Post-Roman Reforestation in Britain

This post is just really just a little brain storming….

It is generally known that major agricultural and landscape usage changes occurred in post-Roman Britain. Former agricultural land becomes reforested and naturally, Roman water management projects eventually fail.   Roman withdrawal from the island in the early fifth century is the usual explanation. Romans leave and the poor hapless Britons can’t manage without them. While there were surely major sociocultural changes going on, it never really made sense for the landscape change on such a massive scale. I expect the roads and bridges not to be kept up,  defensive clearances around fortifications to be partially reforested, and large estates would have broken up. This really doesn’t explain to me the loss of agricultural land to reforestation that occurred in parts of the island that lacked dense Roman estates. Afterall, most peasants would not have been able to evacuate the land and would have turned large estates into smaller farmsteads. New local leaders would have still been interested in food stuffs even if trade routes were drastically changes. So if most people could not have evacuated, where did they go? And is this tied to the Romano-British being able to hold Anglo-Saxon advance for over a century until a fairly rapid collapse in the sixth century? Other the settlement of Brittany in the 5th-6th century, there are no known large-scale migrations of Britons to the continent to account for the abrupt collapse after over 150 years since the Roman withdrawal. The Britons held their own very well considering how fast the Franks and Goths got control of their former Roman provinces.

So now jumping to some of my reading on plague studies…. large scale land use and agricultural change occurs in Britain after the Black Death. This is a product of not just the Black Death but also a century of ecological change that resulted in livestock murrains, famines, and culminated in the Black Death. Economists like to point out all the benefits of the fall in demographics on economics and eroding the social structures that kept the masses poor and tied to the land. After the Black Death, landscape changes begin resulting from changing agricultural styles, more pasture is available and less under cultivation. There is also an abrupt stop in building because the population has shrunk to the point where new structures are not needed. A stoppage in building also makes changes in building style more pronounced when building begins again at a slower pace after a couple of decades. It could be argued that the post-Roman period is one of the few eras in British history where land change occurred as drastically as after the Black Death. Ecologically should these periods be studied together? (Are there other periods in British history with similar amounts of change?)

Has too much of the post-Roman Britain change been credited to the Anglo-Saxons? What is the role of the plague of Justinian, from 541 and returning to Ireland in a couple more ‘waves’ before 664, in creating the right demographics for political change? Yes, plague would have effected the Anglo-Saxons also but they did not have the trade networks of the western Britons and Ireland to facilitate rapid transmission. There are also other ecological changes going on that may have precipitated the plague of Justinian. Social isolation (even incomplete) is a blessing in times of plague. All food for thought. As always looking for comments and suggestions….

The Ancient Silence

Michelle Ziegler:

From the Heavenfield vault:

Originally posted on Heavenfield:

Writing in the 790s, Paul the deacon chronicled a plague that swept through the Lombard territory of  Luguria in what is today northern Italy in about 560. After providing clear signs of bubonic plague and its deadly consequences, he paints a vivid portrait of popular reaction.

“For the common report had it that those who fled would avoid the plague, the dwellings were left deserted by their inhabitants, and the dogs alone kept house. The flocks remained alone in the pastures with no shepherd at hand. You might see villages (villas) or fortified places lately filled with crowds of men, and on the next day all had departed and everything was in utter silence. Some fled, leaving the corpses of their parents unburied; parents forgetful of their duty abandoned their children in raging fever. If by chance long-standing affection constrained anyone to bury his near relative, he remained himself unburied…

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Plague in a time of war

Michelle Ziegler:

A post from the Heavenfield vault:

Originally posted on Heavenfield:

One of the oddities of the plague in Britain and Ireland is the absence of any visible impact on political history. The few kings who died of plague were apparently replaced peacefully from within their kingdom, if not their dynasty. The effects of the plague on the church, particularly in the loss of bishops, may suggest that the effects of the plague on political history have not been appreciated enough, though the infrastructure of the early medieval kingdoms was significantly stronger than the fledgling church in Britain. While churchmen were mourned in Ireland, it doesn’t seem to have caused a crisis.

The Northumbrian plague of c.684-688 gives us an opportunity to look at the effect of a specific wave on plague on politics and particularly warfare. We don’t know exactly when this round of plague began in Northumbria. We know that it began at least a year before Cuthbert became…

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St Hild: The Martha of the Anglo-Saxon England

Michelle Ziegler:

An old post from the archive for St Hild’s feast day, Nov 17. Hild is the protagonist of Nichola Griffith’s new novel Hild available on Amazon and at your better booksellers.

Originally posted on Heavenfield:


This past weekend is the feast day of St. Hild of Whitby. According to Bede, she died on 17 November 680 and her feast is celebrated in the Episcopal Church on November 18th and in the Church of England on November 19th.

Hild’s return to Northumbria from East Anglia in 646 was one of the most important events in the development of the early Northumbrian church. She had been in East Anglia staying with her nephew King Ealdwulf waiting for a ship to take her to Gaul (France) where she could join her sister Hereswitha in the convent at Chelles. Like her sister, Hild was almost certainly a widow. She was 32 years old and for a woman of her time, she would have been expected to either marry or enter a convent long before, particularly since her closest male kinsmen were all dead.

Hild and her sister Hereswitha…

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Glasses on Guthlac’s Monks?

Roundel 14, Harley Y.6  'the Guthlac roll'

Roundel 14, Harley Y.6; ‘the Guthlac roll’

I was looking at the Guthlac roll in the British Library online and I noticed something rather odd. Have you noticed it? The two outer figures are wearing glasses! According to the British Library page for the roll, its dates to c. 1175-1225 and is believed to be prototypes for stained glass windows. This seems a bit early for glasses. The guy on the right has particularly modern looking specs. Come to think of it, the one on the left in addition to the glasses has a rather flamboyant feather in his hat. What do you all think? Are these objects c. 12th century or has someone added these to the roll?

St Oswald and the Sussex Plague

Modified from the vault for St Oswald’s Day:

Happy St. Oswald’s Day!

It has been a while since I wrote but I can’t miss the feast of St. Oswald.

What little time I have had for medieval topics this summer has been focused on the plague, so this brings to mind the unique place King Oswald has in Anglo-Saxon plague history.

oswaldPlague isn’t recorded in Anglo-Saxon England during Oswald’s lifetime. Oswald’s legacy surely was in the thoughts of his countrymen in 664 when the plague is first recorded, but his role as founder of the Irish church of Lindisfarne would have made him a rather controversial topic in 664. Remembrances of St Oswald were also just beginning in 664. Although I think that his hand had probably been translated into a shrine in the church of Bamburgh by this time, other sites associated with his veneration (like Heavenfield and Bardney) still didn’t have official recognition or had not yet been established.

By the time the second major wave of plague circulated around Britain in the 680s much had changed. Although there are no plague associated miracles at Bardney, this is about the time it was established and he was credited with healing miracles there. Likewise, the site of Heavenfield was probably contained within the monastic grounds of Hexham by then under the rule of Bishop Wilfrid of York.

It was at one of Wilfrid’s monasteries in Sussex that St Oswald was said to have interceded on behalf of the monastery to stop a plague. As far as I can recall, this is the only plague intercession in Bede’s History. [As a matter of fact, I can only think of two plague intercessions in 7-8th century Britain -- this one by Oswald and Adomnan's credit of his preservation from the plague while visiting Northumbria to Columba.]  It is significant that Bede notes that it was from this point that Oswald came to be widely celebrated throughout southern England. This may indicate that he was, at least for a while, seen as an intercessor for the plague in a time of plague.  The vision of Sts. Peter and Paul telling the child that the monastery was being spared further plague by the intercession of St. Oswald for his people on the day of his own death (August 5), the day of the vision, is surely unique. It also satisfies the Wilfridian circle’s need for a Romanist vision vouched for by two primary Romanist saints.

We can be skeptical that this miracle occurred in one of Wilfrid’s monasteries, given that Wilfrid also controlled Heavenfield, but Wilfrid is unlikely to have really embraced the idea of a royal intercessor, given his own troubles with kings and that royal power was in conflict with episcopal power. I’ve discussed Acca’s role in developing Oswald’s veneration before, but it is possible that this miracle, a late insertion into Bede’s History, really was considered a major event in Anglo-Saxon England. Bede surely didn’t have to make such a late insertion. Its unlikely that this is the type of material that King Ceolwulf would have demanded.

In much later medieval times, Oswald was considered a plague intercessor in Italy. People would make long pilgrimages into the Alps to visit his shrine there seeking his intercession for their illnesses, so this was a theme of Oswald’s medieval cult.

What ever you think about such miracles, today is a day to recall St Oswald and ponder on the cultural role of Anglo-Saxon kings.