Review – The Anglo-Saxon Fenland

5 mins read
Susan Oosthuizen
Windgather Press, £29.95
ISBN 978-1911188087
Review Paul Spoerry

This is a comparatively slim book, but in any roll call of regional histories, also comparatively significant. Susan Oosthuizen has been well known for many years as an excellent tutor of Landscape Archaeology at Madingley Hall, Cambridge. She uses her many years of experience and learning across a suite of subdisciplines, principally in historical landscape research, to present what is essentially a long essay in book form.

At the outset, it seems that the ‘set-up’ for her thesis is the presence of new categories of archaeologically derived data and vastly greater volumes of information. These have steered academic understanding of the Anglo- Saxon period away from old-school elaborations of the received historical narrative. Oosthuizen gives a useful short summary of pertinent ancient DNA research and interpretations of the mass of data from the Portable Antiquities Scheme that suggest no real link between ethnicity and ‘stuff’. Further into the book, we find good assimilation of archaeological data from the last 30 or 40 years, enabling her to suggest that the Anglo-Saxon Fenland was not an empty land. There was considerable continuity of occupation from the Romano- British period onwards, and some evidence to suggest that much of Fenland was well utilised and settled continually from late prehistory.

It is not, however, new archaeological data that this book is mostly about. The author instead uses her powers as a nuts-andbolts historian to reappraise historical data that, for the most part, have been available for some time. She also provides us with a very good grounding in the nature and diversity of Fenland geography and ecologies, explaining the relative wealth of wetland landscapes if managed and developed sympathetically, and making the reader aware of the fragility of these systems.

Later on, there is an excellent explanation of the engineering installations and social-governance systems for water management that enabled Fenland to be so productive. Here, there is also good evidence to suggest that the origins of some of the systems, and thus perhaps the works themselves, stretch back into the middle Saxon period, a century or two before any date suggested previously.

Historical data that are given new consideration include placename evidence and information about spoken language from documents. These suggest that, alongside Anglo-Saxon, both Brittonic and Late Spoken Latin continued to be used in the region through much of the Anglo-Saxon period. Reappraisal of H C Darby’s Domesday data shows how Fenland was not a poor region after all, and that the livings were good, even though the niches for habitation on dry land were somewhat restricted.

Where the author’s powers are best demonstrated is in the exposition on the complexities of rights of common, and the implications for deep historical understanding that can be gained by investigating intercommoning across the medieval Fenland. ‘Nowhere in England’, we are told, ‘were common rights more important’. Oosthuizen sees great antiquity in such systems: in the landholdings, units, and geographical relationships preserved in these most ancient landscape-management codes. If unpicked carefully, we can perhaps observe Roman estates and sub-Roman/Anglo- Saxon folk territories. As many authors have done before, this leads Oosthuizen to a review of the late 7th-century Tribal Hidage lists for Fenland, which, unlike the upland on either side, where the Anglian and Mercian kingdoms had been consolidated, were a mosaic of differently named peoples.

This book offers the new insight that these polities have geographically derived identities; their names being drawn from the landscapes they inhabited, rather than being based on their cultural or historical backgrounds. This chimes with analysis elsewhere in the book that suggests Anglo-Saxon Fenland contained groups with different languages and ethnic identities, but that the polities were not divided along such lines.

This review appeared in CA 334

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