Encountering the Environment: Rural communities in England, 1086-1348
Our current understanding of the medieval local environment is largely based on scholarly writings focusing on the policies towards the landscape pursued by the social elite. This presents us with some obvious problems if we want to understand local places through the eyes of the lower orders. But that is exactly what this study aims to do. By re-examining a variety of sources this research seeks to reconstruct the physical—and in some respects, metaphorical—environment of three contrasting English villages, using this as the basis for determining how peasants perceived their natural surroundings, and how this led to the development of the local economic strategies and social structures that can be pieced together from the records of the medieval manor. Since the emphasis here is largely on attitudes toward local environment, the intellectual approach moves beyond more traditional English historical spheres regarding the peasantry to consider mentalities. This has rarely been a consideration for historians concerned with English medieval peasants. Indeed, one might ask just how we can hope to uncover the thoughts of those who left little documentary evidence behind? Reconsidering the records that survive, it is clear that peasants left a great quantity of material waiting to be uncovered. Hidden within seigneurial documents can be found direct peasant testimony, notably their personal names, and those they bestowed upon the landscape. Through these documents—alongside the physical environment—we find further signposts indicating how they felt, thought about, and commemorated their local landscape. This study reveals that some peasants used the landscape to set themselves apart from their neighbours. It shows that, although uneducated in the formal sense, some nevertheless had a strong grasp of contemporary scientific thought. It outlines the means through which locally important folk stories were embedded within the landscape itself. And it sees beyond the officially endorsed local village landscape, with its authorized roads and footpaths, to reclaim the real environment inhabited and traversed by English people over 700 years ago.
Kilby, Susan, “Encountering the Environment: Rural communities in England, 1086-1348,” Centre for English Local History Theses and Papers, accessed April 12, 2021, https://elhleics.omeka.net/items/show/24.