The Emergence of Concentrated Settlements in Medieval Western Europe: Explanatory Frameworks in the Historiography

Article excerpt

The collapse of the economic and political structures connected to the Western Roman Empire led to a population nadir in many parts of Western Europe by the sixth and seventh centuries. Although recent literature has warned against exaggerating the extent of this decline, (1) it is widely accepted that many regions experienced contraction in settlement in the centuries directly after the end of the Roman period. (2) Land went out of cultivation and formerly wooded areas regained their trees. (3) Many settlements were totally abandoned, (4) including towns. (5) Some scholars have noted for certain regions that a contracted and low-level population remained in place over a number of centuries--for example all the way up to the eleventh century in Northern Apulia in Southern Italy. (6)

After the settlement decline connected to the demise of the Western Roman Empire, the view that is currently most widely disseminated is that the concentration of rural people into villages in Western Europe (as opposed to dispersed or scattered habitations across the countryside), occurred across various stages between the eighth and twelfth centuries. (7) The shift in settlement to new, potentially more fertile sites, may have begun in earnest from 700 onwards. (8) The actual chronology of this process varied according to region, with the formation of concentrated settlements beginning earlier in some areas of Western Europe and later in others. In some areas settlement concentration took the form of nucleated villages (people compacted around a main focal point). In other areas houses were laid out in a linear row perhaps along a dike, main street, or waterway, while elsewhere the concentration of habitation seemed to come together from multiple foci. (9) It is important to note that this process did not necessarily predicate higher population densities in the concentrated settlement areas (in comparison to the dispersed or isolated settlement areas) but instead a rearrangement of the settlement structure. (10)

The term "concentrated village" has been consciously avoided in this article, because there is still some debate as to what constitutes or defines a "village." (11) A semantic debate, particularly among French historians and archaeologists, has been played out for some time. (12) Indeed, some scholars such as Chris Dyer recognize that settlement concentration in England did occur before the classic "nucleation period" of the ninth to twelfth centuries, but still do not describe these Anglo-Saxon clusters as "villages"--in fact, he has explicitly used the term "non-villages." (13) Similarly, Robert Fossier called these early-medieval settlements incomplete or "proto-villages." (14) In contrast, other scholars such as Chris Wickham do use the term "villages" for these earlier settlements--but more conceptually as a marker of the crystallization of local collective identity rather than of geography. (15) In that sense, the definition of "concentrated settlement" used in this article is (deliberately) quite broad and is taken to mean the coming together of people residing in close geographical proximity to one another. "Concentrated settlement" in this paper takes in all degrees of concentration: from those large villages which were rigidly planned and systematically ordered to loose informal clusterings of people around a small focal point on the other.

Historians and archaeologists have long been interested in explaining the process of settlement concentration. What is clear from the literature is that a "one-size fits all" model for settlement development across Western Europe is not possible. Concentrated settlements appeared in certain parts of Europe for different reasons. Not only were the chronologies highly divergent but sometimes the actors or agents of settlement change were different. While for some areas scholars have emphasized the role of elites such as manorial lords in instigating the concentration of habitation, others have seen the development "from below" by asserting the capacity of rural peasants to initiate the process themselves. …


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