Review – Planning in the Early in the Early Medieval Landscape

2 mins read

John Blair, Stephen Rippon, and Christopher Smart
Liverpool University Press, £80
ISBN 978-1789621167
Review Neil Faulkner

Grave AX at Yeavering remains one of the most-extraordinary discoveries in Anglo-Saxon archaeology. Its occupant lay in a slightly flexed posture, with a goat’s head at the feet, a broken spear laid diagonally across the torso, and, running down the central axis of the grave, above the body, a Roman-style groma.

The groma was the trademark tool of Roman agrimensores (surveyors), used to establish straight lines and right-angles when setting out a grid. But the occupant of Grave AX was not a Roman agrimensor: they had been laid to rest in the Kingdom of Northumbria in the early 7th century AD. The grave, moreover, and more particularly the groma placed within it, were precisely aligned on the long axis of the first phase of monumental building on the site, a massive timber hall and palisaded enclosure.

And, sure enough, as the grave and its contents imply, the palace – probably that of King Eadwine – had been laid out in strict conformity with a carefully measured grid. The palace itself was seven ‘short perches’ long by three wide; the palisade eight long by five wide. The standard measurement – a short perch was 15 feet – was Anglo-Saxon. But the technique was thoroughly Roman. And that, it seems, was what mattered.

The Kingdom of Kent hadbeen the first to welcome a Christian mission from the Continent in AD 597. But shortly afterwards it forged a strong link with distant Northumbria, when King Æthelberht’s daughter Æthelburh travelled 300 miles north to be married to King Eadwine, probably in the early AD 620s.

Here, it seems, is our mechanism of transmission, for the earliest known grid-planned buildings are two small Augustinian churches at Canterbury, and then we have the great palace complex at Yeavering. The Catholic Church, the primary continuator of the tradition of Roman Classicism, was imposing straight lines and right-angles on the landscape to express civilisation, piety, and order. As the authors of this splendid monograph explain, ‘Given the roots of Anglo-Saxon grid-planning in the techniques and traditions of the agrimensores, it is clear how attractive those traditions must have looked to 7th-century monastic pundits and founders determined to “keep straight” in their doctrine and ecclesiastical discipline.’

Planning in the Early Medieval Landscape – the title of both the book and the research project on which it is based – is a major contribution to the long-running and much-debated question as to when and how the English medieval countryside took shape. The degree of deliberate planning, the identity of the leading players, the dates at which things happened, and the range of regional variation: all remain in dispute.

What this study makes clear, however, is that between AD 600 and 800, many sites with ecclesiastical associations were grid-planned, and that – after a hiatus in the period of the Viking wars, between AD 940 and 1050 – many more sites, including a much higher proportion of secular and lower-status sites, were also grid-planned. The authors’ exhaustive survey, using OS maps, LiDAR, aerial photos, early maps, and, not least, ‘the flood of new data about buildings and groups of buildings from developer-led archaeology and about material culture from the Portable Antiquities Scheme’, has identified no fewer than 117 Anglo-Saxon sites with strong evidence of grid-planning.

Large areas seem to have been planned, and settlements may have sprawled more than traditional nucleation models assume. The grids provided an initial framework, but could be adapted, overlain, transformed, even completely erased over time. The practice was heavily concentrated in what John Blair calls the ‘Eastern Zone’ – ‘a broad funnel-shaped zone around the Wash, the Humber, and their tributary rivers, with the spout of the funnel extending south-westwards into the upper Thames region’ – with only limited spread beyond.

These and many other insights are presented clearly and concisely in a compact volume that is likely to become an essential reference text for all Anglo-Saxonists.

This review appeared in CA 367. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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