Review: The Anglo-Saxon Fenland by Susan Oosthuizen (2017) Assessment 9 out of 10

This is a model study of an obscure, but critical, historical period. The significance of its conclusions, and adoption of the research method followed, should extend  beyond the Anglo-Saxon Fenlands.

Following the Roman withdrawal, the established view is of Anglo-Saxon immigration and take over, particularly in the East of England. Germanic warriors carved out territories subjugating the remnant British population. The Fens became depopulated and “waste”. Their re-population and organised drainage accompanied re-foundation of monasteries, notably Ramsay and Ely, following despoilment during the Danish incursions

All this is challenged. DNA evidence does not indicate significant “Anglo-Saxon” immigration from mainland Europe during the 5th and 6th centuries. What immigration there was may have been at the same level as it had always been. There are surprisingly few Anglo-Saxon place-names in the Fens and no locality where such names are concentrated. Brythonic place-names persisted. There is documentary evidence for the continuance of Brythonic folk-groups and language into the 10th Century. Wealh names do not indicate slaves , but include high status individuals , indicating those who wished to associate themselves with Roman world.

 Oosthuizen recalculates Professor Darby’s Maps from Domesday. to exclude land below flood level which was uninhabitable. Recalculation indicates the Fen wasn’t as “empty” waste as Darby had suggested.

Parishes were expanded in the 19th Century to include extra-parochial inter-commonable pasture. Oosthuizen suggests exclusion from Domesday of holdings including obligations for money renders which, probably in the 10th Century, were transferred to Hundreds (not manors).

  The archaeological record is of desertion of some settlements, persistence at others and foundation of new settlements, settlement “shift” rather than abandonment, a persistent  feature  of  English landscape history.

More than half the world’s population speak at least 2 languages daily. Was an ur-AS language spoken in East Anglia in the Roman period? English sentence structure has more in common with late Brythonic than any other Germanic language, suggesting it was spoken as 2nd language by people whose first language was Brythonic

Had the Fens been de-populated. the “mosaic” peat Fenland would have dried up. Instead the rich Fenland pasture were maintained: it is argued under common management, property rights being exercised between right holders through a system of mutual obligations. Traditional restrictions and obligations were maintained, ensuring continuance in the landscape.

Was there climatic deterioration in the 7th and 8th Centuries.? It is argued there is no evidence of deterioration in Fen ecology. A rise in sea level 3.6m over 200 yrs doesn’t seem to have been a disaster. Evidence of grassland pasture & wetland fringed with alder & willow carr goes back to the Neolithic. Management ensured cattle were not permitted too early onto the common fen.The taking of eels, using forks or spears, was controlled. Governance allowed selective cutting, of reeds annually, sedge every 3 to 4 years for animal litter, thatching and fuel, and osiers every 5 to 9 years for withies. The regular cutting of osiers produced the uniform poles and timbers used in causeways, such as at Flag Fen,  which goes back at least to the Bronze Age.

Management maintained “lodes”, drainage channels, which cut across the winding streams previously carrying water through the wet fenlands. The lodes were designed to protect low-lying pastures from inundation. That such lodes mark the boundaries of later territories and medieval parishes shows they pre-date such boundaries.  The lodes of north-east Cambridgeshire may be Roman. If they are, that they continue demonstrates their maintenance  during the Anglo-Saxon period.

 Common rights extended into the peat fens from “vills” located on the seaward silt fens, fen “islands” like Ely and higher areas, inland.  Such communal management was geographically exclusive to particular “folk-groups”, whose members were supposedly connected by kinship. Management in common led eventually to emergence of Anglo- Saxon territorial units.

The Tribal Hidage of the 7th Century shows small territories in the Fenland between Mercia & East Anglia, their names based on the landscape, rivers & intercommon.

In the 7th Century Ely was supposedly founded by an East Anglian princess It is suggested it originated as an earlier folk group.  The princess was  born at  Exning, a villa regia ( central settlement of an early or mid-Anglo-Saxon estate) in a  Suffolk enclave surrounded by the Staploe Hundred in Cambridgeshire, the edge of which runs along the Devils Dyke, This runs for 12km  with a deep ditch facing SW, understood as the bound of the East Anglian kingdom. 

Oosthuizen argues the Isle of Ely covered a wide area of the Central Fens. She highlights intercommoning across a wide area in Ely & the peat fens. Thorney Abbey founded in the 10th Century on NW peat fens was effectively an assart, converting land previously under shared property rights, into demesne. There was a dispute with Wisbech Hundredmen over communing in Hey Fen. Thorney men claimed they were doing what they had also done, Wisbech men they were excluded because of the assart.

Professor Darby suggested the name March indicated a boundary between the Kingdoms of East Anglia & Mercia. There is no evidence for this. If so, men of the Soke of Doddington would have commoned only up to the Nene, instead cattle ranged far to the west. Rather it is suggested the March is between the silt fen supporting sheep, saltings & arable & the peat fen supporting cattle for dairying.

Scientific method is applied to a study of history and landscape, in particular suggesting the preferred solution is the most parsimonious, making the fewest assumptions. Here continuity of settlement and exploitation, and a shift in cultural allegiance and growing bilingualism in Old English and Brythonic is preferred to immigration, conquest, subjection, abandonment and re-colonisation

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