Old English middel-tūn – a “productive” place-name?

There’s an inevitable caginess on the part of most authors writing about “productive sites” when it comes to the actual location of these artefact-rich places. I’ve always thought that this was a bit of a shame, or rather, that the names attached to their sites and surroundings would make a great research project if only everything wasn’t so hush-hush to thwart the nighthawks. But last night, as I flicked through the various English contributions to the groundbreaking 2003 volume Markets in Early Medieval Europe: Trading and ‘Productive’ Sites, 650-850, slowly it dawned on me that there may be grounds for connecting one seemingly-innocuous place-name compound with “productiveness”.

The idea began with Kevin Leahy’s paper, ‘Middle Anglo-Saxon Lincolnshire: An Emerging Picture’ (pages 138-54 – I’m going to be really slack and not formally reference this because right now I’m watching the film Cocktail and it’s not exactly encouraging me to reproduce my usual academic conscientiousness) which largely concerns the “productive site” on the boundary of Melton Ross and Barnetby le Wold parishes. Cute and cuddly as the second place-name might sound, it’s the first that piqued my interest, or more accurately Leahy’s brief footnoted explanation of it;

“The place name ‘Melton’ is derived from ‘middle ton’… showing that it, at least, was a central place, the -ton element [is] unlikely to date to before [the] eighth century…” (Leahy 2003, 152)

Leaving aside a decidedly-dodgy dating of Old English tūn (I’ll get around to explaining more about that one day), Melton Ross is more or less plumb centre of a triangular-ish territory comprising the two aforementioned parishes; the “productive site” is so close to it as to make it hard to believe that it could have been known by another name. Might there be some merit in developing the above, by taking Old English middel to imply “centrality” – the word is rendered as “middle, centre” by Clark Hall in his Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1916, 203) – and hence interpret it as connected to the “productive site”? Could the same be posited for other middel-tūnas in England too?

Two other chapters in the book mention places with names certain or likely to derive from middel-tūn. One is Malton in Yorkshire, which has not one but two “productive sites” in its vicinity (Mark Blackburn, ‘”Productive” Sites and the Pattern of Coin Loss in England, 600-1180’, 20-36 [page 31, 36]), although there is no philological certainty as to the derivation of its name. The other is Milton Regis in Kent, which Stuart Brookes identifies as a minster and regio-centre. He goes on to note that it is an area of low coin loss and offers the suggestion this may be because “exchange through the estate mechanism restricted active participation in price-making markets” (pages 94-95 of ‘The Early Anglo-Saxon Framework for Middle Anglo-Saxon Economics: The Case of East Kent’, 84-96).

Brookes’ contention owes a considerable debt to Alan Everitt’s earlier account of the early medieval historical geography of what he (mis)terms the regio of Milton, whose name he chose to translate as “central tūn” before asserting it “was appropriate to the caput of a major royal estate” (Everitt 1986, 311). Everitt’s analysis is too wide-ranging to summarise here, but the key elements concerning Milton Regis are as follows. Milton appears in Domesday Book as a port or market (Everitt 1986, 316), indicating a centralisation of (official) mercantile activity by the eleventh century. Yet the site of this market lay a mile or so distant of the local minster which in Everitt’s eyes was a venerable institution. He saw Milton’s royal centrality as primary, with attainment of equivalent ecclesiastical status a subsequent development (“The royal estate on which the minsterland was based…” – Everitt 1986, 311), thereby failing to admit the greater likelihood that it became royal as a result of the takeover of an existing minster and its estate. Whenever the market was established, its locational separation from the minster complex is noteworthy (see Everitt 1986, 306 Map 16.2), as is the probable superseding of the original name of the ecclesiastical site by that of the middel-tūn (briefly discussed with reference to correspondence with Margaret Gelling in Everitt 1986, 389 note 3).

It is a happy accident that, in noting that middel-tūn recurs as the name of “several other minster churches” in England, the only example Everitt (1986, 311) cited is Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, for a bit of midnight Googling turned up an article by Mark Blackburn in which he identified it as the late Anglo-Saxon mint of Meðeltun, representing a part-Norse hybrid version of middel-tūn. However, PAS only lists a single Series E “proto-penny” from there, hardly a mark of economic “productiveness” in the middle Anglo-Saxon period. I have no knowledge of the archaeo-historical context of Melton Mowbray and a commensurate disinclination to gaining it at the present time, so I will take this particular point no further. Indeed, it is only the significant results derived from the application of some of the lessons learned above to equivalent place-names in Surrey that persuaded me to write this now rather than keep it up my sleeve for the next few years.

Milton Court is a middel-tūn place-name found to the west of Dorking; its first known mention is in Domesday Book. The surrounding fields are the provenance of a number of artefacts listed on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database:

  • An early Anglo-Saxon small-long brooch (SUR-545C71)
  • A pale gold Pada “proto-penny” (PAS Unique ID SUR-2CF753)
  • A rare penny of King Beornwulf of Mercia (SUR-8B14B0)
  • A ninth-century strap-end (SUR-259D72)

So, by Surrey admittedly-modest standards, the Milton Court area is really rather “productive”. Dorking is one of my suggested later eighth-century “productive places” based on a former minor minster (and its estate?) taken over by Mercian kings and used as a centre of secular royal power. Whatever the precise provenance(s) of the coins from Dorking which are included in the EMC but not the PAS database, it seems clear from those of the above artefacts that matters are a little more complex than admitted previously, mirroring Milton Regis in terms of there being a spatial separation between the “productive” middel-tūn (Milton) and the ecclesiastical centre (assuming it is coterminous with St Martin’s church; there is no positive evidence for this at present).

This discrete distance between possible minster and multi-penny provenance is mirrored at Shalford to the west and possibly Leatherhead to the north (heaven only knows what the truth is behind the EMC-only coins attributed to Guildford). The temptation is to see the coins and other metalwork deriving from an open-ground site set away from the minster-cum-estate centre but, assuming the place-name is contemporary with the artefacts, the use of tūn implies activity took place at or close to a settlement.

I can’t say that the evidence in favour of a connection between place-names descended from Old English middel-tūn or Anglo-Scandinavian equivalents and concentrations of mid-Anglo-Saxon antiquities is overwhelming. However, one further piece of evidence makes me think there might be something in it. Wanting to test the hypothesis, I turned my attention to the second example of a middel-tūn place-name in Surrey – Milton Park in Egham parish. I knew that the parish is the provenance of a single foreign-minted “proto-penny” and this led me to ask myself; what are the chances that the two locations are coincident? Well, it turns out that the grid square containing the coin’s find-spot (according to the PAS website) just so happens to include Milton Park. This congruence could mere coincidence but, of all the grid squares in all of Egham…

A bit more research on the Surrey online Historic Environment Record has thrown up a couple of other nearby find-spots of interest. Archaeological work at “Whitehall Lane/Milton Park Farm” found Anglo-Saxon pottery and other unspecified occupation evidence (SHHER_5923) while a little further away to the south-west part of an (?early) Anglo-Saxon shoulder brooch is on record “from the Great Wood area” (SHHER_6009). As it stands, Milton Park and its immediate environs are not of the same “productive” standing as Milton Court (and again I must highlight that the use of the adjective to describe mid-Anglo-Saxon sites in Surrey requires special pleading anyway), but there is a definite cluster of Anglo-Saxon evidence hereabouts that is not matched or surpassed elsewhere in the large parish of Egham.

Whatever the early historical circumstances of Melton Ross, Malton, Milton Regis and Melton Mowbray, the royal explanation for the “productive” character of Dorking – and consequently Milton Court –  from the second half of the eighth century is reasonably strong. This makes its Surrey namesake all the more intriguing, since Egham had a long-standing close connection to the monastery at Chertsey, arguably going all the way back to its (re)foundation by King Egbert of Kent in the 660s. The eighth and ninth century history of the monastery and its estates is far from clear, though S 127 does point to preferential interference on the part of Offa. Given the Mercian king secured a papal privilege for his Petrine-dedicated monasteries, it is possible he had acquired Chertsey (or inherited it from his predecessor Æthelbald). All the same, it is a considerable leap from here to infer that Offa set up a market-cum-fiscal centre near but not at the monastery complex, on or close to a site previously used as venue for coin-based exchange. Instead, it may be possible that this particular middel-tūn was a monastic creation; nearby place-names like Egham Hythe, Egham Wick and Thorpe strongly suggest it played a pivotal role in the establishment and naming of new (specialist) settlements in its hinterland. Again, the possibility that the Kentish Milton was an ecclesiastical creation may be cited in support of this.

I’m not sure what to make of all this (I’m still not sure what to make of Cocktail either…) but it does fit the growing number of studies which have drilled down into common tūn place-name compounds to attempt to explain them in functional terms. One especially ingenious example is Richard Jones’ recently-published assessment of Upton place-names (Jones 2012 – the topic is neatly summed up on a page of the SPASE website), where he made the tentative proposition that they owe their genesis to use in the Anglo-Saxon period as “elite hunting grounds”. Old English upp gives away even less than middel as to its possible applications in place-names, meaning it is only by drawing upon different, non-onomastic sources of evidence can interpretations begin to be advanced.

The Old English compound middel-tūn lends itself to the reflection of a settlement’s topographical position relative to one or more other outlying counterpart, so, in positing a translation along the lines of “tūn which serves as the centre of trade/exchange activity within an estate/territory (of a different name?)”* as an explanation for the underlying meaning of at least some of the instances of this place-name formation, it is fortunate that the source of evidence that will serve to justify this postulation is set to continue to grow year-on-year for the foreseeable future.

* Originally, I posited a translation of “tūn which serves as the centre of economic/exchange activity within an estate/territory (of a different name?)” but came to appreciate that economic activity can be applied to so many things as to render the notion at best meaningless, at worst dangerously assumptive. Hence I have amended the wording to make it much more specific to the idea of a mercantile function while at the same time still accommodating other transactional types such as gift exchange. 

JANUARY 2014 UPDATE: According to the introduction to Middleton place-names on page 411 of The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names, the ‘type may sometimes denote a settlement which performed some central function for a group of communities, e.g. a market, rather than one equidistant from two others’. I was unaware of this observation at the time I wrote the above analysis, so it’s satisfying that others have reached much the same conclusion. What I would underline about my approach is that it offers for the first time a dateable framework for the inception and use of middel-tūn as a recurrent place-name.

REFERENCES (hyperlinked where available online for free)

Blackburn, Mark, ‘Metheltun not Medeshamstede: an Anglo-Saxon mint at Melton Mowbray rather than Peterborough’, British Numismatic Journal, 70 (2000), 143-45

Clark Hall, John R., A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary for the Use of Students, second edition (New York: Macmillan, 1916)

Everitt, Alan, Continuity and colonization: the evolution of Kentish settlement (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1986)

Jones, Richard, ‘Hunting for the meaning of the place-name Upton’, in Sense of Place in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. by Jones and Sarah Semple (Donington: Shaun Tyas, 2012), 301-315

Pestell, Tim, and Katharina Ulmschneider, Markets in Early Medieval Europe: Trading and ‘Productive’ Sites, 650-850 (Macclesfield: Windgather, 2003)

Watts, Victor, The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

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