Landscape and Warfare in Early Medieval Britain

Overview

The study of early medieval conflict landscapes has been largely driven by the traditional research agendas of military historians and battlefield archaeologists who have sought above all to precisely locate battlefields and reconstruct narratives of engagement. The deeply problematic nature of the source material for reliably identifying sites has, however, resulted in the locational significance of battlefields remaining under-researched.

This research project approaches the subject from a different angle and takes its theoretical perspective from anthropological and archaeological approaches that identify symbolic expression in the practice and idea of violence. In particular, interpretations of warfare that regard this activity in purely instrumental/material terms are called into question, and the project seeks to bring the study of organised violence into the orbit of other social phenomena of the early medieval period (assembly, execution, burial, religious practice etc.) that imparted and derived meaning from their landscape contexts.

The project is supervised by Professor Andrew Reynolds at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology, and it is has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Publications relating to the research are listed below.

Eildon Hills near Melrose, Scotland (c) TJTWilliams

Eildon Hills, the scene of a battle in 715 over the disputed Northumbrian succession

AIMS

The broad aims of the project are as follows:

  1. To develop a method that allows for comparison between different types of source material, using techniques from a range of disciplines, and which explores the interface between the practice and representation of violence. This method should be widely applicable to the study of warfare in other periods.
  2. To record, catalogue and store in a relational database, a complete record of early medieval warfare in Britain, including evidence from the widest possible range of source material and including legendary, biblical and mythological events.
  3. To develop a typology or series of landscape ‘signatures’ that characterise early medieval conflict landscapes at different times, places and circumstances. Such a tool may in the future prove useful to those seeking to identify lost battlefields.
  4. To reposition the study of warfare and the locations of conflict within wider approaches to symbolic and meaningful landscapes, especially recent work that has addressed the nature of judicial, administrative, religious and mortuary practice in relation to the landscape of Early Medieval Britain.
  5. To seek to rebalance approaches to early medieval conflict that have typically sought to understand warfare as an extension of political or economic history by assessing the impact of religious, supernatural, memorial and ideological factors to the way in which warfare was imagined and practiced.
  6. To lay the foundations for future study of the ideological and ritual functions of medieval warfare in northern Europe and beyond.

Relevant publications:

(in press) ‘The Place of Slaughter: The West Saxon Battlescape’, in R.Lavelle and S.Roffey (eds.) The Danes in Wessex: The Scandinavian Impact on Southern England, c.800-c.1100 (Oxbow, 2015).

(2015) ‘Landscape and Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England and the Viking Campaign of 1006’, Early Medieval Europe (2015).

(2015). ‘For the Sake of Bravado in the Wilderness: Confronting the Bestial in Anglo-Saxon Warfare’, in M.D.J. Bintley and T.J.T.Williams (eds.) Representing Beasts in Early Medieval England and Scandinavia (Boydell, 2015).

(2013) ‘The Battle of Ashdown: Victory, Battlefield, and the Language of War’ in Medieval Warfare Magazine III.5.

(2012) ‘Viking Warfare, I.P.Stephenson (Review)’, Saga Book of the Viking Society for Northern Research 36.

(2011) ‘Alfred’s Wars: Sources and Interpretations of Anglo-Saxon Warfare in the Viking Age, R. Lavelle (Review)’, Medieval Archaeology 54 (2011).