Reading the Landscape: Deserted Medieval Villages

The eternal peril of its pubs and post offices aside, it’s hard not to view the British village as something of an indestructible institution, but it wasn’t always such a permanent fixture and the threats that it faces now pale into insignificance next to the menaces of the middle ages, when entire communities could be smeared from the map on the say-so of just one person.

The ‘Medieval Village’ label on Ordnance Survey maps carries an inevitable presumption of plague, but the spectre of a multitude of whole settlements exterminated by the Black Death is an exaggeration. Conspicuously large churches, like the magnificent St Mary’s at Tunstead in Norfolk where construction work was halted by the Great Mortality (as it was known at the time) are perhaps better indicators of the plague’s effect; villages were certainly weakened and reduced, but they were not always completely extinguished.

The real menace of the middle ages – the agent of chaos that threatened communities up and down the land – turns out to be nothing more than the humble sheep. Innocuous and dim as individuals, in farmed flocks their role as woolly bailiffs was well-established before, and for centuries after, the Black Death left its mark.

Cistercian monks were among the first to farm sheep on the enclosed lands of evicted villages. The Cistercian craving for isolation found expression in the destruction of villages like Cayton and Herleshow in Yorkshire in the twelfth century, both given to Fountains Abbey in return for eternal salvation for their noble freeholders, while tenants suffered the temporal damnation of being forced to move on.

The Black Death would play its own merry part later. With a reduced working population demanding better terms, the manorial lords, perhaps inspired by the Cistercians, filled their lands with sheep. Wharram Percy in the Yorkshire Wolds, the most famous of Britain’s 3,000 abandoned villages, was finally cleared in the early sixteenth century and enclosure continued in England for another three hundred years. From the seventeenth century on, enclosure was increasingly for country house emparkment, where designers like Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown grazed on the profits of landscape enclosure in place of the sheep.

In Scotland, the ovine menace reared its ugly head once more in the infamous Highland Clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some of the most brutal of the clearances occurred at Boreraig and Suisnish on the north shore of Loch Eishort on Skye; families were forcibly evicted and sent packing, their homes burnt down. Geologist Archibald Geikie who happened to witness the eviction in 1853 described the cortege that led north along the track from Suisnish and the grief-laden wail echoing along the strath as a ‘prolonged note of desolation’.
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