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.
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
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.
The Elloe Stone, supposed an ancient marker of a hundred meeting site
© Copyright Richard Croft and
licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
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.
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).