Deserted Medieval Villages

Guest post by Ray Hopgood.

Most people’s first contact with a Deserted Medieval Village (DMV) is seeing one referred to on an OS map. If the site is visited, then there will be little to see except humps and bumps in the ground. The first and obvious question asked is “why did these villages disappear?” The most common perception, due to local lore, is they quite literally died out due to a pestilence and/or the Black Death. In fact, research has revealed that this notion is wrong. The reality, like most historical events, is far more complex with a range of possible explanations.

The study of DMV became a respectable area of academic study in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The work of Professors Hoskins and Beresford really presented the full potential of the subject in their books, “The Making of the English Landscape” and “The Lost Villages of England. These together with the development of aerial photography during World War Two proved to be a boon for landscape archaeologists allowing them to view sites with much more accuracy.

In many ways term “Deserted Medieval Villages” needs to be treated with some caution. Deserted has an implication of rapidity about it, as opposed to the more accurate term of depopulated. Medieval suggests that all the changes occurred in what is recognised as the Medieval period, that is prior to 1485, but a great number, possibly the majority, occurred in later periods such as Tudor or C17/18th. Not all the places were villages; some were hamlets, or farmsteads. The term settlement is far more accurate. Perhaps the correct terminology should be “Depleted Past Settlements”; not a very catchy title!

As with all historical events the important interest is not just in what happened, but why, and what were the results, in other words the model cause and effect pattern.

Causation is always a difficult concept to analyse. Normally there is a “web” of causes both long and short term on any major event. With the loss of so many settlements the reasons must be many and varied and not just the old chestnut of the Black Death although it did have minor effect and must not be dismissed. The outbreak of the Black Death may well have hastened the demise of small unviable settlements on marginal land. There is little evidence of a return of peoples to the abandoned sites after the passing of the epidemic.

The earliest causes of depopulation/desertion can be attributed to ecclesiastical and royal desires for pastureland or extending Royal Forests for hunting in the 12 century. The Cistercian monasteries were keen to enclose arable land for pasture in later centuries. The eviction of the peasants was often well documented.

The desire to graze more sheep and to benefit from the booming wool trade, together with a reduced workforce, also drove landowners to clear their estates of people and their homes. After all, if land was good for the plough, it would be good for grass.

Another reason for the eviction of the local populace was the desire of the landowner to create a park and the peasant settlements were often in the way and whole communities had to be removed. The instances of this can be found from the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries.

In reality the situation was far more complicated with villages already too small to sustain themselves, founded on poor or marginal land and would die out naturally over an extended period. Perhaps these were the vast majority of cases. Examples of all these causes can be found within the environs of traditional West Berkshire.

Henwick, the local case; although there are no physical remains of Henwick DMV sophisticated aerial photography identified earthworks and soilmarks of field banks and ditches, ridge and furrow fields and a possible hollow way close to Henwick Manor.

Henwick Manor Farm, c.1899. By Miss Thompson
Henwick Manor Farm, c.1899. By Miss Thompson

Documentary evidence is more encouraging with the 1334 Lay Subsidy being above average for a Berkshire vill and with 79 poll tax payers in 1379 which suggests a substantial population Depopulation seems to have occurred between 1350 and 1450. The 1662 Hearth Tax only reveals two returns. The return of 99 houses almost certainly reflects the inclusion of Ashmore Green. For further and more detailed information I would highly recommend visiting Dr Nick Young’s site. As will be seen in later there are examples of all these different causes throughout old Berkshire.