What are the Origins of the English Village?

The English of course romanticise villages, they are the centre of so much of our literature and national identity. However so much of our historical writing contains ‘sceptered isle’ style romantic pseudo history. For example.

Martin Wainwright, in his book The English Village: History and Traditions, England owes its pattern of village settlements to the Anglo-Saxons who first arrived in the fourth century AD. Replicating the structure of their habitats at home in northern Germany, the Anglo-Saxons “built close to means of communication, along ridges, in valleys, or at the edge of a navigable river, but high enough to avoid winter floods.” Wainwright credits this strategic positioning with the durability of villages.

Whilst the description of locations is broadly accurate there are several problems with this thesis. The main shift from Roman style scattered farmsteads and hamlets in a grid like patters (in some cases reinforced by centuration, but in most cases locals adopting roman practices) was between the 6th and the 9th centuries most intensively in the 8th Century not the Fourth, and where did the settlement shifts in original Angle lands in Germany/Denmark originate from. Also we see a comparative shift around the same time across the whole of Europe. By the 10th Century the countryside around villages had largely been emptied of its population.

Lets rule out some possible causes:

Feudalism, in its various forms, usually emerged as a result of the decentralization of an empire: especially in the Carolingian Empire in 8th century AD. It did not arise in England till the Norman invasion in the 10 th Century. Fuedalism certainly reinforced villages where they were related to estates, but most villages in most countries are not closely related to Manor houses, though many smaller villages later became associated with ‘Magnas’ which were the homes of second rank vassels to the lord.

Defense, few villages in most countries were built for defense (there are exceptions such as villages built to resist coastal raids. The 8th Century were a comparatively peaceful time. Viking raids did not properly begin till the 9th century.

There are a number of firmer possible causes:

The setting up of Parishes. From the fourth century onwards christianity spread to the countryside, at first in larger centres which formed the nucleus of market towns. In England we call these Ministers. In France and Germany (parish is a word of French Origin) in the Caroligin Empire they arose during the 4th and 5th century following success in converting the countryside creating smaller churches better suited to rural life. In Italy the Catholic Church filled the vacuum left by the roman empire and the spread of Parishes reflected the increasing power of Bishops in controlling their hinterlands. Whilst labour to build church’s required an agricultural surplus and centralisation of craftsmen around them may have created economies of scale for agriculture. It cant explain by itself however those practicies.

Benedictine Montasticism and rise of Improved Agricultural Techniques. The Benedictine Order was formed in the 5th Century. By the ninth century, however, the Benedictine had become the standard form of monastic life throughout the whole of Western Europe, excepting th3 Celtic Fringe where the Celtic observance still prevailed for another century or two. Benedictines thrived on turning swamps and other ‘wastes’ to productive land.

“every Benedictine monastery was an agricultural college for the whole region in which it was located.”

Wherever they went, the monks introduced crops, or industries, or production methods with which the people had not previously been familiar. Here they would introduce the rearing of cattle and horses, there the brewing of beer or the raising of bees or fruit. In Sweden the corn trade owed its existence to the monks; in Parma it was cheese making, in Ireland salmon fisheries — and, in a great many places, the finest vineyards. They stored up the waters from springs, that they might distribute them in times of drought. In Lombardy it was the monks from whom the peasants learned irrigation. The monks have also been credited with being the first to work toward improving the breeds of cattle, rather than leaving the process to chance. 

The Introduction of Open Field Systems In Europe. Known in China since Ancient times it came into use in Europe during the 8th and 9th Centuries and created a significant agricultural surplus compared to the previous two field system where half of the land (as opposed to a 3rd) had to be held fallow each year. The three-field system needed more plowing of land and its introduction coincided with the adoption of the moldboard plow.  Few small farmsteads could afford oxes or horses to pull a plough or by themselves grow enough food to feed them. Hence the need to share and harm a form of farming – strip farming – that enabled easy access. In most of Europe however the three field system did not come into common use till the 13th Century. The open field system was spread by Germanic invaders from the 5th century and was never prevalent in the Mediterranean.

What weight should be given to these potential drivers. To be honest it is still something of an historical mystery. We still see nucleated villages through a post feudal lenses and the countryside as it it was forever enclosed.

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