in the late thirteenth century with one plot continuing into the early fourteenth.21

  • 22 P. Harding, L. Mepham, R.J.C. Smith, “The excavation of the 12th-13th century deposits at Howard’s (...)
  • 23 K. Murphy, “Excavations in three burgage plots in the medieval town of Newport, Dyfed, 1991”, Medie (...)

19In the late thirteenth century new towns were being planted and many existing towns were growing, but some urban centres were already beginning to shrink. This phenomenon of small-scale urban decline has been noted on a plot on the eastern side of the Dorset town of Wareham. This strategic fortification had been planned on a large scale in the ninth century, but in the long term had not developed into anything more than a modest market town. The excavated area had been inhabited in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries but was in decay by about 1250.22 Newport in Dyfed was one of many towns established by the Anglo-Norman lords in Wales, and more than 200 burgage plots were laid out in a process of town planning beginning in 1197. Excavation of three adjacent abandoned plots towards the northern edge of the town showed that after some intensive occupation the houses were uninhabited by the end of the thirteenth century (or possibly the early fourteenth), and their sites were subsequently used as agricultural land.23

  • 24 C. Hayfield, T. Slater, The medieval town of Hedon. Excavations 1975–1976, Hull, Humberside Leisure (...)
  • 25 P. Courtney, “Saxon and medieval Leicester: the making of an urban landscape”, Transactions of the (...)

20Examples of retreat and recession in the first half of the fourteenth century, compared with those from 1250-1300, seem more numerous and had an impact on a larger area. Two urban cases will be sufficient to make the point. A significant port in east Yorkshire, Hedon, showed signs of decline in the late thirteenth century, and excavated plots on streets that were laid out in the twelfth century were abandoned in the early fourteenth.24 Contemporaries blamed its decline, among other factors, on competition from the new port of Ravenser, but most of this rival settlement in the Humber estuary was washed away in the 1340s. The east midland provincial town of Leicester, head of its shire and containing between 4,000 and 5,000 people by the early fourteenth century, had grown in the early middle ages mostly within its Roman walls, but tended to spill over into suburbs to the south and east, leaving a large area in the north of the walled area which was not intensively inhabited. Excavation on a number of sites in this part of the town has located buildings and other signs of occupation of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Activity, however, tended to tail off into disuse in the early fourteenth century, after which the whole area was covered with a thick layer of dark earth, apparently deposits of garden soil.25

21Add to these urban casualties the abandoned upland settlements in central and northern Wales, the hamlets in the Cotswolds, the sections of villages that fell out of use in Buckinghamshire, and the deserted farmsteads in Cornwall (for all of which see below), and we can say with some confidence, in spite of the imprecision of dates, that an occasional decay of houses or cessation of cultivation before 1300 had by the middle of the fourteenth century become a widespread movement.

Where was the crisis?

  • 26 N. Hair, R. Newman, “Excavation of medieval settlement remains at Crosedale in Howgill”, Transactio (...)

22The examples that I have given above include some cases which might support the argument that the period between 1250 and 1350 saw a retreat of settlement from marginal land. The change in land use from arable to pasture at Ingram in the hills of Northumberland is a typical symptom of the process. The abandonment of an isolated building, also in the northern uplands, at Crosedale in Howgill in Cumberland, is more complicated, as this was a shieling, a building temporarily occupied when summer pastures were being grazed. It fell into disuse presumably when the transhumance pattern changed.26 It is almost a commonplace that archaeologists will find in the uplands the remains of deserted farmsteads or hamlets. These are often linked with traces of abandoned cultivation in the form of ridge and furrow or at least enclosures in which crops could have been grown. These will have been abandoned over a long period stretching into modern times, but in a number of cases excavation has suggested that occupation ceased before or around 1350.

  • 27 D. Austin, G.A.M. Gerrard, T.A.P. Greaves, “Tin and agriculture in the middle ages and beyond: land (...)
  • 28 A. Fox, “Early Welsh homesteads on Gelligaer Common, Glamorgan”, Archaeologia Cambrensis, 94(1939), (...)
  • 29 S. Rippon, Gwent levels: the evolution of a wetland landscape, York, Council for British Archaeolog (...)
  • 30 P. Fowler, Landscape plotted and pieced. Landscape history and local archaeology in Fyfield and Ove (...)

23These included farmsteads on the exposed moorlands of the far west, as at St Neot in Cornwall, and the hamlet that lay on land now occupied by Meldon Quarry near Okehampton on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon, and farms on the hills of central and north Wales such as Cefn Graeanog in Gwynnedd.27 To the south in Wales another extreme upland environment was Gelligaer Common, on which platform houses (probably shielings) were inhabited at a height above 300 m.28 Also in south Wales the reclaimed lands along the shore line of the Severn estuary were threatened by inundations in 1324, and land and settlements were abandoned during the fourteenth century.29 A deserted farmstead sited on the relatively gentle slopes of the Wiltshire downs, at Raddun above the village of Fyfield disappeared from the documentary record in 1318.30

  • 31 M.J. Saunders, “The excavation of a medieval site at Walsingham School, St Paul’s Cray, Bromley, 19 (...)
  • 32 S. Ford, S. Preston, “Medieval occupation at the Orchard, Brighthampton”, Oxoniensia, 67 (2002), 28 (...)

24We cannot draw a distribution map of settlements and fields with archaeological evidence for abandonment around 1300, because at present the sample is too small to give anything more than a vague impression. In addition the research methods have too many biases, as there is a shortage of closely datable pottery in the west, and a greater quantity of archaeological work in the areas of modern prosperity towards the south east. We can be confident, however, that in addition to the sites located on lands commonly judged to have been marginal, much evidence also comes from the lowlands with their emphasis on arable farming. Perhaps rural settlements in the woodland landscapes, with their more plentiful pasture, have provided a number of examples of houses falling into disuse in our period, in such places as St Paul’s Cray in Bromley in Kent, or at Anstey in north-west Leicestershire, both of which contained a plot which seems to have been abandoned in the early fourteenth century.31 Such abandoned houses are also found in nucleated village cultivating open fields growing mainly corn, such as Brighthampton in Oxfordshire, where a part of the village was occupied between the mid-eleventh and early fourteenth centuries, and Tattenhoe in Buckinghamshire with houses inhabited over a similar range of dates.32 The relatively long chronological span of the last two examples shows that settlements that were well established over at least three centuries were affected by the crisis. Abandonment was not confined to relatively recently established farmsteads like that at Fillington Wood in the Chilterns or some of the moorland sites which may have been in existence for not much more than a century before they succumbed. It cannot be said that the crisis only threatened fragile, newly founded settlements.

  • 33 R.A. Griffiths, “Wales and the Marches”, in The Cambridge urban history of Britain, I: 600–1540, D. (...)
  • 34 J. Lucas, “Excavations in a medieval market town: Mountsorrel, Leicestershire”, Transactions of the (...)
  • 35 K. Steane et al., The archaeology of the upper city and adjacent suburbs, Lincoln (Lincoln Archaeol (...)
  • 36 R. Edwards, D. Hurst, “Iron age settlement, and a medieval and later farmstead: excavations at 93–9 (...)

25The same type of argument can be applied to urban settlements, and it could be alleged that the towns which shrank tended to be small, remote and with a weak economy. In parts of Wales, for example, or in a thinly populated English county such as Staffordshire, perhaps too many urban foundations were attempted, and the more feeble towns collapsed in the crisis years. One thinks of the small Welsh borough of Dryslwyn, perhaps founded in about 1280, and expanded by the conquering English after 1287, which had begun a severe decline by the 1340s.33 The north Leicestershire town of Mountsorrell always struggled to establish itself as a centre of trade and industry in the shadow of Leicester and Loughborough, and occupation of a site there petered out by 1300.34 Evidence for the abandonment of houses in towns around 1300 also comes from large and well established centres in the urbanised east of the country. In addition to northern Leicester which has already been mentioned, the north-western suburb of Lincoln suffered a setback at this time, as did houses on the western edge of Ely, and on the south side of St Peter’s Street in Northampton.35 The smaller towns which were affected were by no means the weak and late foundations, as they included Evesham (Worcestershire), Tonbridge (Kent) and Wareham, which began in the eleventh century or earlier.36

26The conclusion that can be drawn about the location of material evidence for the effects of the crisis might be the rather bland statement that change is apparent everywhere around 1300. A more analytical approach would be to identify a number of distinct circumstances. Some ‘retreat from marginal land’ can be identified, though settlements survived and even flourished on the hills and in the wetlands, but decline in the open field villages of the midlands, and in the larger towns of the eastern counties, require more complex explanations.

How profound was the crisis?

27Many of the cases that have been cited so far have consisted of relatively small scale reductions in the size of both villages and towns. If a whole settlement disappeared, it tended to be small. Individual dwellings were abandoned, which are located in villages or hamlets that still exist, suggesting that the settlements as a whole kept going. The scale of archaeological work tends to reinforce this impression, as often only a single plot is available for excavation, on which a modern house, shop or car park is to be built.

  • 37 R. Mortimer et al., “The Saxon and medieval settlement”, op. cit.; N. Finn, “The origins of a Leice (...)
  • 38 C. Gerrard, M. Aston, The Shapwick project, Somerset. A rural landscape explored, Leeds (Society fo (...)

28When more extensive excavation has been done it is apparent that that the density of occupation in a settlement was reduced. At the West End of Ely, in quite a large section of a suburb, four domestic buildings had been occupied in the twelfth century, falling to three in the thirteenth. One of these had been abandoned by 1350, and the other two by 1400. At another suburb, Bonners Lane in Leicester, of the five buildings of 1100-1300, only one survived after 1300 and that had been demolished by 1400.37 A common experience in a village, known from documents rather than excavation, was the amalgamation of the tofts or building plots. In Bridewell Lane in Shapwick (Somerset) around 1300 two properties were put together and the former boundary ditch infilled.38 Towns and villages were becoming smaller, but without leaving large areas of vacant land and decaying houses.

  • 39 C. Dyer, “The rise and fall of a medieval village: Little Aston (in Aston Blank), Gloucestershire”,(...)
  • 40 R. Ivens et al., Tattenhoe and Westbury..., op. cit.

29In contradiction of this view of changes that scarcely amount to a crisis at all, we ought to remember that there were some quite dramatic developments, like the total desertion of small villages. Coton, which lost its inhabitants in the thirteenth century has already been mentioned, and the fate of Little Aston in Aston Blank (Gloucestershire) by about 1340 is suggested by a combination of documentary evidence, a pottery scatter, and earthworks.39 Similar sites are known across the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, and in Shropshire, but have not been excavated to confirm the testimony of the documents that they shrank or disappeared before 1350. In addition to these total desertions, villages such as Tattenhoe shrank severely at this time.40

  • 41 R. Morris, Cathedrals and abbeys of England and Wales. The building Church, 600–1540, London, Dent, (...)

30Buildings can also give us an insight into the large scale of the crisis. Construction work on major churches, mainly cathedrals and monasteries, shows a pronounced decline between about 1280 and 1350.41 If work on major buildings dropped by more than 20 per cent this must have reduced by thousands the work force of masons, carpenters, plumbers, tilers, smiths and labourers, and depressed demand from quarries, woodlands, tile kilns, lead mines, forges and other centres of production. The downward movement of course continued after 1350.

  • 42 J.H. Williams, St Peter’s Street..., op. cit.
  • 43 R. Jackson, Archaeological excavations in Dursley, Gloucestershire, Bristol, Bristol and region arc (...)
  • 44 Lost farmsteads. Deserted rural settlements in Wales, K. Roberts ed., York, Council for British Arc (...)

31Archaeology demonstrates the long-term consequences of the early fourteenth-century troubles. We have noted the difficulty of identifying a shortterm interruption to occupation, but reconstruction after an interval can sometimes be recognised. At St Peter’s Street Northampton, after the south side of the street had been uninhabited for most of the fourteenth century, new houses were built there in the fifteenth.42 In the woollen cloth manufacturing town of Dursley (Gloucestershire) a plot on the edge of the town fell out of use in the early fourteenth century, and was brought back into use in the seventeenth.43 At Leicester the northern part of the town which was turned into gardens in the fourteenth century remained uninhabited until the nineteenth-century phase of urbanisation. In the countryside the survival of the earthwork remains of deserted settlements on land now under permanent pasture-not just on the moorlands but in the lowlands of central England-give silent but powerful witness to the permanence of the changes of the early fourteenth century.44

  • 45 T. Allen, “Swine, salt and seafood: a case study of Anglo-Saxon and early medieval settlement in no (...)

32Archaeological evidence points to some of the complexities of the period. To take an example of a trend highlighted at the beginning of this study-why should we assume that a change in land use from arable to pasture marks a decline? Pastoral farming was productive and profitable, and the grasslands were carefully managed for example by practising transhumance. The regeneration of woodlands should not be seen as a sign of recession, as the trees were managed and cropped. The loss of buildings should not always be seen as evidence for decline. Sometimes settlements were being reorganised or relocated, so the abandonment of some Cornish sites is likely to be connected with the exploitation of new tin workings, just as the movement out of the Kentish fishing and salt making settlement at Chestfeld was probably accompanied by the survival and growth of nearby settlements.45 Some towns grew in the long term, and the loss of a house at one end of Dursley, a cloth making centre, was counteracted in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by the development of fulling mills and houses for weavers and clothiers elsewhere in the town.

  • 46 Sarah Pearson provided me with a list of buildings dated for the period before 1350 which she used (...)

33When a house in a village was allowed to fall down, or its plot was joined to that of a neighbour, the holdings of land attached to them were being linked to make a larger unit of production. Some of the houses which fell into disuse, such as those at Coton near Rugby, were among the smallest and poorest that we know from that period, and the crisis removed a rural slum. The most securely dated material evidence, from the tree rings of building timber, shows that the period of crisis saw an apparent growth in construction in towns, with 17 new urban buildings in the period 1326-50, compared with 11 in 1301-25 and much smaller numbers before 1300 (see Table in fine).46 The crisis evidently involved some reconstructions and initiatives as well as retreat and decline. As has already been emphasised, most archaeological sites contain little evidence of recession or a break in continuity. Houses persisted or were renewed, though it must be said that few settlements began their life around 1300, in contrast with many places with a first phase in the eleventh, twelfth or thirteenth centuries.

Why was there a crisis?

  • 47 H. Riley, R. Wilson-North, The field archaeology of Exmoor, Swindon, English Heritage, 2001, 92–102

34The archaeological and architectural evidence cannot provide an easy solution to the question that has caused so much controversy in the last sixty years. We have already observed that there is some evidence for a retreat from moorlands and uplands. In contradiction of the view that this represented the failure of the twelfth-and thirteenth-century colonisation, archaeology shows that people lived on remote hills in all periods (the ninth century for example), not just when the valleys were fully populated. They took advantage of the opportunities that the hills provided, including pastoralism, mining, quarrying and turf digging. Many moorland farms survived the crisis, and have been inhabited until today, such as those on Exmoor.47 People were also leaving their houses in villages which were not scraping a poor living on the margins, such as those in north Buckinghamshire.

  • 48 C. Coulson, “Hierarchism in conventual crenellation”, Medieval Archaeology, 26 (1982), 69–100.
  • 49 H. Parker, “A medieval wharf in Thoresby College Courtyard, King’s Lynn”, Medieval Archaeology, 9 ( (...)
  • 50 S. Mileson, “The sociology of park creation in medieval England”, in The medieval park. New perspec (...)

35The archaeological evidence suggests the varying fortunes of different sections of society. The wealthy church landowners, bishops and monastic houses, could not afford to maintain their building programmes after 1280. Tree ring dates from buildings belonging to all sections of the aristocracy, especially from timber-framed manor houses and manorial barns, in contrast with the figures for urban buildings, reveal a decline in construction from 35 buildings in the first quarter of the fourteenth century to 31 in 1326-50 (see Table). This observation would be compatible with the idea that the period saw a decline in seigneurial incomes. There are also signs of friction between the élites and their inferiors. The fortifications of urban monasteries and cathedrals, such as the gate into the monastic precinct at Bury St Edmunds (Suffolk) show reactions to social conflict.48 ‘Knight jugs’ made in centres such as Scarborough (Yorkshire) were decorated with images of knights and ladies in a style which suggests a lack of deference and even some mockery. These depictions reflect, not bitter resentment, but a lack of respect for the upper class among the potters and their customers.49 The parks that were formed at this time, together with other elaborations of aristocratic material culture, could be seen as assertions of status and social exclusiveness at a time when the aristocracy felt threatened. But these trends are not conclusive support for the whole theory of social crisis. Parks for example, often belonged to the higher ranks, who cannot have felt that their status was in doubt.50

  • 51 D. Austin et al., “Farms and fields in Okehampton Park”, op. cit. For doubts about the end of this (...)
  • 52 P. Dixon, “A rural medieval settlement in Roxburghshire: excavations at Springwood Park, Kelso, 198 (...)
  • 53 E.g. Roxburgh, Medieval Archaeology, 48 (2004), 332–333.
  • 54 D.H. Evans, M. Jarrett S. Wrathmell, “The deserted medieval village of West Whelpington, Northumber (...)
  • 55 C. Platt, R. Coleman-Smith, Excavations in medieval Southampton, 1953–1961, Leicester, Leicester Un (...)

36Occasionally we can be more precise about episodes in the archaeological record, but the interpretation remains uncertain. A hamlet near Meldon Quarry in north Devon was deliberately removed by its lord when the land was incorporated into a park attached to Okehampton Castle. Was the decision made because the lord gave priority to pleasure and the enhancement of his status? The peasants who lived there seemed to have adapted their way of life to the environment, and were not miserably poor. Or perhaps their rents, never very high, were giving a diminished return, which made the park a more rational use of the land?51 A rural settlement at Springwood Park near Kelso in the Scottish borders had its buildings renewed three times between the mid twelfth and early fourteenth century, and the small finds and pottery suggest that its inhabitants enjoyed a relatively rich material culture. Occupation ceased in the early or mid fourteenth century, at a time of military campaigns.52 Scottish towns suffered much damage and even depopulation from English armies.53 This does not support the idea, however, that war alone caused the crisis. It obviously had a great impact, but in conjunction with underlying conditions. The Northumberland village of West Whelpington was apparently destroyed in a Scottish raid in the early fourteenth century, but recovered, was rebuilt, and survived into the eighteenth century, while the inhabitants of the Springwood Park hamlet either lacked resources or confidence, or for some reason their lord decided not to promote the rebuilding of the settlement.54 We see varied responses to the destruction caused by a French raid on Southampton in 1338. On the High Street a property was rebuilt, but presumably for economic reasons the decision was made to convert the site of a house on Cuckoo Lane to a garden.55

37Climatic deterioration obviously played a part in the crisis, which is most readily apparent in the evidence in the wetlands for the end of reclamation schemes and the loss of some newly drained land. Once more, however, the straightforward explanation cannot be applied, because the lost land could have been recovered had people had the will or the means. Archaeological evidence, because of its physical nature, encourages environmental explanations of change, such as fluctuations in climate. Closer examination suggests that simple causes rarely work on their own, and we have to consider the interaction between natural forces, economic cycles, shifts in the balance of society, and the mentality and outlook of the people who lived through these difficult times.

Table-English buildings dated by dendrochronology for the period 1276-1350

1276-1300

1301-1325

1326-1350

Total

Buildings in towns

4

11

17

32

Aristocratic buildings

17

35

31

83

(Source: see note 46)

Notes

1 B.F. Harvey, “The population trend in England between 1300 and 1348,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th ser., 26 (1966), 23–42.

2 R. Britnell, Britain and Ireland 1050–1530, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004, 491–494.

3 L.R. Poos, “The rural population of Essex in the later middle ages”, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 38 (1985), 515–530; R. Smith, “Plagues and peoples. The long demographic cycle, 1250–1670”, in The peopling of Britain. The shaping of a human landscape, P. Slack, R. Ward ed., Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002,181–182.

4 E.g. P. Contamine, M. Bompaire, S. Lebecq, J.-L. Sarrazin, L’économie médiévale, Paris, Colin, 1993, 293–297; L. Feller, Paysans et seigneurs au Moyen Âge, viiie-xve siècles, Paris, Colin, 2007, 219–245.

5 C. Briggs, “Creditors and debtors and their relationships at Oakington, Cottenham and Dry Drayton (Cambridgeshire), 1291–1350”, in Credit and debt in medieval England, P.R. Schofield, N.J. Mayhew ed., Oxford, Oxbow, 2002,127–148; M. Davies, J. Kissock, “The feet of fines, the land market and the English agricultural crisis of 1315–1322”, Journal of Historical Geography, 30 (2004), 215–230.

6 E.g. P.R. Schofield, “Dearth, debt and the local land market in a late thirteenth-century village community”, Agricultural History Review, 45 (1997), 1–17; M. Mate, “The agrarian economy of south-east England before the Black Death: depressed or buoyant?”, in Before the Black Death. Studies in the ‘crisis’ of the early fourteenth century, B.M.S. Campbell ed., Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1991, 79–109.

7 W. Abel, Crises agraires en Europe (xiiie-xxe siècles), Paris, Flammarion, 1973; G. Duby, L’économíe rurale et la vie des campagnes dans l’Occident médiéval, Paris, Aubier, 1962; M. Postan, “Medieval agrarian society in its prime. England”, in Cambridge economic history of Europe, I: The agrarian life of the middle ages, M. Postan ed., Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1966, 548-632.

8 R.H. Hilton, “Y eut-il une crise générale de la féodalité?”, Annales E.S.C., 6 (1951), 23-30; id., “Rent and capital formation in feudal society”, in Deuxième conférence internationale d’histoire économique (Aix-en-Provence, 1962), Paris, Mouton, 1965, 33-68.

9 M. Prestwich, Armies and warfare in the middle ages. The English experience, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1996,100–109; R. Lomas, “The impact of border warfare: the Scots and South Tweedside, c. 1290-c. 1520”, Scottish Historical Review, 75 (1996), 143–167; C. Briggs, “Taxation, warfare and the early fourteenth century ‘crisis’ in the north: Cumberland Lay Subsidies, 1332–1348”, Economic History Review, 58 (2005), 639-672; B. Dodds, Peasants and production in the medieval north-east. The evidence from tithes 1270-1536, Woodbridge, Boydell, 2007, 45–70.

10 R. Britnell, The commercialisation of English society 1000–1500, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993, 157, 161, 164.

11 J. Munro, “Industrial transformations in the north-west European textile trades, c. 1290-c. 1340: economic progress or economic crisis?”, in Before the Black Death..., op. cit., 79–109.

12 M. Bailey, “The concept of the margin in the medieval English economy”, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 42 (1989), 1–17; R.M. Smith, “The English peasantry, 1250–1650”, in The peasantries of Europe, T. Scott ed., London, Longman, 1998, 348-357; B.M.S. Campbell, “Economic rent and the intensification of English agriculture, 1086–1350”, in Medieval farming and technology. The impact of agricultural change in northwest Europe, G. Astili, J. Langdon ed., Leiden, Brill, 1997, 225–249.

13 B. Campbell, “Nature as historical protagonist; environment and society in pre-industrial England”, Economic History Review, 63 (2010), 281–314.

14 D. Miles, “Refinements in the interpretation of tree-ring dates for oak building timbers in England and Wales”, Vernacular Architecture, 38 (2006), p. 84–96; A. Bayliss, “Bayesian buildings: an introduction for the numerically challenged”, Vernacular Architecture, 38 (2007), 75–86.

15 G. Beresford, “Three deserted medieval settlements on Dartmoor: a report on the late E. Marie Minter’s excavations”, Medieval Archaeology, 23 (1979), 98–158.

16 J.P. Allen, “Medieval pottery and the dating of deserted settlements on Dartmoor”, Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Society, 52 (1994), 141–147.

17 P. Frodsham et al., Archaeology in Northumberland National Park, Council/or British Archaeology Research Report, 136, York, 2004, 84, 188.

18 A.L. Davies, P. Dixon, “Reading the pastoral landscape: palynological and historical evidence for the impacts of long-term grazing on Wether Hill, Ingram, Northumberland”, Landscape History, 29 (2007), 35–45.

19 R.F. Parker, A.W.F. Boarder, “A medieval settlement site at Fillington Wood, West Wycombe”, Records of Buckinghamshire, 33 (1991), 128–139.

20 A. Thorne, “A medieval tenement at Deene End, Weldon, Northamptonshire”, NorthamptonshireArchaeology, 31 (2003), 105–123.

21 A. Maull et al., Excavation of the deserted medieval village of Coton at Coton Park, Rugby, Warwickshire, unpublished report for Northamptonshire County Council, 1998.

22 P. Harding, L. Mepham, R.J.C. Smith, “The excavation of the 12th-13th century deposits at Howard’s Lane, Wareham”, Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society, 117 (1995), 81–90.

23 K. Murphy, “Excavations in three burgage plots in the medieval town of Newport, Dyfed, 1991”, Medieval Archaeology, 38 (1994), 55–82.

24 C. Hayfield, T. Slater, The medieval town of Hedon. Excavations 1975–1976, Hull, Humberside Leisure Services, 1984; T.R. Slater, “Medieval new town and port: a plan analysis of Hedon, East Yorkshire”, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 57 (1985), 23–41.

25 P. Courtney, “Saxon and medieval Leicester: the making of an urban landscape”, Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society, 72 (1998), 110–145; A. Connor, R. Buckley, Roman and medieval occupation in Causeway Lane, Leicester, Leicester (Leicester Archaeology Monographs, 5), 1999, 77–80, 83.

26 N. Hair, R. Newman, “Excavation of medieval settlement remains at Crosedale in Howgill”, Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Archaeological Society, 99 (1999), 141–158.

27 D. Austin, G.A.M. Gerrard, T.A.P. Greaves, “Tin and agriculture in the middle ages and beyond: landscape archaeology in St Neot parish, Cornwall”, Cornish Archaeology, 28 (1989), 5–251; D. Austin, “Excavations of Okehampton deer park, Devon 1976–1978”, Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Society, 36 (1978), 191–239; D. Austin, R.H. Daggett, M.J.C. Walker, “Farms and fields in Okehampton Park, Devon: the problems of studying medieval landscape”, Landscape History, 2 (1980), 39–57; R.S. Kelly, “The excavation of a medieval farmstead at Cefn Graeanog, Clynnog, Gwynedd”, Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, 29 (1982), 859–908.

28 A. Fox, “Early Welsh homesteads on Gelligaer Common, Glamorgan”, Archaeologia Cambrensis, 94(1939), 163–199.

29 S. Rippon, Gwent levels: the evolution of a wetland landscape, York, Council for British Archaeology Research Report, 105, 1996, 97–98.

30 P. Fowler, Landscape plotted and pieced. Landscape history and local archaeology in Fyfield and Overton, Wiltshire, London, Society of Antiquaries, 2000, 121–128.

31 M.J. Saunders, “The excavation of a medieval site at Walsingham School, St Paul’s Cray, Bromley, 1995”, Archaeologia Cantiana, 117 (1997), 199–225; J. Browning, T. Higgins, “Excavations of a medieval toft and croft at Cropston Road, Anstey, Leicestershire”, Transaction of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society, 77 (2003), 65–81.

32 S. Ford, S. Preston, “Medieval occupation at the Orchard, Brighthampton”, Oxoniensia, 67 (2002), 287–312; R. Ivens et al., Tattenhoe and Westbury. Two deserted medieval settlements in Milton Keynes, Aylesbury (Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society Monograph, 8), 1995, 44–47, 213.

33 R.A. Griffiths, “Wales and the Marches”, in The Cambridge urban history of Britain, I: 600–1540, D.M. Palliser ed., Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000, 700; C. Caple, Excavations at Dryslwyn Castle, 1980–95, Leeds (Society for Medieval Archaeology monograph, 26) 2008, 225–232.

34 J. Lucas, “Excavations in a medieval market town: Mountsorrel, Leicestershire”, Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society, 61 (1987), 1–7.

35 K. Steane et al., The archaeology of the upper city and adjacent suburbs, Lincoln (Lincoln Archaeological Studies, 3), 2006, 28; R. Mortimer, R. Regan, S. Lucy, “The Saxon and medieval settlement at West Fen Road, Ely: the Ashwell site”, East Anglian Archaeology, 110 (2005), 1-6, 39-51; J.H. Williams, St Peter’s Street, Northampton, Northampton, Northampton Development Corporation, 1979, 145.

36 R. Edwards, D. Hurst, “Iron age settlement, and a medieval and later farmstead: excavations at 93–97 High Street Evesham”, Transactions of the Worcestershire Archaeological Society, 3rd ser., 17 (2000), 73–110; E. Wragg, C. Jarrett, J. Haslam, “The development of medieval Tonbridge reviewed in the light of recent excavations at Lyons, East Street”, Archaeologia Cantiana, 125 (2005), 119–150.

37 R. Mortimer et al., “The Saxon and medieval settlement”, op. cit.; N. Finn, “The origins of a Leicester suburb. Roman, Anglo-Saxon, medieval and post–medieval occupation on Bonner’s Lane”, British Archaeological Reports-British Series, 372 (2004), 21–30.

38 C. Gerrard, M. Aston, The Shapwick project, Somerset. A rural landscape explored, Leeds (Society for Medieval Archaeology monograph, 25), 2007, 473, 986.

39 C. Dyer, “The rise and fall of a medieval village: Little Aston (in Aston Blank), Gloucestershire”, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 105 (1987), 165–181.

40 R. Ivens et al., Tattenhoe and Westbury..., op. cit.

41 R. Morris, Cathedrals and abbeys of England and Wales. The building Church, 600–1540, London, Dent, 1979,180.

42 J.H. Williams, St Peter’s Street..., op. cit.

43 R. Jackson, Archaeological excavations in Dursley, Gloucestershire, Bristol, Bristol and region archaeological services, 2007,14.

44 Lost farmsteads. Deserted rural settlements in Wales, K. Roberts ed., York, Council for British Archaeology Research Report, 148, 2006.

45 T. Allen, “Swine, salt and seafood: a case study of Anglo-Saxon and early medieval settlement in north-east Kent”, Archaeoloyia Cantiana, 124 (2004), 117–235.

46 Sarah Pearson provided me with a list of buildings dated for the period before 1350 which she used for her survey of building dates, “The chronological distribution of tree-ring dates, 1980–2001: an update”, Vernacular Architecture, 32 (2001), 68–69. I have added dates reported in 2002–2007 in Vernacular Architecture.

47 H. Riley, R. Wilson-North, The field archaeology of Exmoor, Swindon, English Heritage, 2001, 92–102.

48 C. Coulson, “Hierarchism in conventual crenellation”, Medieval Archaeology, 26 (1982), 69–100.

49 H. Parker, “A medieval wharf in Thoresby College Courtyard, King’s Lynn”, Medieval Archaeology, 9 (1965), 101–102; B. Hillewaert, “An English lady in Flanders: reflections on a head in Scarborough ware”, Everyday and exotic pottery from Europe. Studies in honour o/John G. Hurst, D. Gaimster, M. Redknapp ed., Oxford, Oxbow, 1992, 76–82; D.M. Hadley, “Dining in disharmony in the later middle ages”, in Consuming passions. Dining from antiquity to the eighteenth century, M. Carroll, D. Hadley, H. Wilmott ed., Stroud, Tempus, 2005, 101–119.

50 S. Mileson, “The sociology of park creation in medieval England”, in The medieval park. New perspectives, R. Liddiard ed., Macclesfield, Windgather, 2007, 11–26.

51 D. Austin et al., “Farms and fields in Okehampton Park”, op. cit. For doubts about the end of this settlement, see R. Silvester, “Abandoning the uplands: depopulation among dispersed settlements in western Britain”, in Deserted Villages Revisited, C. Dyer and R. Jones (ed.), Hatfield, University of Hertfordshire Press, 2010, 145.

52 P. Dixon, “A rural medieval settlement in Roxburghshire: excavations at Springwood Park, Kelso, 1985–6”, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 128 (1998), 671–751.

53 E.g. Roxburgh, Medieval Archaeology, 48 (2004), 332–333.

54 D.H. Evans, M. Jarrett S. Wrathmell, “The deserted medieval village of West Whelpington, Northumberland: third report, part two”, Archaeologia Aeliana, 5th ser., 16 (1988), 139–192.

55 C. Platt, R. Coleman-Smith, Excavations in medieval Southampton, 1953–1961, Leicester, Leicester University Press, 1975, vol. 1, 249, 299–302.

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