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 Salt may take their name from the Surrey town but they are magnesium sulphate 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)


About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Charters, Domesday, History, Latin, Surrey, WPLongform and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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