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….


13 thoughts on “Post-Roman Reforestation in Britain

  1. Hi Michelle
    Happy New Year. I would like to begin by questioning your initial premise. Maybe I am way out of date, but I thought that current thinking was that post-Roman re-afforestation had been exaggerated and that there was now a view that much of the land, including field systems, remained in fairly continuous use. I am thinking of Della Hooke, “Trees in Anglo-Saxon England” (Boydell Press 2010) and Nicholas Higham and Martin Ryan, “Landscape Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England.” (also Boydell Press 2010).
    But as to your suggestion about considering the 5th century and the 14th century together for the purposes of comparison, I think that’s a brilliant idea. It might throw all sorts of light on economic forces in particular during the 5th/6th centuries.

      1. Sally is right, I think, in that there’s a lot of evidence for continuous land use from the Iron Age (perhaps even Neolithic) through the Roman to the Anglo-Saxon eras. See, for example, Dominic Powlesland’s work at West Heslerton.

        But I think there was a lot of change, too. In York, for instance, I believe the carefully drained Roman landscape reverted to marsh. But I’m not sure if this is because the post-Roman inhabitants couldn’t/wouldn’t maintain drainage systems (either through lack of skill or of willing hands), or those systems were overwhelmed by changes in the climate.

        It’s been a while since I’ve read this stuff so I honestly can’t remember if there’s evidence for climate change. Perhaps it used to be assumed that it grew wetter in the fifith and sixth centuries because the drainage systems weren’t maintained? Chicken and the egg.

        Another possibility re: reforestation. Perhaps with the cultural change–once the Roman imperial system of taxes were abandoned–came a need for different land use: more coppicing instead of tree-fellling; more pannage instead of wheat production (as Bill Bedford points out).

        But, also like Sally, I’d love to see a parallel study of 5th/6th and 14th century changes! I think it might show us a lot.

        1. Its likely that agriculture did have to diversify to compensate for a lack of imports. Its not healthy to live on bread alone. I wonder how early peas became so dominant in British food. I think they were there in the Roman period, but perhaps not a dominant foodstuff. I’m not sure what other vegetables were common. Root veggies are good for times of political instability because its hard to burn root veggies out. (introducing more root vegetables to Africa has made a big difference in fighting malnutrition because its so hard for militias to destroy crops.) Now they didn’t have potatoes or yams but I think they had carrots, onions, maybe turnips or parsnips. Onions and leeks grow well on wetlands so that might have increased or have even been wild.

          I’m not sure that foresting pigs would be a good replacement for wheat fields. Cattle and sheep on the other hand, might replace wheat fields. Pigs would be best on marginal land or uncleared land. Years ago I remember farmers turning pigs loose in corn (maize) fields after harvest. They didn’t have maize/corn in medieval England but the pigs could also have foraged in harvested fields for dropped food or even eat part of the remaining plants. I imagine pigs would love to forage a field of root veggies!! Though they might do too much damage.

          Ecology and economics are two areas where plague studies needs to move. Of course, they are closely related particularly for agricultural products including wool and leather. Comparing conditions that existed when both the Justinian Plague and Black Death began will be done eventually, its just a matter of pulling people away from the riches resources for the BD only. I know climatologists have comparing these centuries on their “to do” lists.

            1. I’m talking about epidemics, epizootics and famine in Ireland 500-800 at Kalamazoo this spring so its likely that I will be coming back to Heavenfield with ecology fairly soon.

  2. But didn’t Roman Britain export grain to the rest of the empire? Once the Roman infrastructure stopped working then less land would have been needed to feed the British population.

    1. I suspect that the Romans imported as much food stuffs as they exported. Considering the loss of land to wetlands as Roman drainage projects failed, I doubt they had much extra grain. As the province lost its organization, I doubt that grain was getting distributed as well as it was during the Romans.

      Also there were major crop failures around 536 due to a major volcanic eruption.

  3. You might like to use the link below to access the overview and interim reports of the Fields of Britannia project at Exeter, which is about establishing the degree of continuity of farming landscapes from the Roman period into the fifth century and beyond. I seem to recall reading somewhere the project will culminate in a book to be published this year (no doubt by Boydell Press again!)

  4. thank you Michelle for putting up this very productive post and thank you Robert for the link to the Exeter study, which I would never otherwise have found. Oh, the internet is a wonderful thing …

  5. It has been suggested that the 6th Century plaque affected the Romano-British more seriously than the Anglo-Saxons, perhaps because the British maintained trade links with the Mediterranean while the Saxons did not. Could it be that the mortality resulting from the plague left too few alive to farm the land? And, if so, did the forests gain more in the west and north of Britain than in the south and east?

    1. As I have been reading more, it looks like this reforestation and loss of agricultural land is occurring all across Europe, even in German territory outside of the Empire. I think the economic collapse must have been a big part of it, but there must still be another missing piece. It also looks like it began long before the plague.

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