Marching forward into April

Looking back at recent posts, it seems to have become standard procedure for me to kick things off with a whinge or at least on a negative tone. Not today. The past few weeks have been some of the most rewarding and exciting of my life as a medievalist, leaving me full of the joys of Spring (and even some mild hayfever).

Talk of the village

Talk of the village

So why so good? Still fresh in my mind is a talk I gave to the Puttenham and Wanborough History Society the Friday just gone, on the place-names and field-names of Puttenham parish. I had a blast (despite the last-minute sweat to complete the accompanying handouts) and got to say pretty much all I wanted to, not just on the names but on the agricultural and historical contexts in which they were first applied. A little bit of tidying and referencing and the handout will be good and ready to upload under the Puttenham tab.

Worth the admission fee if I do say so myself

Worth the admission fee if I do say so myself

It’s been the steady stream of good little things that has made recent times so satisfying. Rewarding exchanges with interesting people face-to-face (great to meet you again, Prof Chris Dyer) or via email (take a bow, Kristine Hunt). Reconnecting with contemporary geographical theory through involvement in the University of Nottingham’s Landscape, Space and Place reading group (which has/had a blog, but I can’t find it). Finally getting to see the grave goods from the “Prittlewell Prince” burial in Southend’s brilliant Central Museum (making up for not seeing that part of the Staffordshire Hoard on display in Birmingham when I was in the city for a weekend). Half an hour spent walking around the historic centre of Taunton ahead of catching a bus to the edge of Exmoor. Working out a new model of early medieval pig transhumance into and out of the Surrey Weald. And a whole heap of bits and bobs in between.

Finds from the Prittlewell cemetery, but not from the princely burial (photos are banned in the display, and who am I to contravene the rules?)

Finds from the Prittlewell cemetery, but not from the princely burial (photos are banned in the display, and who am I to contravene the rules?)

It was also a time when a few things fell into place for biggish things happening in the coming weeks and months. Between now and July, I’ll be involved in the organisation and running of the Nottingham Institute of Medieval Research Postgraduate Conference. As and when the CFP is finished I’ll upload it here, as it’s an event that will be worth attending in some capacity and is on a wide-reaching subject area that can be made to apply to pretty much any part of medieval studies. Currently, I’m pencilled in to chair a session (eep!) so chances are I won’t be giving a paper there, but I will be speaking at another conference in a few weeks time (more about this once it’s confirmed) which I’m really rather excited about.

As if that’s not enough (and I’m starting to think it might be), I have been given the honour of editing our degree “yearbook”. I hope the end product will be halfway between a journal and a fanzine, really fresh in content and appearance, and certainly won’t be lacking in diversity of subject matter given the research interests of my peers and prospective contributors. Again, as and when we’re a little further down the road with laying the foundations for the project (such as confirming its title) I’ll expand upon its aims and themes in a post. Just don’t mention the word dissertation…

Surrey Medieval posts may have been a little thin on the ground of late, but I did manage to write one new page for the site in the past month. Its subject matter is a twist on something I haven’t looked at for a couple of years, the area of the “Surrey Fens” causeways, in this case the Newark Priory island’s former identity as Aldebury, a name redolent of a lost Anglo-Saxon stronghold. It was inspired by two things: a Landscape, Space and Place seminar on islands and riverine/maritime environments as liminal places, and Richard Savage’s report to the Surrey Archaeological Society’s Villages Study Group meeting at the Surrey History Centre rounding up the latest research on Old Woking. The piece doesn’t provide any definite answers and elements of it have actually been overtaken by thoughts and reading from subsequent to the time of writing. Still, I put a lot of effort into it and is worth a minute or five of your time. Go on, give it a whirl.

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, News, Place, Puttenham, Talk, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Slinging swords and casting corns – a brief foray into experimental archaeology

One of the downsides of being a taught student is having to submit multiple pieces of work on completely different topics - in this case three essays which together weighed in at a little shy of 10,000 words – on the same day. Never before have I been involved in three concurrent major projects that culminated at the same time, and I shudder to think of non-academic scenarios in which this occurs (having triplets?). Such is postgrad life. The good thing is receiving great marks for all of them does, if you’ll forgive me for briefly sounding like a stereotypical Oscar/BAFTA/other shiny statuette winner, make it all worthwhile.

After catching up on all the hours of sleep lost in the first two weeks of 2014 in the name of this trinity of essays, I finally got around to doing something I had had in mind to try out for quite some time. The starting point was the subject matter of the longest and, at the risk of sounding like I’m contradicting the opening paragraph, most interesting of the essays, namely the following remarkable and problematic passage in one of the two sets of Old English charter bounds for Battersea (appended to an otherwise-unrelated diploma and calendared as S 645):

swa ðonon to bæueriðe · Ealswa feor swa an man mæi mid anen bille gewurpen ·  an friman  mid fif bere cornen

so thence to beaver-stream [Beverley Brook], as far as a man may throw with a bille and a freeman with five barleycorns

The key contention I explored and I believe went a long way to justifying is that this records a real-life action rather than a metaphorical reference to distance, and that bille stands for a sword (Old English bill, predominantly but not exclusively a word found in poetry) equivalent in form to a small number of swords of later Anglo-Saxon date recovered from the channel of the nearby River Thames on or close to the Battersea estate boundary. I alluded to the idea in a blog post I wrote so long ago that it engenders almost extracorporeal feelings when I think back to where I was at the time, but suffice to say that the one-two blows of travelling and moving to London knocked it far down my agenda. Fast-forward a couple of years and I feel like the essay allowed me to answer most of the questions I posed myself, albeit in the confines of a linguistics-based essay which meant I had to go easy on the relevant archaeological and historical material.

One thing I could not do in the coursework essay nor in any future (hopefully-published!) incarnation of it is to establish quite how far a bill-type sword or five barleycorns may be thrown. So, having the good fortune of being able to access a re-enactor’s replica of such a weapon, I seized the opportunity to find out for myself by taking a trip to the local park, where I had seen members of the University of Nottingham’s sword-fighting society practicing and thus reasoned it would be the place where my experiments would generate the fewest raised eyebrows/calls to the police. It just so happened a couple of members of the society were there to practice their combat – it turns out they use foam replicas, so the metal weapon I was using gained me extra respect (although I get the sense that if I were in their shoes I would have accorded the same treatment to a stranger who rocks up in a public park with a sword in a carrier bag).

My weapon of choice – a riff on the Wheeler Type VII hilt if I’m not mistaken

But if only it were as simple as going down the local park and chucking a sword about for a while. The longer you think about the variables at play in conducting such an exercise, the more ones come to mind. For a start there was the sword itself. Unfortunately, it had been taken out of its original packaging a long while ago so I don’t know the exact make and model, though it looked quite a lot like the “Hanwei Irish Sword”. The stated weight of this type of replica works out at a little under 1.1 kilos, which seems a touch on the light side in comparison to the sword I was using – I must confess that I didn’t weigh it. Unhelpfully, the reference works on their early medieval prototypes I have consulted (primarily Ian Peirce’s Swords of the Viking Age) provide dimensions but no information on weights. Therefore, I can only assume that the weights (and for that matter lengths) of the tenth-century and twenty first-century weapons are more or less equal.

Second is me. There are numerous possible interpretations of the word man (= Old English mann) in the text which, interesting as they are, need not delay us here. Instead, working on the assumption that swords tend to be associated with males, the next set of questions to be answered concern how representative I am of the sort of person who had responsibility for throwing the bill back in the day. At a guess my height is above that of the later Anglo-Saxon male mean. In terms of upper body strength, while I don’t perform much manual labour, I do go to the gym on average twice a week and do other exercise intermittently (is this starting to read like a weird Anglo-Saxon online dating profile?). Again, I am left to conclude that whatever the differences, physically I am not so abnormal as to make the results completely divergent from what might be expected of the mann tasked with performing the same action over a millennium ago. The same applies for my clothing and the extent to which that helped or hindered my throws (I was appropriately dressed for being outside in the middle of a sunny-ish day in the English East Midlands in January).

Here I go again – just an average Sunday afternoon in Highfields Park

To an extent the related questions of strength and throwing ability are offset by my decision to try a number of different techniques to launch the sword, namely:

  1. Overarm, holding sword by the hilt with one hand
  2. Sword held vertical, hilt upwards, with hand below the guard
  3. Sword held horizontal in flat palms of both hands
  4. Underarm, holding sword by the hilt with one hand
  5. Spinning clockwise, holding sword by the hilt with one hand

For all of the above which require the use of just one hand I used my right hand as this is the one I write and hold a tennis racquet with. Not long after completing the exercise and having returned the sword, it dawned on me that one technique I didn’t think of was to project it in the manner of a javelin or throwing spear. However, subsequently I came to appreciate that this is inappropriate for performing with a sword since the best results necessitate the sword being held by the middle part of its blade, not the safest place! In the end, therefore, I think that the five ways I threw the sword represent the most credible options. Another observation I made during the exercise was that my earlier sets of throws were perhaps not as hard as the last ones, as I was more confident the sword wouldn’t bend or break on impact with the ground (I wasn’t throwing it into water multiple times in the name of absolute authenticity). Deriving an average from three throws can smooth out any wayward individual results, but it does then raise the intriguing question of whether the thrower lobbed the sword as hard as he could. In delimiting a boundary in the best interests of the Battersea estate with which he was associated, the presumption has to be that he did, but given the extraordinarily idiosyncratic nature of the act there can be no certainty about this.

Sword in the grass (this is harder to do than you might think)

In the absence of a decent tape measure, I had to pace out the distance between the baseline from where I was throwing – the edge of a manhole cover – and the centre (often no more than a best guess) of where the sword and barleycorns landed. The boots I was wearing measure 32 centimetres heel to toe, making conversion of the distances from boot length to metres (which is the unit of measurement of all the tabulated figures below) fairly straightforward. Taking direct distances ignores lateral deviations from the maximum possible straight-ahead line; I’ll wager that the original sword-thrower was perhaps rather more accomplished in the task of throwing to this optimal line than I was.

Bill distances

The same throwing techniques were used for the five barleycorns (albeit with modifications where necessary; the two hands were held together for the “horizontal” throw). Extra variables were at play here. I was using some organic barleycorns I bought from my local health food shop, the only such grains I could find on sale, which I can only guess are not wildly dissimilar to their Anglo-Saxon forebears. The corns had been processed to the extent that they weren’t in their husks, something that – as my sword-fighting companions in the park pointed out to me when we were chatting about what I was doing – may not have been the case on the occasion of the original boundary marking. There is also a strong likelihood that the distances thrown may have been impacted by the wind – or did the freeman wait until any breeze had subsided in order to achieve a greater distance?

Barleycorn distances

Straight away it can be seen from the barleycorn results that, not unexpectedly, the average distances derived from the quintet of throwing methods are without exception inferior to those for the sword. However, I would note that the technique-for-technique averages are not so far apart, even if the difference between the overall means is well in excess of 1.5 metres. If the median measures are used as a gauge of the same thing, then there is surprising little difference – 55 centimetres to be precise. What this suggests to me is that any practical differences between the two means of distance measurement were accepted but considered less important than the symbolism of the two actions. Such things may be capable of being better understood with further research, especially into the link between the barleycorns and freeman status.

Five barleycorns in the hand…

I would be naive to think these experiments in concert with the research which went into my earlier essay have cleared up all the question marks hanging over the idiosyncratic textual reference. Basic points, such as whether the measures define distance(s) across or along the stream, remain unanswered. Nevertheless, the implication that the two types of projectile could yield distances of between 4 and 14 metres, with a mutual tendency to cluster around the 8-9 metre mark, fits the idea of favourably marking a distance part-way across a small stream presumably fringed by boggy areas unsuitable for standing on (particularly not while wielding a sword). If nothing else, my throwing experiments have gone some way to rooting a hard-to-understand documentary reference in some kind of empirical reality.

Thanks to Hayden for the loan of the sword, and to my ever-patient girlfriend for taking the photos and writing down the measurements.

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Battersea, Charters, Nottingham, Old English, Ritual, Surrey, Swords, Topography | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What’s the point of it all?

You’ve got to bear with me on this post as I’m not all that sure where I’m going with it, but safe to say the title in no way should be taken too literally. I’m fine.

Today I took in the current main exhibition on at the Royal Institute of British Architects HQ, The Brits Who Built the Modern World, 1950-2012 (apparently there’s a TV tie-in, which explains the tabloid-ish title). It’s a thoroughly fascinating show that does justice to explaining the development and importance of the British takes on later-period international modernism, and underlines how modern architecture had many more seminal moments subsequent to the Unité d’Habitation and Fallingwater. You don’t have to go to Hong Kong to see proof of this, though it just so happens I did a couple of years ago…

Foster’s HSBC headquarters (right) and neighbouring skyscrapers in downtown Hong Kong – photo taken on my trip there in October 2011

All well and good but what, you ask, has this got to do with the medieval period (or Surrey)? Absolutely nothing. Way before I got into medieval things in a big way, architecture and the built environment was my bag. I might well have gone on to study architecture if my father – an architect – hadn’t used every trick in the book to dissuade me. One massively disappointing Geography degree later and the idea of going into town planning was likewise off the cards, leading to a medieval Masters, this site and almost slipping into a career I had neither bargained on nor wanted…

A few days ago, I was invited to a preview of Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story at the Natural History Museum (before you start thinking I move in rarified circles, I should stress that this happens once in a blue moon and the invite came from my best friend). It’s a decent show, and a real must if you are at all interested in the earliest prehistoric struck flints found in Britain. I learnt a lot – who knew no hominid set foot in what became Britain for 120,000 years? – but did not go away from it feeling like I’d just seen a truly stonking exhibition, though nor can I pretend the RIBA’s equivalent is exceptional either. Nonetheless, what I can’t escape from is that, whenever I go to an architecture exhibition, I always engage with the subject matter far more than in archaeological or historical exhibitions. It’s not that I find the latter boring, simply they seldom fire my imagination to the same degree. My walk back home from Portland Place along animated rush hour streets made me realise that the vitality and currency of urban environments and the buildings they consist of are quite frankly a good deal more important than what I now do in lieu of a day job.

When I was studying in Leeds, there was an article pinned to a noticeboard outside our common room (perhaps it’s still there?) documenting the collective response of a group of leading academics to the claim by an education minister (I forget who) that medieval studies was the quintessential example of an unnecessary discipline which diverts money and minds from more relevant and profitable academic enterprises. I remember being suitably shocked at the time by the tenor of the initial attack, as I would be today. The thing is, I can’t remember any of the points made in defence of the subject. A few likely ones spring to mind – for instance, the observation that the human geographical framework of pretty much any area in England is of predominantly medieval fashioning, as is definitely the case for Surrey – but I do feel my lack of recollection is telling.

I’ll finish this unplanned stream of reminiscences with one from the very recent past. In a seminar a couple of weeks ago, one of my current tutors observed in a seminar that undertaking prolonged research is one of the few times in life where you purposely choose to go to great lengths and depths to do something instead of turning it around in a matter of days to meet urgent deadlines (if only they knew the truth of my track record with assessed coursework…). Great as the sentiment is – and I love undertaking research more than most – exposure to intellectually-stimulating output from disciplines rooted in the here and now causes me to question (not for the first time) the motives and mechanics lying behind research into the medieval period.

Now’s perhaps as good a time as any to admit that, for various reasons, my aim to segue from MA to PhD has not worked out and I’ll be spending some time out of academia again come the autumn. I’m a bit pissed off by how things have turned out but can also appreciate that I have an opportunity to really hone what I want to do and more importantly where I want to do it. Any readers familiar with Lena Dunham’s Girls might be picking up echoes of Ray’s assertion in a recent episode that, as a thirty-something with years of work under his belt, he is “too wise for grad school” and to be brutally honest there is probably something in that.

This guy = too wise

To do a doctorate – as I still very much want to do – is arguably the most extreme example of sustained research on a single topic, so shouldn’t be approached as a default, “Well, what else can I do?” option. As I see it, there’s no point spending so long studying bits of Bede or Beowulf or the unremarkable archaeology of out-of-the-way places unless, to adopt the buzzword of the UK higher education Research Excellence Framework, it has some kind of impact beyond the very narrow academic milieu in which the research was germinated and undertaken. Perhaps I’m shooting my mouth off here, but I’ve seen the negative consequences befall no small number of friends and acquaintances over the years. Going into such a long-term endeavour without some sense of how and to whom the end product will be of real value is a waste of time and (public) money….

… which brings me back round to the question posed in the title. Here am I, questioning the relevance of a field of study in which I retain an ardent desire to forge a future for myself. Contradictory much? Perhaps a significant part of my frustration is born out of the limited pool of methods by which medieval research is conducted in comparison to the study of, say, the contemporary built environment. You simply can’t display the results of detailed analysis of a text or an element of material culture with the same degree of eye-catchiness (as my mother would probably say), nor are the alternative platforms for dissemination of equal aesthetic appeal – I think we can all agree text-heavy journals do themselves no favours. So am I saying medieval studies should become more visual? Of course this depends on the subject of the research in question, but alternative means of presenting the results should be pursued to a greater extent than they are at present (so too the language and tone of written work; I have read elsewhere the plea by a leading scholar – my memory really isn’t what it used to be – for less stuffiness and adherence to convention), both as a means of stretching the practitioners and opening their research up to new audiences.

In the name of practicing what I preach, the coming months will see me attempt to take my work in new directions. None of these may have any great immediate impact, but they will help set me in a direction where in due course I might be able to affect some measure of change to the subject(s) I study and to my own future prospects. For a start, I’m going to be doing more with databases, learning how to harness the mighty power of Microsoft Office applications and hopefully starting to integrate them with GIS too. Arguably a little more exciting is my intention to produce work with a phenomenological and/or psychogeographical element (having dipped my toe into such things way back in a post relating to “seven ditches”). These are approaches which, with a few honourable exceptions, have been under-used in medieval studies but which permit sites of past significance to be interpreted using their present-day attributes and sense of place. I know they are the polar opposites of the quantitative nature of database wrangling, but this doesn’t mean it’s an either/or situation; in fact, with a bit more thought I’m pretty sure they could be combined in the same project. Lastly, with the help of my coursemates, I’m going ahead with a long-delayed plan to produce something in printed format that is envisaged as a cross between a journal and a fanzine on a broad medieval theme. We may not end up producing something revolutionary but I want it to be appreciably different from anything that has gone before, and embody some of what I’ve written here. Otherwise, what would be the point?

Posted in Architecture, Design, Landscape, London, Nottingham, Phenomenology, Soapbox, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The brief – or non-existent – history of early medieval salt production in Surrey

In a way, this post follows on from my previous one, since it touches upon issues of research, engagement and finding smart ways of working to further knowledge of the early medieval period. However, I began writing it long before, following a trip back to Surrey towards the end of last year for a meeting of the Surrey Archaeological Society (SyAS) Medieval Studies Forum. Among the many things on the agenda for the day was a preliminary discussion of the forthcoming refresh of the Surrey Archaeological Research Framework, or SARF for short, which someone has decreed will henceforth be known as the Surrey Historic Environment Research Framework. Those of you in the know, or with basic interpretative skills, can appreciate its purpose; to frame the priorities for future archaeological and historical research within the county area. The appropriate division of labour is another of its key aims: what must be handled by professional archaeologists and what is suitable – indeed, advantageous – to be tackled by amateurs, such as members of the SyAS.

SARF today, SHERF tomorrow

The discussion focused on the Anglo-Saxon period, there defined very specifically (and I believe far too inflexibly) as the years 410-1066. To be honest, it was a bit of a let-down. I’m well aware I’m something of an anomaly in terms of my voracious appetite for all things early medieval, at least when it comes to Surrey, so I guess the comparative lack of interest in things Anglo-Saxon and Viking among those present shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. All the same, the basic lack of understanding of the particular characteristics of the period as manifested in Surrey was a real wake-up call. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing – if there’s only a handful of people who are keen on advancing knowledge of the period, then it’s contingent upon us to work harder to devise and undertake research that not only answers some of the many unresolved questions but also inspire others to take an interest in it.

I hope that through Surrey Medieval and other writings I have played my part in advancing knowledge of aspects of the Anglo-Saxon and other periods in the county. Certainly, I have had SARF in mind when undertaking much of my research over the past few years. Being involved in refashioning SARF into SHERF provides an opportunity for me to reflect upon my praxis and what I have been able to achieve personally and publicly in recent years. In this post I want to steer clear of the self-reflection (which perhaps isn’t the most interesting subject matter for others to read) and instead explore the questions of what SHERF could identify as being in need of study versus what can be studied and in what ways.

My vehicle for doing this is a brief mention of a possible salt-making site attached to the estate of Merton in Surrey in a charter dated 967. Unsurprisingly, this is unique among Surrey’s pre-Conquest records – and for all I know is unique to any previous or subsequent period. (To impart a rare piece of chemistry-based knowledge at this point, Epsom Salts may take their name from the Surrey town but they are magnesium chloride rather than sodium chloride, and anyway their source wasn’t discovered until the seventeenth century – on which see Walsham 2011, 415). The subject is relevant to the aims of SARF because it identifies the Anglo-Saxon economy as a major gap in our present state of knowledge:

‘We know little of the economy apart from hints in place-names and some knowledge of the situation in 1066.’ (Bird 2006, 52)

The Merton charter reference is an all-too rare instance of a direct textual record of the sorts of commodities produced within the county in the pre-Conquest period, and hence a valuable potential indicator of a place of proto-industrial production in the tenth century (though it’s only with the proliferation of documents naming people with “professional” surnames from the thirteenth century onwards that we get a clearer picture of what was being produced and where). There’s only one place to begin, and that’s with the wording of the reference, contained in a grant - S 747 - of twenty hides of Merton (Mertone), five hides at Dulwich (Dilwyhs)…

…et partem aliquam salsuginem terram iuxta flumen quod uocatur Temese…

As far as I can determine, this last bit had gone unheralded in published scholarship until it was noted by Susan Kelly in the recent Charters of Glastonbury Abbey. She makes the  vital observation that the section concerning Dulwich and the salsuginem terram is a later interpolation, meaning it can be no earlier than 967, but it is her interpretation of the latter as ‘a tract of land by the Thames used for salt-making’ which is of paramount interest here (Kelly 2012, 493). It is an understandable but by no means inevitable extension of the wording. There are occasional mentions of sites of salt-making in the Anglo-Saxon period both on the coast (e.g. the indirect reference of 732 to ‘boiling the salt’ in the vicinity of the deserted seasonal trading centre of Sandtun in Kent) and inland, most notably at the major Mercian production centre of Droitwich. Quite how valuable a commodity salt was in the medieval period was something I came to appreciate during a seminar I attended as part of my current degree course. With most sections of society having to resort to boiling peat in order to obtain what I can only imagine was something approximating to what we would think of as salt, the manufacture and consumption of the finest quality real deal was the preserve of the elite. One testament to the high value of salt is that it was sometimes used as a monetary substitute in payments (what do you think the origin of the English word salary is?).

Taking these facts and applying them to the S 747 evidence, one might begin to grow excited at the prospect of salt being produced on a significant scale – perhaps by more than one major Surrey estate – beside the Thames. Unfortunately, Kelly’s analysis is not without its problems. For one thing, her given interpretation occurs in an incorrect context. She wrongly claims the boundary description clause applies to Merton and the Thames-side landholding; they delimit the twenty hides of Merton only, making no reference to the latter (Kelly 2012, 493 - I’m willing to put this down to a drafting error which was not picked up in the editing process). Secondly, with the usual caveat of my Latin being far from perfect, I make the relevant wording to mean something like “and part of some salty/briny land next to the river called the Thames” (my interpretation of salsuginem takes after Latham 1965, 417, salsugenus, -uginus, -uginosus). 

Merton was not a Thames-side estate, so we can hold that the land in question was separate from it and likewise the holding at Dulwich, again set away from the river. The fact it was saline in nature almost certainly indicates that the land lay alongside a tidal stretch of the Thames. The river’s tidal head during the Anglo-Saxon centuries is imperfectly understood, but it is generally agreed that it fluctuated and for the most part lay below its present limit at Teddington. Knowing this much, we can turn to the Domesday Book entry for Merton, the next historical source relating to Merton after S 747. More importantly, it refers to a trio of satellite properties associated with the manor in 1086 (all information from Morris & Wood 1975, 1,5).

  1. 16 ma[n]surae (“dwellings”) in Southwark, a suitably tidal riverside location. If they were coincident with land apt to be described as “salty” after 967 then it has very important implications for the degree to which Southwark was an urban settlement by that date. 16 is a large number of dwellings – the highest number in Southwark connected to a distant Surrey estate (Sharp & Watson 2011, 286-87) – and could have been situated together in a single bloc equivalent to a substantial tract of land. On the other hand, the mansurae could just as easily have been distributed throughout the urban area.
  2. A two-hide property “which always lay in this manor, but are in another Hundred”, held before and after 1066 by one Orcus. It is not named and, even more unhelpfully, nor is the Hundred. However, the fact that it is attributed to a Hundred and is quantified in hides indicates it was not located in Kent; the obvious implication is that it lay in Surrey, but Middlesex cannot be excluded as a possibility. Further topographical information about the holding is restricted to it containing ploughland and two acres of meadow. Is this sufficient implication of productive character as to cast doubt on their descent from the parcel of “salty land” mentioned in the later tenth century?
  3. Another landholding appended to Merton “in the time of King Edward and of King William”. Again not attributed a place-name, it is stated to have been located in Kent (hence its quantification as two sulungs in extent). Beyond that, nothing. It is tempting to correlate this mysterious outlier with the salsuginem terram iuxta flumen, given it exclusively abutted the tidal stretch of the Thames, but without additional information this would be entirely speculative.

More work than I have managed here needs to be done on early historical Merton, which should be facilitated by its choice as the site of an important Augustinian priory founded in the early twelfth century. Its royal foundation charter of 1121 makes reference to ‘the royal town of Merton’ only, and at least part of Dulwich reappears around the same time as the member of Bermondsey, another Surrey royal manor turned monastic centre. This admittedly limited evidence hints at a reorganisation of royal properties in north-east Surrey in the Conquest era, though where the salty piece of land of S 747 fame fits into this picture is unclear at present. A careful sifting of the early muniments of Merton Priory may well turn up something which can be connected to the holding and its post-967 descent.

So what has this whistlestop tour of the evidence taught us? To begin with, that I certainly do not know all there is to know of relevance to the topic of later Anglo-Saxon Merton and its salty satellite. So far as the above appraisal goes, the idea the anonymous second outlier of the main Merton estate recorded in S 747 was given over to the production of salt derived from the tidal waters of the Thames remains a possibility, but one that asks a great deal of a very ambiguously-worded passage of text. We are able to say that somewhere alongside the tidal Thames existed a tract of land rendered salty from its situation. Seemingly, this was subdivided so a part of it was attached to Merton at an unknown date in the second half of the tenth century (the same can be said of Dulwich; cf. S 551, Kelly 2012, 439-41). Why this was done is anything but clear, but use for the production of salt is but one of a number of possibilities (use as a landing-place, like a late version of the hyths I’ve been banging on about for much of the past year, is another). Consequently, its relevance to augmenting our understanding of Surrey’s Anglo-Saxon economy is moot, but recognition of the reference as a reflection of the sometimes complex patterns of proto-manorial landholding does add to the far-from-complete picture of its administrative geography in the latter part of the period.

Without knowing anything else about the exact location and use of the site, it is not easy to progress to suggesting how it should be integrated with SHERF or any other local or regional archaeological and historical research agendas. A full-on research project with a view to tracing and excavating its precise site would be pointless unless it could be proven that it was a salt production site (or a place with other significant archaeological implications). Further documentary research has been advocated already, and it need not be limited to Surrey; surely there must be other early mentions of salt production taking place at other sites alongside the tidal Thames, which can thereafter be compared to the circumstances of tenth-century Merton. If the results of such investigations are fruitful, then they may provide the information essential for the conversion of a historical research project into an archaeological one. Indeed, I believe there is much to be gained by using Surrey’s too-often undervalued Anglo-Saxon-period historical sources as the basis for inspiring and informing the direction of future archaeological research. With any luck the finished Surrey Archaeological Historic Environment Research Framework will reflect this belief.


Bird, David, Surrey Archaeological Research Framework 2006 (Kingston upon Thames and Guildford: Surrey County Council and SyAS, 2006)

Kelly, Susan E., Charters of Glastonbury Abbey, Anglo-Saxon Charters, 15 (Oxford: Oxford University Press for The British Academy, 2012)

Latham, R. E., Revised Medieval Latin Word-List from British and Irish Sources (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965)

Morris, John, & Sara Wood, Domesday Book, 3. Surrey (Chichester: Phillimore, 1975)

Sharp, Tony, & Bruce Watson, ‘Saxo-Norman Southwark: A Review of the Archaeological and Historical Evidence’ in Anglo-Saxon Traces, ed. by Jane Roberts & Leslie Webster (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval & Renaissance Studies, 2011), 273-96

Walsham, Alexandra, The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity, and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Charters, Domesday, History, Latin, Surrey, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Medieval studies in cathedrals and clouds

On the train back to London yesterday I read an article in an arts newspaper discussing “internets” and how open-source “cloud” approaches to art and design offer benefits over and above those derived from orthodox “cathedral”-based methods. It wasn’t just the talk of cathedrals which prompted me to think about how all of this can or could apply to medieval studies. The various disciplines which fall under the umbrella tend to be slow in picking up new trends. I mean, in some ways it’s no great surprise that this is the case, given the time period, the relatively small numbers of scholars involved and nature of their research. On the other hand, now being back within a leading academic institution after several years on the outside looking in, I can’t help but get the feeling that the current outputs are far from commensurate to the amount of interest and knowledge out there. What is more, everything feels so damn insular, uncollaborative and short-sighted.

To give one – admittedly slightly old – example, the Sense of Place in Anglo-Saxon England project was a ground-breaking enterprise in a number of ways; a series of seminars held in 2009 (which I caught the tail-end of, in Nottingham as it happens) and a couple of years later a book containing printed text versions of many of the presentations delivered at those seminars. Another element of the project was “public SPASE”, billed as an ‘exciting initiative designed to bring together local history and archaeology groups’ in emulation of the Galaxy Zoo astronomy website. Behind it were ‘a group of academics passionate about their subject…willing to share their expertise’. Yet public SPASE doesn’t exist any more. The only way you can view anything to do with it is via the versions preserved in the UK Web Archive (and try if you don’t believe me).

SPASE was here, but no longer

For such a thing to flourish requires input from professionals and amateurs alike, and if too few of the latter engaged with the project then those ‘passionate’ (urgh) academics can hardly be blamed for not holding up their end of the bargain. However, this must be set against the fact that the seminars seem to have been designed for an academic audience effectively playing to itself – certainly at the Nottingham one I was the only “civilian” present – and the mechanics of publicising public SPASE evidently did not do the trick in terms of establishing it as the one-stop shop it was envisaged as being. Getting AHRC money on the promise of a public web interface and a book (which barely a year after publication is not available on Amazon for less than 60 quid, P&P included) seems like an exercise in making the right noises but not truly seeing the bigger picture.

The proliferation of new, university-based online journals is a big change for the positive, although I would say some are better than others in making content available to those beyond the confines of academia (titles I have encountered in recent weeks include Networks and Neighbours, The Post Hole and The Medieval Journal). I had intended to write a bit about the place of open access publishing as a means of closing the gap (or gaps) which exist in medieval studies between ideal and reality, institutions and individuals, only James Palmer has recently gone and done a far better job of it than I would ever have been able to do on his Merovingian World blog. Instead, in acknowledgement of the innovative working practices and philosophies of the creative industries being the inspiration for this post, I want to look at other platforms for research collaboration and dissemination.

Medieval studies does not want for real life and online environments for the professional and amateur to interact and exchange information. There’s a spectrum of outlets, from the IHR’s postgraduate History Lab (which I had some limited involvement with when I lived in Liverpool) to the various mailing lists run by the CBA (though I gave up on these after what seemed like the millionth iteration of a war of words between archaeologists and metal detectorists arived in my inbox). Each was set up and operates to perform a specific function, and in this they seem to succeed, although it would be interesting to learn what “value-add” outcomes have stemmed from such fora – not I hasten to add because I don’t believe there are any, but because it’s never a bad thing to celebrate good news.

(Confession: the one time I responded to something on one of the mailing lists was to join in with some field-walking on a medieval pottery production site in the Surrey Weald, only I got my dates confused and turned up on the wrong day, so cannot claim to have contributed towards a partly web-initiated fieldwork project. It did, however, mean I got to take a wonderful walk through the woods, then pay the most expensive bus fare of my life to travel a matter of miles back home.)

Screen shot 2014-02-01 at 11.55.38

One very interesting project which stands a good chance of transcending its academic birth and flourishing where others have not is MicroPasts, an inchoate offshoot of the Portable Antiquities Scheme website. From reading the page explaining the project’s aims, MicroPasts shares much in common with the likes of public SPASE, but is related to a well-established and well-regarded project manifested in real people (the network of FLOs) as well as a peerless web resource (the PAS database). Methinks the AHRC cash which has gone into getting the thing off the ground has been well spent this time. I’m going to be keeping close tabs on it for sure.

Of course, only time will tell if MicroPasts, the new crop of online journals and other projects yet to be launched (or of which I am unaware) sink, swim or do neither and simply tread water. Whatever the future, it does feel like there are some major shifts in practice occurring and that archaeology, history and linguistics need not bring up the rear in the adoption of new methods of researching, publishing and publicising. Let’s get out of the cathedral and into the light.

Posted in Archaeology, History, internet, News, Politics, Portable Antiquities Scheme, Publishing, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

So this is 2014

My oh my, January is slipping by at quite a rate. Most of my favourite bloggers, medieval or otherwise, have resurfaced from their festival revelries and recommenced their activities so, a month down the line from my last post, I thought it was high time I did the same. It’s not that I haven’t been writing – quite the opposite in fact. Over the Christmas period and the first couple of weeks of this year, I churned out three back-to-back assessed uni essays totalling around 10,000 words – and that’s without the technicolour appendices I put together in support of them - so I’ve been on recharge since.

Further to my defence, I’ve been far from idle on extra-curricular bits and pieces this past couple of weeks. In fact, I’ve been up to all sorts, from compiling lists of coins to throwing swords in the name of experimental archaeology. All of this will get an outing on the site, as will the pile of stuff I’ve done since last summer which warrants a post/page or two. Also, most of what I wrote for uni will find its way onto here in one form or another in due course. This includes something that is closely allied with the subject of my proposed PhD, and another which I’ve had in mind to write more or less since establishing this blog but which always slipped down my to-do list before the opportunity presented itself as part of my MA.

As a little taster, here’s a schedule of all the references to swords, spears, shields, byrnies and horses in Old English will and bequest texts. I compiled it in order to prove a fairly small point of vocabulary concerning the use of Old English sweord; I hope others may find it useful for their own research, or just an interesting illustration of the quantities and qualities of martial equipment in England from the ninth to eleventh centuries. The studies by Nicholas Brooks and Hilda Ellis Davidson listed below are strongly recommended to readers who wish to set this data in its wider social and material context (there are of course other works on the subject of Anglo-Saxon weapons etc., but both of these appraise the will/bequest evidence).

Selected types of weapon and armour in Old English wills and bequests January 2014

Last year was Surrey Medieval’s best year yet. It received over 5,000 page views – I don’t know if that is good or bad as medieval blogs go, I guess it’s somewhere in the middle, but certainly made me feel like I was doing something right and the figures have kept ticking over nicely since the turn of the year. It would be great to think I could double my money this calendar year – writing this seems like a small step in the right direction towards achieving that goal. I’m determined to really ramp things up over the next 12 11 months and, when it comes to things like articles, conferences and fieldwork, already have more irons in the fire than ever before. Heck, I’m even helping to organise a conference in the summer! Keep it tuned for news on all this and plenty more besides in what I hope will be some rather more frequent posts than I have been able to manage in recent times.

And, just before it becomes truly incongruous to write, happy new year to you!


Brooks, Nicholas, ‘Arms, Status and Warfare in Late-Saxon England’, in Communities and Warfare, 700-1400 (London: Hambledon, 2000), 138-61.

Davidson, Hilda Ellis, The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England: Its Archaeology and Literature, reprint (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1998).

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Being organised, Documents, History, News, Old English | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Seasons greetings from Puttenham (and an unseasonal gift from Joshua Tree)

Here I sit on Christmas Eve, presents wrapped (just the rosettes and ribbons to add for a little extra pizzazz), wondering how there’s only seven days left of this year. Latterly, time has not expanded in a fashion that has permitted me to finish a chunky “opinion piece” post I commenced a couple of weeks ago – I may yet get it done before 2014 comes around. In the meanwhile, here’s a little something I came across recently by way of a little present from me to you, dear reader – a video of Phillip K Smith III‘s 2013 installation, Lucid Stead. You’ll quickly realise it’s got nothing to do with Surrey and very little to do with the medieval period; I could try and make a connection with shielings or Karl Inge Sandred’s 1964 study English place-names in -stead, but I reckon neither would sound anything other than a bit daft. So sit back and enjoy a few minutes of a wonderfully simple idea beautifully realised in a place somewhere a good deal warmer (in the daytime anyway) than south-east England is right now.

See you in 2014 – if not before.

Posted in Art, Design, Landscape, Place | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments