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Brant Broughton (Lincs.): settlement grid-planning on a large scale. Boundaries aligned on the grid are emphasized in slightly thicker line. Apart from the church (1), rectory (2) and manor-house (3), buildings are only shown where omitting them would make boundaries hard to read. (After tithe map of 1838, National Archives IR 30/20/54, transcribed onto OS 25-inch base by courtesy of Edina Digimap.)

Planning in the Early Medieval Landscape

Professor Stephen Rippon, Professor John Blair and Dr Chris Smart

It has traditionally been thought that major feats of engineering were a feature of the Romano-British and high medieval periods, and that the intervening early middle ages saw relatively modest human impact on the environment. This major interdisciplinary project, generously funded by the Leverhulme Trust, will see landscape archaeologist Professor Stephen Rippon (University of Exeter), historian Professor John Blair (University of Oxford), and Dr Chris Smart (the project’s research fellow, University of Exeter) challenge that view by exploring the extent to which early medieval settlements and field systems were planned on a large scale, as opposed to developing in a piecemeal fashion. The interdisciplinary techniques of landscape archaeology will be deployed to identify the extent of planning, while historical research will correlate the types of planning with different patterns of land-ownership and land-occupancy.

Although scholars have long stopped referring to the period AD410–1066 as the 'Dark Ages', there remains a perception that this was not a time of great social complexity or sophistication. This project will examine the extent to which sophisticated planning techniques were used to structure early medieval settlements and landscapes that would challenge this view. The use of settlement plans based upon simple rows – a series of long, narrow tenement plots arranged in a line – is well known from the period after the Norman Conquest in 1066, but pilot work by John Blair (2013) that includes an examination of early written and pictorial sources, plans of excavated early medieval settlements, and a sample of nineteenth century village plans) has suggested that in the early medieval period a more sophisticated system based on grids was used, which would have entailed more complex surveying technology than has usually been associated with early medieval society.

The objectives of the project are:

  1. To determine whether settlements and fields, at various times and in various places in England between 600 and 1150, were laid out on the basis of accurately-surveyed grids.
  2. To examine whether standard linear modules were used in the in this planning (eg a 'short perch' of about 15 feet [4.57 m]).
  3. To test whether the compact, row-plan villages of c1070–1150 were the product of rather different, but also systematic, modes of planning linked to contemporary Continental traditions and probably stimulated by the Norman Conquest.
  4. To explore whether the types of planning within settlements have a meaningful relationship to particular kinds of social structure, land-tenure and lordship.
  5. To determine whether field-systems were laid out using the same methods as settlements.
  6. To determine whether the same surveying techniques were also used in the planning of towns.


Blair, H. 2013, 'Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 18', Anglo-Saxon Archaeology and History 18, 18–61.