Place & Past in Medieval England: Nicholas Orme Asks What Sense Medieval English People Had of the Land They Lived in, and What Ancient Sites and Natural Wonders Did They Visit

By Orme, Nicholas | History Today, July 2008 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Place & Past in Medieval England: Nicholas Orme Asks What Sense Medieval English People Had of the Land They Lived in, and What Ancient Sites and Natural Wonders Did They Visit


Orme, Nicholas, History Today


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

We live in a commemorating age. We remember our past with centenaries. We care for historic sites. We celebrate our landscape by climbing its highest points and exploring its deepest ones. We visit its extremities, Land's End and John o'Groats, or travel between the two. Did our medieval ancestors do the same? They had great regard for the past. They wrote hundreds of history books. They remembered the great and the rich with statues, tombs and prayers. But were they aware of places with geographical or historical significance?

The short answer is that they were. From early on, historians of Britain or England began their works with brief accounts of the land they were describing. By the ninth century these accounts included 'wonders'--mountains, caves and rivers with mysterious properties. The Welsh writer or writers now known as Nennius (fl.c.770-c.810) pioneered this kind of description, which was followed in the twelfth century by authors like Henry of Huntingdon (c. 1088-c. 1157), Geoffrey of Monmouth, (d. 1154/5) and Gerald of Wales (c. 1146-1220). The first detailed maps of Britain date from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and they list a number of important geographical sites. Monks of St Albans produced a group of four maps in about 1250, and the unique Gough Map dates from about 1360. Finally there were antiquaries: William Worcester, who rode through southern England in 1478-80, and John Leland, who did the same on a larger scale around England and Wales between about 1533 and 1543. Both observed the landscape and buildings they passed on their travels.

[ILLUSTRATIONS OMITTED]

The Romans worked out Britain's approximate shape and dimensions. They visualized it as a vertical island, 800 miles from north to south and 200 from east to west, with promontories. Later writers and map-makers accepted this model. In 997 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records a name for Land's End--Penwithsteort, meaning the 'tail' of Penwith (the far west part of Cornwall), and in 1337 we first hear of Londeseynde which came to be the common word to use. By the twelfth century, Cornwall was regarded as one of Britain's key extremities. In fact, the isles of Scilly were further still, but they were small and rarely feature in medieval sources.

The other end was less familiar. The Romans knew that the Orkneys lay beyond the north end of Britain, and some medieval writers took greater interest in them than in the north end of Scotland. But by at least the thirteenth century there was knowledge of a northerly point of the Scottish mainland. One of the St Albans maps states that 'England is 800 miles in longitude from [Land's End] which place is beyond St Michael's Mount in Cornwall [to] Caithness'. It adds that 'the latitude is 300 miles from St Davids [to] Dover.' The St Albans cartographer, then, had a concept similar to ours of Lands End to John o'Groats and even gave the distance, although the traditional measurement is a little short of the 875 miles that are normally reckoned today.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

If the ends of Britain were known about, did people visit them? John o'Groats was inaccessible because Scotland was independent and often hostile. Cornwall was different. The St Albans map maker knew that its furthest point lay beyond St Michael's Mount, and Worcester noted the distance, nine miles further. But we rarely hear of journeys to Land's End. One bishop of Exeter, John Grandisson, may have gone there because he was interested that Cornwall lay next to the boundless ocean, and he visited the nearest two churches to Land's End in 1336. Worcester visited the Mount in 1478 but did not bother to go on, although he knew the distance. Leland did better. He made two visits to Cornwall, in about 1533 and in 1542, and reached at least once what he calls 'the south-west point' of England, probably not Land's End itself but Treryn Dinas near Penberth.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Place & Past in Medieval England: Nicholas Orme Asks What Sense Medieval English People Had of the Land They Lived in, and What Ancient Sites and Natural Wonders Did They Visit
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?