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date: 04 June 2020

(p. v) Preface

(p. v) Preface

The later Middle Ages in Europe are a rich and exciting period for the archaeologist in which there have been very significant recent advances in knowledge. In fact, most of what we have learnt about the material culture of our medieval past has been discovered in the past two generations and an inspiring cross-section of finds is now on display in Britain in the newly re-fitted galleries at the Ashmolean in Oxford (Anglo-Saxon and Medieval), the British Museum (Medieval Europe), and the Victoria and Albert Museum (Medieval and Renaissance), not to mention the award-winning £27m Mary Rose museum in Portsmouth which opened its doors in 2013. Major exhibitions of medieval objects including the Age of Chivalry (Royal Academy of Arts 1987), medieval relics (Treasures of heaven, British Museum 2011), Opus Anglicanum (Victoria and Albert Museum 2016), and Medieval Europe ad 400–1500 (British Museum international touring exhibition) have all attracted large numbers of visitors.

The popularity and profile of medieval monuments is also striking. Among the UK’s thirty UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2016 there are castles (of Gwynedd, Durham, and the Tower of London), two cathedrals (Canterbury and Durham), a palace, and an abbey (Westminster). Its castles and monasteries in particular are a mainstay of cultural tourism: the top five medieval visitor attractions in 2015 were the Tower of London (2.7 million), Westminster Abbey (1.6 million), Edinburgh Castle (1.5 million), Canterbury Cathedral (957k), and Leeds Castle (500k). These are enormous numbers worth £20 billion of GDP annually and supporting nearly 200,000 jobs all told. Then again, across most of Europe we never need to travel that far to come into contact with the later Middle Ages. The way the rooms are arranged in some of the houses we live in, the layout of a village or a town, the castle on the hill, the shapes of the fields we see out of the train window, the way the light shines through stained glass in a local church: all of these are everyday experiences in our modern lives which may be shaped by the Middle Ages. With rare exceptions, almost all the places we live in today already existed in the medieval period. Parliament and democratic government, monarchy and royal courts, universities and their libraries; all these are medieval institutions which are still familiar to us today.

(p. vi) The Society for the Public Understanding of the Middle Ages, founded in 2010, aims to focus on how the general public views this period through literature, movies, TV, and video games, all of which claim to take us one step closer to the medieval past. Every genre finds its place there, from drama to comedy and from satire to mystery and political intrigue. Like it or not, Robin Hood: prince of thieves grossed $390 million worldwide, Umberto Eco’s historical whodunit The name of the rose has been in print for over thirty years, and C. J. Samson’s Shardlake series has over two million copies in print; the Middle Ages are one of our most popular collective historical playgrounds. Quite why this should be so is harder to say but the medieval period has something to offer the curious as well as the specialist, a world which is at once familiar and yet at once strangely distant. There are everyday items of dress which we recognize instantly, others which we turn over in our hands in silent bafflement, and while there are medieval practices we seem to grasp quite readily, others can leave us feeling remote.

In Britain there have been major field archaeology projects which have long remained in the public eye. In 1982 the spectacular lifting of the Mary Rose was watched on television by twenty million viewers, while the highest profile project of recent years has been the discovery of the remains of Richard III (d. 1485) under a Leicester car park. The king’s skeleton was dated by radiocarbon to 1455–1540 (95 per cent), and the mitochondrial DNA matched that of two independent and genealogically verified modern matrilineal descendants of Richard III’s sister, Anne of York (Buckley et al. 2013). This story had global media reach and has become a symbol of local pride as well as having a direct economic impact on the city of Leicester: a £4-million visitor centre opened on the site in 2014.

This Handbook provides an overview of the contribution of archaeology to our developing understanding of the later Middle Ages in Britain between 1066 and c.1550. In all there are sixty entries, divided into ten thematic sections, and intended to be attractive to a broad audience of undergraduates, postgraduates, and researchers as well as those in the broader heritage sector working in commercial units and local authorities. We will cover medieval objects, standing buildings, sites such as castles and monasteries, as well as the extensive relict landscapes of the Middle Ages. Our ambition is that this volume should act as a point of departure for future scholarship and provide a ‘way in’ for anyone grappling with the challenge of specialized research literature. There have been several previous syntheses, beginning with Colin Platt’s Medieval England: a social history and archaeology from the Conquest to 1600, first published in 1978. John Steane’s The archaeology of medieval England and Wales and Helen Clarke’s The archaeology of medieval England, which both appeared in 1984, are still valued today, thirty years on, as is David Hinton’s survey with its longer chronology (1990). Many contributors to this Handbook make reference to those volumes. Within the range of medieval academic titles the Handbook bridges the gap between a standard undergraduate text such as The archaeology of Britain (with its three later medieval chapters), single-topic monographs such as Monastic landscapes (Bond 2004) or Beyond the medieval village (Rippon 2008), the historiographical insights of Medieval archaeology: traditions and contemporary approaches (Gerrard 2003), and Reflections: 50 years of medieval archaeology ( (p. vii) Gilchrist and Reynolds 2009). There would be little merit in repeating the industry-by-industry breakdown of English medieval industries (Blair and Ramsay 1991) or the regional approach adopted in Medieval rural settlement (Christie and Stamper 2012), essential though these synthetic volumes are. Every effort has also been made to minimize overlap with The archaeology of medieval Europe, Vol. 2: twelfth to sixteenth centuries (Carver and Klápštĕ 2011), although this does provide a valuable companion volume.

Why an Oxford Handbook of Later Medieval Archaeology?

Every editor of a Handbook of this sort needs to ask themselves, why now? Is there a need for a volume of this kind? We would answer that question in two ways. First, later medieval archaeology is still a relatively young discipline. We would hazard a guess that it would still have been possible in the mid-1950s for a one individual (possibly John Hurst) to know all there was to know about the subject in Britain, to have visited most of the sites, and grasp the detail as well as the wider agenda. Today such a claim would be unthinkable and in 2015, when Colin Platt passed away, many felt in some unseen way that the mantle had passed to another generation. For that reason, special effort has been made to include a range of scholars from England, Scotland, and Wales and to involve younger contributors who will shape the future of the subject. This is absolutely in line with the wider ethos of the Oxford Handbooks series. Second, following the economic crisis of recent years, state funding for archaeology and centralized professional capacity has been slashed and there is now further uncertainty about the role of UK research councils following the Brexit referendum. The European funding which had become steadily more important in recent years may well not be available in the future and this will doubtless change once again the kind of research which archaeologists undertake. Now is therefore a good moment to take stock and to produce something which might serve as a reference point for further study. We also hope very much that colleagues working across Europe will find useful parallels (and differences) with their own narratives.

Some basic parameters may be useful. First, the period between 1066 and c.1550 is referred to here throughout as ‘later medieval’ but other terms can be found in the scholarly literature, among them ‘post-Conquest’, often used by archaeologists in reference to the Norman Conquest of 1066, and ‘Late Middle Ages’ or ‘High Middle Ages’. Few contributors, however, have chosen to ignore either the preceding centuries or those which followed: the chronological threads of our subject are woven into a bigger picture. Second, our contributors do not entirely stick to British material and we would not have wanted them to do so. Indeed, we have firmly stuck by our promise to make explicit the rich cultural and commercial associations with other parts of Europe and Part X is explicitly designed to do just that. Third, we have not tried to be (p. viii) comprehensive; this is not an encyclopaedia, we have encouraged authors to synthesize current knowledge but also to ‘poke the hive’ a little and explore newer debates. For that reason the contents list does not read as a list of categories of material culture (there is no separate chapter here on pottery, for example); instead we have focused on topics and themes which archaeology has the power to illuminate. Finally, as will quickly become clear, this is very much a multi-disciplinary volume. Archaeology, and later medieval archaeology in particular, is a team game and these days few can afford to work in ignorance of other disciplines. On that basis, we hope that even the most experienced archaeological researcher may be tempted to read beyond their own research topics and that the Handbook will be of interest to those working in related specialisms across disciplines such as history, anthropology, historical geography, and the sciences.

Research Outlook

Later medieval archaeology is taught at most, if not all, UK universities and widely across Europe and the world. Its teachers may not be as numerous as prehistorians or Romanists but there is no lack of interest in undergraduate and postgraduate courses, topics for doctoral students or volunteers for medieval excavations. At the outset of a Handbook like this one, it may be useful to rehearse the reasons why this should be so:

  • later medieval archaeology makes full use of all the modern archaeological techniques available to study the past. Most practitioners lie at different points within a triangle drawn between the complementary archaeologies of the humanities, sciences, and professional practice. Fieldwork, excavation, data collection, and synthesis lie at the heart of the subject and post-excavation should embrace, for example, the study of environmental and biomolecular archaeology, just as it does for other periods. There are, however, some important differences to note with archaeologists of other periods. Even relatively modern maps, such as nineteenth-century tithe maps, can be of use for the information they provide on field boundaries and field-names, and the later medieval archaeologist may be as much at home in the Record Office as in the field. Some dating techniques are also preferred over others, such as dendrochronology (and now dendro-provenancing), whereas radiocarbon dating has traditionally been less commonly applied because it is considered imprecise. AMS (Accelerator Mass Spectrometry) and Bayesian statistics are reducing this range of error but later medieval archaeologists prefer to work at a higher chronological resolution than their counterparts in other periods;

  • while there may be differences of emphasis, later medieval archaeology should make full use of the toolkit of theoretical perspectives open to an archaeologist of any other period;

  • (p. ix) • the social and economic context for later medieval British archaeology is widely regarded as European and, to a large extent, Christian and feudal. However, these generalizations rightly invite comparison between regions and, indeed, some criticism;

  • multi-disciplinarity: typically, the later medieval archaeologist must be prepared to familiarize themselves with the work of historical geographers, economic historians, architectural historians, and historical ecologists. Their sources are often complementary and may reveal different facets of the medieval past. In particular, later medieval archaeology is especially attractive because it interacts with the study of written sources. Although this may not imply any training in palaeography or an understanding of Latin and French, it does demand an appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of historic documents and cartography and pictorial evidence (for example, few towns possess written records before the thirteenth century and the documentary record can be socially and geographically selective) and an awareness of the different themes which are of interest to medieval historians. For clarity, although there may be overlaps in historical, social, and theoretical interests, the study of history does not generally apply scientific techniques (for example, to investigate the movement of human populations or human diet) or involve fieldwork (nor is it generally interested in human prehistory). For this reason, major projects will often draw together multi-disciplinary teams;

  • many later medieval buildings such as churches and domestic houses are still in use today and, although rarely exactly in their original condition, they are superficially familiar to us in some respects. In some ways this can be useful: we all understand in outline what the purpose of a church is, for example. However, the later medieval archaeologist must always be prepared to unlearn the familiar and engage with contemporary perspectives which may be very different from our own, not least in the nature of religious practice and belief;

  • medievalism’, that is, a loose confection of fictionalized and adapted quasi-medieval themes in literature, the world of gaming, and on screen, from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to The Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones, has many millions of followers. This public appreciation can be a point of entry for more serious interest;

  • survival and volume of the evidence: like standing buildings, the field evidence of medieval earthworks such as ridge and furrow and deserted rural settlements can be extensive. Taken together, these provide an intimate understanding of the medieval environment but they will often require particular field skills such as standing building recording, architectural dating, and topographical survey to a greater extent. In general, though not always, the same is true of artefacts; later medieval pottery is generally more abundant than Neolithic pottery, for example. It can also be true of stratigraphy, especially the depth of urban deposits beneath towns and cities. In spite of this, the material evidence for later medieval life is uneven and requires nuanced interpretation;

  • (p. x) threats to the evidence: the inevitable flip-side to the relative abundance of physical evidence for the Middle Ages is that it remains a fragile resource unless procedures and legislation are in place for its protection. Although it may be widely considered an old-fashioned point of view, there will always be those who argue that archaeology of the later historic periods is in some way less valuable because of the evidence provided by the written record;

  • the study of later medieval archaeology is, in many ways, relatively young. There are many further questions to be asked and new insights can be at once revealing, surprising, and thought-provoking.


In reading through the papers presented here we have identified three cross-cutting themes which characterize the later medieval archaeology of today. The first of these is the impact of science-based archaeology, materials analysis such as X-radiography, chemical analysis (ICPS), ceramic petrology, and residue analysis, and not to mention botanical and biological analyses of seeds and faunal remains. Sometimes results come from the most unexpected sources, as is the case for medieval crops and weeds which have been unexpectedly discovered beneath later re-thatching on medieval buildings. Nevertheless, no dating technique has had the same impact on the subject than dendrochronology, both for buildings and for timbers obtained from waterfronts. Meanwhile, the ‘landscape’ approach underlined here by several contributors may at least in part be attributed to the increased use of remote-sensing prospection techniques such as magnetometry, GPR, and UAVs. New applications such as isotopes and aDNA are now very much part of the agenda too but, as we shall see, there are concerns that these should address meaningful questions rather than being condemned to the novelty drawer.

The second theme to be highlighted is the use of theory. A generation ago, Helen Clarke (1984, 12) spoke of medieval archaeology being set in a ‘traditional’ mould in spite of New (or processual) Archaeology ‘insinuating’ its way into the discipline. The choice of language is telling. Today many of the papers in this volume reflect the centrality of archaeological theory to their approach, particularly post-processual perspectives. A third theme which is particular to Britain is the legislative context in which all archaeology now takes place. Planning policy guidance, formalized in the early 1990s, requires archaeology to be taken into consideration where appropriate in local plans (for housing and infrastructure) and as part of what is now called ‘development control’. Archaeology, at least archaeology at any scale, therefore tends to be found where redevelopment is taking place (more investigation in south-east England than the north-east, for example) while the cost of excavation and conservation falls to the private developer. Over the years this has not only transformed the number of sites being dug but also brought about a new emphasis on non-destructive survey methods, the quarrying of archived ‘meta-data’, and the preservation of sites in situ. Likewise, the obligation to (p. xi) report finds from metal-detecting through the Portable Antiquities Scheme has greatly increased the number and range of metal objects being recorded. Some of these discoveries have permitted significant reinterpretations, for example of coin use and distributions (Chapter 32).

Summary of Contents

This Handbook is divided into ten thematic parts, each containing several chapters. Part I establishes the background to the historical development of the discipline (Chapter 1), the field techniques used in the study of later medieval archaeology (Chapter 2), its theoretical underpinning (Chapter 3), and the main types of available written evidence (Chapter 4). These chapters are all specifically referenced to lead into more specialist literature if the reader wishes to pursue a topic in greater depth. In each case we present thematic summaries of research from excavation, artefact studies, building recording, and environmental archaeology and outline the current challenges of research, including the latest methodological and theoretical developments. At a time when later Medieval Archaeology is becoming more interpretative, we hope that this Handbook will be a marker of the achievements and maturity of the subject.

Part II, introduced by Grenville Astill (Chapter 5) presents six chapters covering aspects of the medieval countryside from field systems (Chapter 6), animals (Chapter 7), archaeobotany (Chapter 8), fish and fishing (Chapter 9), to wild mammals, birds, and exotics (Chapter 10), rounding off with a chapter by Peter Brown which describes a litany of natural disasters and the archaeological evidence for the different ways in which medieval communities sought to cope with risk (Chapter 11). We return to two of the themes raised in Part II, those of medieval risk and the environment, in the final chapter of this Handbook where future agendas come under consideration.

The introduction to Part III emphasizes the diversity of settlement across England, Scotland, and Wales (Chapter 12) and just how far the pattern of villages and open fields was the exception. Chris Dyer (Chapter 13) describes medieval settlements in more detail, drawing attention to the kinds of artefacts routinely found on rural sites, while the following chapter examines how people in later medieval Britain perceived their surroundings, from castles and peasant dwellings to sacred places such as holy wells and hermitages (Chapter 14). Two chapters then follow on peasant housing (Chapter 15) and elite housing (Chapter 16). Niall Brady completes Part III with a discussion of agricultural buildings (Chapter 17).

Part IV shifts the discussion from the countryside into towns, a theme which is introduced by Keith Lilley (Chapter 18) and followed by chapters on urban housing (Chapter 19), and medieval shops and shopping (Chapter 20). Of particular importance to these chapters is the multidisciplinary combination of historical, architectural, and archaeological evidence and the complications of fieldwork when so many structures have been restored or altered. Chris Dyer’s second contribution, on the dynamic (p. xii) relationship between towns and countryside, invites contrasts in housing and material cultural, as well as in contact, exchange, and the distribution of goods (Chapter 21). Finally, Gareth Dean (Chapter 22) examines the primary infrastructure of the urban environment: roads, bridges, waterways, and their associated structures.

Part V explores the archaeological evidence for the display of power in the later Middle Ages. Oliver Creighton (Chapter 23) introduces this topic with an assessment of key debates around medieval castles and the structured viewing of their settings. This paper enmeshes with topics already raised, such as the ecological signature of elite landscapes mentioned by Pluskowski in Chapter 10, as well as highlighting two further ‘grand challenges’ for later medieval archaeology identified in Chapter 60, those of ‘social complexity’ and ‘identity’. Four chapters then follow which consider medieval palaces (Chapter 24), elite recreational landscapes of the forest, park, and warren (Chapter 25), the relatively new field of battlefield archaeology (Chapter 26), and the artefactual evidence for high-status activities, from royal regalia to insignia such as badges and seals (Chapter 27).

Maureen Mellor (Chapter 28) begins Part VI with an overview of industry, commerce, and the study of objects in the Middle Ages. The richness of the archaeological record here reflects the fact that this has been a well-established field of research for the past fifty years and more. Six papers appraise the extractive industries (Chapter 29), the archaeological evidence for workshops (Chapter 30), windmills and watermills (Chapter 31), coinage (Chapter 32), and pastimes (Chapter 33). These authors summarize recent important discoveries, some of which have transformed our understanding, and introduce new approaches to the evidence. Coins, for example, are considered not just for their contribution to dating but also the different ways in which they were adapted for other uses and placed into specific burial contexts.

Part VII, introduced by Richard Morris (Chapter 34), reflects on the evidence for churches and belief in the medieval landscape. Three chapters then discuss the major monument categories of monasteries (Chapter 35), cathedrals (Chapter 36), and churches (Chapter 37). The nature of the evidence for these three is subtly different, not least because so many churches survive as standing buildings and an understanding of architectural history and art history may be required to decipher their fabrics and furnishings. Mark Hall (Chapter 38) then takes a holistic view of sacrality, including relics and other sacred objects, and introduces the theme of pilgrimage discussed next by Peter Yeoman (Chapter 40). This article evaluates the physical evidence for medieval pilgrimage in the form of infrastructure for travel, shrines, and the material culture of pilgrimage souvenirs. Part VII is completed by a discussion of later medieval graffiti (Chapter 39), whose study has flourished in recent years due to the availability of inexpensive digital cameras and the enthusiasm of community groups, and by a discussion of the images painted on the walls, depicted in stained glass, and carved in wood, alabaster, or metal (Chapter 41). Most of these images have disappeared in Britain but the authors show what can be pieced together from contemporary sources and restoration projects.

Introduced by Emma Wells (Chapter 42), Part VIII explores a series of medieval contributions to sensual culture studies. An interest in the senses in human experience and in the experiential is now widespread in archaeology and across the social sciences (p. xiii) and humanities subjects. Chapters on taste (Chapter 43), sound (Chapter 44), smell (Chapter 45), and sight (Chapter 46) describe how medieval people experienced places, landscapes, and material culture, in short the sensory profile of a culture as understood through food remains, refuse disposal, health, architecture, and the structuring of landscapes. Taking care not to impose their own sensory bias, these five chapters set out possible methodologies for sensual studies, sometimes involving close attention to textual sources and at other times field experiments (as it does here for sound). The interplay of the senses, or synaesthesia, provides great potential to examine how medieval people used all their senses to evaluate their surroundings, for example the fusion of senses experienced in churches through wall paintings, readings, the ringing of bells, and the smells of liturgy.

Part IX is dedicated to aspects of the medieval life course from infancy (Chapter 48), through health and adulthood (Chapter 49), to death and burial (Chapter 53), and through to the afterlife (Chapter 54). With the introduction of new scientific techniques and more rigorous standards of recovery and recording, the contribution of bioarchaeology to our understanding of the Middle Ages has flourished over the past decade. As the introduction by Rebecca Gowland and Benn Penny-Mason explains (Chapter 47), a thorough understanding of context has proved central to this progress and it is the integration of historical, archaeological, architectural, and bioarchaeological evidence for the medieval life course, from infancy to old age, which has proved so fruitful as well as a maturing theoretical framework in which to reflect on the results. In the spirit of interdisciplinarity, interspersed with this framework of four chapters are three more which consider the archaeological evidence for growing up and growing old, on medieval dress (Chapter 49), gender (Chapter 50), and medicine and public health (Chapter 52). All three benefit from some of the new approaches to the archaeology of behaviour and identity which feature in Chapter 60.

Part X, introduced by Alejandra Gutiérrez (Chapter 55), fixes attention on the wider geographical context for developments in Britain along the seaboards of Atlantic Europe and the North and Baltic Seas. In the historic past, as today, these coastlines were a major artery for navigation and contributed significantly to the development and economy of bordering countries, offering transportation as well as trade, communication, and routes for settlement and conquest. Here we not only examine the evidence for contact in the Middle Ages but also scrutinize the different strengths of the archaeological record which explain, to some extent, an unfortunate tendency towards national ‘compartmentalization’. Anglo-Norman and Gaelic Ireland are examined by Terry Barry (Chapter 56), France by Claire Hanusse (Chapter 57), southern Scandinavia by Else Roesdahl (Chapter 58), and Spain and Portugal by Christopher M. Gerrard and Avelino Gutiérrez-González (Chapter 59). What emerges is a major resource for examining regional identities and practices in the later Middle Ages, one whose potential we hope can still be fulfilled in spite of recent political events. The future is the theme of a final chapter which draws together some of the current infrastructural issues being faced by later medieval archaeologists, though by no means unique to them, and sets out what are here called ‘the grand challenges’. With luck, all these will soon be out of date.

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