My current research looks to present a reinterpreted view of medieval hunting forests, the least well understood landscapes in medieval western Europe, which nonetheless comprised up to a third of medieval England. To the layman, the term 'forest' means a large area of dense woodland, but this is misleading. 'Forest', derived from the Latin 'forestis', meaning to be 'outside' (in this case, outside of normal common law), was a legal definition and not simply a wooded hunting reserve; they contained farmed, industrial and even urban landscapes, with Sherwood Forest for instance containing the towns of Mansfield and Nottingham. The activities within them included mining, glass and charcoal manufacture, ironworking and leatherworking, and intense arable and pastoral farming. This misunderstanding of forests belies a level of internal complexity and dynamism which has thus far been completely ignored. This project will focus on the two most important Norman forests in central England, Sherwood Forest and the Forest of High Peak, and will draw comparisons with the Forest of Dean and the New Forest; the project will revolutionise our understanding of medieval landscapes and demonstrate the crucial difference between the royal ideal of forests conveyed by historical sources and the reality as evidenced by the physical landscape.
The project will adopt an innovative multi-disciplinary series of techniques which I developed for my MA dissertation, which was used as a pilot study. This involved looking at aspects of medieval society in Sherwood Forest using a multi-scalar methodology; from a macroscale perspective it researched general themes such as forest boundary movement, the development of regions of settlement, textual evidence and social dynamics; from a microscale perspective it focused on the morphology of individual settlements and selected case studies of parishes which perfectly illustrate a variation in landscape character, which were Edwinstowe, Blidworth, Calverton and Greasley. This pilot project has given me the ideal grounding to develop these methods and take a broader comparative analysis at PhD level, which places the two principle case study forests within the context of known forest landscapes in southern England.
The wide array of sources to be utilised in this project include maps, fieldwalking, place names, parish churches, sculpture, documentary sources and material finds such as those recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme, bringing these together in a detailed picture reconstructing the medieval landscape, displaying the industry, settlement and social dynamics within each forest.
The general themes and research questions will address:
- Activities and organisation within the medieval forest parishes.
- Morphology and extent of the medieval settlements.
- The physical impact of the moving of forest boundaries.
- Networks of power, identity and exchange within the forests.
I hope to expand upon my current research at a post-doctoral level by analysing landscapes covered by forest law on the European Continent and in the Norman Pale area of Ireland. Whilst my current work will show how forest landscapes varied across medieval England, I hope that this future work would show how forest landscapes could vary across Europe as a whole, and put our knowledge of English forests within a European comparative context.