Imagine exploring a deserted medieval village. You wander down an ancient hollow way, pass a deserted fishpond, and step into an abandoned house. Inside, you find all sorts of clues about medieval village life. But where, oh where, did everyone go?
There are lost, deserted and shrunken medieval villages scattered all over Britain, and each one has its own unique story to tell. Many were abandoned in the 14th and 15th centuries when landlords emptied the villages to make way for more profitable sheep rearing, but there are plenty of other reasons too.
In August, we’ll be resuming our crowdfunded excavation at Elmswell, East Yorkshire, where the remains of a medieval village lie alongside a Roman ladder settlement and some Anglo-Saxon buildings too. While archaeologists have already learned lots from excavating medieval villages, we think this one has the potential to become one of Yorkshire’s most important multi-period sites. You can sign up to join the dig or follow it online right here.
As if you need any more convincing that digging up a long-lost medieval village would be downright awesome thing to do, here’s a few we think might just persuade you…
The one that was destroyed by outraged locals
Gainsthorpe (Lincolnshire) is one of the best-preserved medieval villages around, and its footprint is still clearly visible as a series of linear humps and bumps. Ancient streets survive as worn ‘hollow ways’, and on either side there are individual houses separated by low banks, with ‘tofts’ – frontage plots that once contained buildings and sunken yards – and garden ‘crofts’ stretching behind. According to legend, it had become a den of thieves, and was demolished by unhappy locals. The truth of this remains unknown, and it may have simply suffered the fate of other nearby villages which were subject to plague, soil erosion, sand blowing, and deliberate depopulation. In the words of the 17th century antiquary Abraham de la Pryme, “I fancy the town was eaten up with time, poverty and pasturage“.
The one where landlords put profits before people
Rand (Lincolnshire) is a classic, and heartbreaking, example of a medieval village that grew rapidly, until its landlords decided to boot out the villagers in the 1500s to make way for more profitable sheep farming. Detailed archaeological work has revealed the village’s principal street, along which the village expanded in the late 12th or 13th century. You can see plots for houses on both sides of the street, with platforms representing front yards. There’s a second hollow way, also with houses, which represents a later period of expansion, and an area of ridge and furrow cultivation to the north, which is all that’s left of the open fields that surrounded the village.
The one where people believed in the living dead
Wharram Percy (North Yorkshire) is just 15 miles from Elmswell. It has been investigated by archaeologists for over 60 years, and is undoubtedly Britain’s most famous deserted medieval village. Like Rand, village life came to an end in the 1500s when the landowners forcibly evicted the villagers and destroyed their homes to make way for more profitable sheep farming. You can still walk among the ruins of its church, manor houses and 40 peasant houses today. Among them, archaeologists have found invaluable evidence of village life, including some remarkable signs of belief in the living dead.
The one that was abandoned by its young people
While villages tended to spring up somewhat organically, medieval new towns were much more planned. Newtown (Isle of Wight) is an example of one that failed economically, thereby leaving its original medieval layout largely intact. Despite a promising start, it all came to an end when the French attacked in 1377. Bizarrely, it is said that when the French landed, they found there were only middle aged men left to defend it, and stories of a Pied Piper who spirited away an entire generation of children when the townspeople refused to pay the money they’d promised him.
The one that was ruined by climate change
Walk out to Hounds Tor (Dartmoor) and you’ll be able to retrace the steps of its medieval inhabitants. The village, which was excavated in the 1960s, includes a cluster of 13th century Dartmoor longhouses, barns, a small lean-to, corn drying ovens and a kiln. But archaeological evidence shows that sadly it wasn’t inhabited for long. Population growth and favourable weather had encouraged people to move higher up on to the moor, taking in marginal land that was normally too difficult to cultivate. Pollen evidence suggests that cereal farming had ceased by 1350, while the corn dryers in the grain storage barns suggest the inhabitants struggled with a rapidly deteriorating climate.
The one that was flattened to make way for a very posh garden
The ruins of Kirby (Northamptonshire) sit in the grounds of an estate, but you can clearly see the outline of some crofts, tofts and a buried fish pond. The village was always pretty small, and was finally dissolved around 1600 to make place for a formal Jacobean Garden. Clearly, the landowners didn’t want any unsightly peasants ruining the view!
The one that’s now under the sea
Today, Dunwich (East Anglia) is almost entirely submerged below the North Sea. On the plus side, that makes it Europe’s largest underwater medieval site! Once upon a time, however, it was a thriving port that rivaled London. But then it was battered by a series of powerful storms in the 13th and 14th centuries. With its harbour silting up, a failing market, and the town partly destroyed, and some violent disputes with piratical monks, the storms quite literally tipped it over the edge and many people simply gave up on Dunwich. When archaeologists explored the underwater ruins, they found the ruins of four churches, a toll-house, several shipwrecks and new evidence of the port that was once the capital Anglo-Saxon East Anglia.
The one that’s still to be discovered…
Elmswell (East Riding of Yorkshire) is not only the site of a medieval village, there’s plenty of evidence of Iron Age, Roman and Anglo-Saxon settlement too. The as yet unexplored medieval village has been photographed from the air, and there’s a large field system of Iron Age-Roman date visible as crop marks. There’s also plenty of signs of a well-ordered medieval village, including well-established hollow ways, flanked by crofts, tofts and buildings. How much more survives? And why was it abandoned? Well, that’s where YOU can help!
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Explore an early Roman settlement in East Yorkshire