Seminar XCV: control of assembly spaces in Anglo-Saxon England

Because Easter was so late this year, everyone’s term more or less started at the same time with a crunch, school and all the universities together. This also meant that I had only a fortnight of university term before being able, just about, to light out for Kalamazoo, and in that fortnight both the Oxford Medieval Seminar and the Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research had a skip week for various reasons. Two days before I flew the Atlantic, however, Andrew Reynolds of UCL’s Institute of Archaeology came to address the Oxford one on the subject of “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Anglo-Saxon Assembly Sites”, which was coming out of the big ‘Landscapes of Governance’ project he and various others are currently engaged in.

Landscapes of Governance project mastheadLandscapes of Governance project masthead

On this occasion, the subject was mainly hundreds. For those not deeply embedded in English history, the hundred was until the nineteenth century or so a subdivision of the county or shire into which England is apportioned. It used to have a court and so on and various civic responsibilities devolved to it until quite late, which means that we have decent maps of where the final ones were and so on. There are two things generally accepted about hundreds: the first is that the laws of the English kings don’t really start to talk about them until the early- to mid-tenth century, which fits well into a narrative we have about the increasing organisation of government by the kings in that period leading to James Campbell’s maximum state and so on, and the second is that the sites on which these hundreds are centred often appear to be very old, in terms of their names, position on boundaries and very occasionally their archaeology (though that last is known mainly where the sites are at older burial mounds).1 The hundred meeting sites are mainly in the countryside, not in towns, and those that are urban may well predate the towns in question, which they generally stand outside anyway. So, it will not take a genius brain to spot that these two things conflict: are hundreds ancient and popular or are they late and organised by the state? This was roughly what Andrew’s team, using archaeology, place-names, mapping, topography, local history and really anything they can get up to and including sonography, had been working towards here, looking at both the sites and their districts and trying to get everything in play at once.2

Burial grounds of the Bronze Age to Anglo-Saxon periods at Saltwood, Kent

Burial grounds of the Bronze Age to Anglo-Saxon periods at Saltwood, Kent

Now, of course when you map lots of different things together you get correlations, whether you like them or not, and the problem is knowing what’s real and what’s just coincidence.3 Sometimes the associations are really dense and probably genuine: the classic case that Andrew gave, and which I’ve seen him use before, is a place called Saltwood which was in the way of the recently-built Channel Tunnel Rail Link and about which we therefore have some idea. Here, there were four early cemeteries, of which three were centred on mounds, and each of which spanned a full social range in terms of gender and wealth, suggesting that they served distinct communities. The wood between them all however became the centre of a hundred here, and between the cemetery evidence and the governance evidence we can show, from cooking pits dug into the cemetery areas, that people were meeting here occasionally throughout the period of the seventh to the twelfth centuries, that is, from shortly after the cemeteries cease in use till well out of the Anglo-Saxon period. It’s difficult to avoid the idea that a hundred coalesced here around an ancient assembly site that arose at a point of confluence between four neighbouring communities.

It would be nice if this could be generalised out from, but predictably there is huge variation. Patterns do emerge but they are of low-end significance and there is obviously no one-site-fits-all solution. About 10% of hundred sites (which had never before been mapped for all England! but were here being counted from four target territories only) are at mounds, but very few of these mounds appear to have been ancient burial sites—11 of the 12 dug as of 1986 were been empty. 9% seem to have been at famously ancient trees, 7·5% at river crossings, but it’s not much. Andrew noted that very few of their place-names speak of kings or reeves or courts but many speak of the people, of ceorls or folc.

Troston Mount, near Honington, Suffolk

Troston Mount, near Honington, Suffolk, which is supposed to be a Bronze Age burial mound and came to be the meeting site for Bradmere hundred, or so says whence I borrowed the image

In discussion the questions that came up trying to refine this were, well, mine were about burial, which as you know I keep seeing associated with power in my area, and there there is a correlation of sorts, though again far from universal. Chris Wickham and Mark Whittow both also asked questions about durability, and whether any of these sites might be only attempts or short-lived, to which Andrew wisely observed that we can’t tell in most cases, but it seems to me that the ones we can find, we can find because they existed long enough (as something) to become well-known. I also thought that the way the two historiographies can be reconciled is to see the kings trying to take over control of and impose new rôles on an older system of gathering and local arbitration or celebration, but that doesn’t explain where the sites and the practices came from in the first place. Avoiding Volk aus der Maschine answers like ‘Germanic tradition’, we still have a picture of non-urban social complexity, of chieftains versus states, and of what Andrew called dispersed complexity here, and although it’s very far from uniform as I say, it does seem to me as if top-down system creation might explain nearly as much as spontaneous coagulation in some of these cases.

1. I believe it to be be true that the first datable mention of hundreds in an Anglo-Saxon law-code is in what’s cited as III Edmund, of 939, but there’s an undated thing called the Hundred Ordinance which appears to share text with that law, though which way round the borrowing was is another question. Both are translated in Agnes Jane Robertson (trans.), The Laws of the Kings of England from Edmund to Henry I (Cambridge 1925; repr. 2009). For the `maximum state’ argument see James Campbell, “The Late Anglo-Saxon State: a maximum view” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 87 (London 1994), pp. 39-65, repr. in his The Anglo-Saxon State (London 2000), pp. 1-30. Literature actually on the hundred system is harder to find, largely because talking about means coping with an incredible amount of local history publication in out-of-the-way places; I still find Helen Cam, “Manerium cum Hundredo: the hundred and the hundred manor” in English Historical Review Vol. 47 (London 1932), pp. 353-76, repr. in eadem, Liberties & Communities in Medieval England (Cambridge 1944; repr. London 1963), pp. 64-90, a good thing to start with but there must, surely, be something newer, and in an ideal world it’d be by Chris Lewis. Regesta Imperii shows nothing obviously synthetic, however, though I note with pleasure that the article on “Hundreds” in Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes and David Scragg (edd.), The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 1999), pp. 243-244, is by Sean Miller.

2. And by sonography we mean, basically, one of the team standing on the relevant sites and shouting to see how well he could be heard, something for which Andrew told us this person had nearly been arrested several times by now.

3. My cite of reference for this is, as ever, Mary Chester-Kadwell, Early Anglo-Saxon Communities in the Landscape of Norfolk: Cemeteries and Metal-Detector Finds in Context, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 481 (Oxford 2009).

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15 responses to “Seminar XCV: control of assembly spaces in Anglo-Saxon England

  1. highlyeccentric

    *frowns* huh

    Interesting. Vewwy interesting.

  2. Thanks for the most interesting post – that sounds similar to a (very good) paper I heard from Andrew recently. Just a couple of quick points to add. The standard starting point on hundreds is now H. R. Loyn, ‘The Hundred in England in the Tenth and Early Eleventh Centuries’, in his Society and Peoples: Studies in the History of England and Wales, c. 600–1200 (London, 1992), pp. 111–34 [first published 1974]. Some very interesting ideas are also floated in George Molyneaux’s DPhil disseration, which I gather he is revising for publication.

    • I’ve recently been picking up references to that Loyn article, which I had somehow missed, and must follow it up. I guess I probably thought he covered the ground in Governance but I don’t seem to have soaked it up if so! George’s book is his current project so I hope we won’t have to wait too long.

  3. I am — typically — immediately trying to think of comparative things with assembly sites, central places, and all that jazz in Scandinavia. I could swear I saw an article title or two zoom past me recently. Maybe in that ASSAH 10 issue? Oh well!

  4. Did Andrew happen to mention any likelihood of extending such landscape projects to high medieval governance?! Now that’s a project from which I really want to see the results… Not that this one isn’t also fascinating!

  5. Nice Work if you can get it

    It would be good to know quite how large a grant is supporting this hunt for holes made by tent pegs. The idea that this project is remotely ‘fascinating’ reveals a vivid imagination. But if non-urban social complexity is what turns you on (nostalgia for Glastonbury??) that is clearly where grant money now lies.

  6. Nice Work if you can get it

    Thank you for the answer. I’m very sorry if your commentators are so thin-skinned that they take my envy of their imagination as insulting. But I am afraid that for you and they to rave about this, without supplying any valid reason why archaeological surveys of supposed assembly sites should be at the top of research funding, confirms my view that the current Anglo-Saxonist establishment should not be mentioned alongside James Campbell (a scholar devoid of pride, and aware of European history)

    • Well, as that same link makes clear that grant was only one of the large number that the Leverhulme Trust make each year; also, it was two years ago and the Leverhulme Trust are far from being the only source of funding even in the humanities (and this is a tiny tiny grant compared to the sciences anyway, of course). Doing the maths, it would seem to me to pay for one principal investigator and a research assistant for three years, and less if one wants to do any serious digging. Of course I’d be quite chuffed to have won it myself, but it’s hardly “the top of research funding”; there is vastly more, some perhaps on subjects that you feel are more important.

      As for justifications, obviously I can’t speak for Professor Reynolds (though an extensive summary of the project is here that would seem to supply several `valid reasons’ for doing it), but my interest in this project comes from a long (long) concern with the sub-units of government: recent work like Stuart Brooke’s current project on Kent and, I suppose, older stuff (including European comparative studies like the 47th Sachsensymposium) seem to be increasingly deciding that this sort of level is the most productive when talking about the building blocks of kingdoms. Southern Britain’s alleged near-total breakdown of political organisation in the fifth century (discussed in this previous post which also links to Professor Brooke’s work) makes it an unusually good laboratory for this kind of low-level study of, as a much older book put it, how chiefs come to power. Since the literature on these units is, as Levi has kindly confirmed, ageing now and rather disparate, examining them to see what the relation of their foci to their territories and whether any of the older assumptions about their nature and origins can be justified seems like an important part of discovering what power coagulated around in this zone, an enquiry that might help answer a much wider set of questions.

      If that doesn’t satisfy you, well, you may be in the wrong place to start with since my interests are in local power, but otherwise, where would you rather see this money directed and how would you justify that?

  7. Pingback: Seminar CXV: making a state in tenth-century England | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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