Sometime last week, an email appeared in my inbox with the subject title “Champion – The Making and Unmaking of…” Now I’m not one for sporting biographies (though a recent meeting with one leading academic has made me want to read the one about Eddy Merckx I espied at the top of one pile of books in his office) so this sliver of a title left me a tad confused. Reading the email itself cleared things up immediately. Its purpose was to advertise a new book, one whose title ends “…the English Midland Landscape”, written by Tom Williamson, Robert Liddiard and Tracey Partida. Here’s some more information about it and here, for no reason other than a bit of visual relief, is its front cover.
What surprised me was the presence of Tom Williamson’s name among the authors. Not because the subject matter is somehow different from his usual fare – quite the opposite in fact. For those who don’t know his work, Williamson has been one of the most active and imaginative researchers in the areas of English landscape and settlement development of the past 25 or so years, and has published a wealth of books and articles on the subject(s). My astonishment stems from the fact that he added to this corpus in quite substantial fashion in the form of a book – that’s another book – published just a little over two months ago. Environment, Society and Landscape in Early Medieval England is a monograph that pulls together many of the key themes and subjects of his research into medieval landscapes. You only have to read the introduction (as I did last night – I’ve picked at the rest of it over the past few weeks but have been too occupied with other things to devote my full attention to ploughing through it) to understand that Williamson’s standpoint is the same as it ever was, with the environment more often than not being the key factor in explaining the locations, forms and functions of settlements and open fields, meadows and grazing lands. It could be dubbed environmental determinism, a dirty term in some circles, and while parts of Williamson’s previous works have certainly come across like that, in truth there’s little to be gained by apportioning simple tags to his complex, multi-disciplinary discussions.
Both books aren’t cheap (if you want a cheaper intro to Williamson’s oeuvre try his Shaping Medieval Landscapes: Settlement, Society, Environment, which can be picked up for less than a tenner on Amazon) but, as my good friend, “Mr Cobham” himself, Dr David Taylor reasons, they will stand as key works in the field for decades to come. Think of them as investments, as I do with virtually every book I buy. I’m the Warren Buffett of medieval books.