Common Stream: Two Thousand Years of the English Village

Common Stream: Two Thousand Years of the English Village

by Rowland Parker



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780586082539
Publisher: Academy Chicago Publishers, Ltd.
Publication date: 04/28/1981

About the Author

Rowland Parker was born in 1912 in North Lincolnshire. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all farmers and his youth was spent in the country. He was educated at Louth Grammar School, won a scholarship to Nottingham University and then trained as a teacher. In 1935 he joined the staff of what was then the Central School, Cambridge, and, except for the war, remained there until his retirement in 1972. He enlisted in the Royal Artillery in 1940, serving in North Africa, Italy, Egypt, Syria and Palestine, where he began to take an interest in archaeology and history. He lived in Foxton until his death in 1989.

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The Common Stream

Two Thousand Years of the English Village

By Rowland Parker

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 1975 Rowland Parker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-89733-942-1


British Village and Roman Villa

The sluggish stream, fringed with reeds and decaying trees, creeps unobtrusively between overgrown spinneys, past derelict quarries and low-lying patches which still defy all efforts at cultivation. Apart from these latter, the land on either side bears crops of wheat, barley or sugar-beet which effectively hide all traces of former human habitation. Except in the autumn, when the land has been ploughed and harrowed in readiness for the next crop. Then you may see here and there, if you keep your eyes turned towards the brown pebble-strewn earth, fragments of pottery or red tile, an oyster-shell, a patch of lighter soil strewn with larger flints. It was the discovery of half a Roman roof-tile on the surface in the spring of 1968 which aroused my curiosity and started me on a trail of exploration which led, after much digging in that gravelly soil and much delving into rumours and reports to the discovery of a Roman villa and a British village.

Before beginning the story, I want you to look at the map overleaf (p. 22) which will show you more clearly where we are, what is there now, and what was there two thousand years ago. The shaded area along the course of the Brook indicates that here it was really an elongated mere, a quarter of a mile wide at the widest point, and easily fordable at the narrowest. The black dots indicate the location of hut-sites. There is no point in trying to count them, for the representation is only diagrammatic. There are in fact more than a hundred sites, all of which may not denote huts; some could have been threshing-floors or buildings other than dwellings. It was obviously not possible to excavate them all, and some of them do not show on the surface. It is quite probable that many more sites have been obliterated by the spinney, the quarries and the railway. The spot marked A is where grain-storage pits were found in about 1885. The spot marked B is where the burial-ground was found and partially explored in 1895 and 1903. Grain-pits and burials had all disappeared by 1910, swallowed by the advancing quarries, two huge pits which are now flooded. The ancient way shown running from the ford southwards through the village was still shown as a road on the Enclosure Map of 1823, leading from nowhere to nowhere. With that in the background of your mind, let us slip back in time two thousand years or so.

For longer than any of them could remember, the People had lived by the Brook, and if you had asked them who they were and whence they came it is unlikely that they could have told you. Many years before, their ancestors had lived in the northern part of what we now call Belgium. They had crossed the narrow sea, not unwillingly, though no doubt under a certain degree of compulsion in the form of stronger tribes and diminishing crops, to find a home in this fertile valley of light rich soil. They doubtless had a tribal name, but it matters as little to us now as, I imagine, it mattered to them then. In the days of migration they must have had a leader, one chosen for his wisdom in planning a move and for his skill and courage in carrying it out. Now their headman was probably chosen rather for his experience in rearing cattle and organizing the growing of crops than for his courage. No more wandering for them. Here was water; here was pasture in plenty for their oxen, sheep and pigs; here they could grow wheat, barley and rye enough to feed themselves and fatten their livestock. The pools and meres were well-stocked with fish and eels, easy to catch with nets in the clear spaces or with traps where the reeds made nets unusable. Those reeds, though a restriction on their fishing activities, were one of the many assets of the site, for they provided a plentiful supply of material with which to build the huts strung out along the brook. Moreover, they harboured many water-fowl, especially in winter. The motionless figure crouching knee-deep in cold mud for hours at a time considered his patient vigil amply rewarded if a lucky shot with sling and stone added a heron or a duck to the family larder, for meat was scarce in winter. They could live here by this brook, these people, for ever - or for as long as others let them live.

Not that there was any real threat to their security of tenure, so far as they could see. Some years ago, when it was rumoured that more peoples had come across the sea and were seeking land on which to settle, it had been suggested that they ought to make a ditch to protect themselves and their animals. The ditch had in fact been started, but was soon abandoned because there seemed to be no real need for it. Their neighbours to east and west were people like themselves, with undefended villages strung out along brooks exactly as was theirs. To the south of them there was ample space as far as the great mere (which, centuries later, was to be called, as they no doubt called it in their language, Fowlmere). To the north of them was the river, beyond which, as far as they were concerned, nothing really mattered. Across the river lived another group of settlers, a clan somewhat larger and therefore more powerful than their own. Although they spoke the same language, worshipped the same gods and lived in precisely the same way as the peoples south of the river, these People-beyond-the-river were so different that the only way to maintain amicable relations with them was to keep at a distance and give in to any demands which they might make. They, the People-beyond-theniver, evidently feared the attack of an enemy, for they lived in a village surrounded by a ditch and palisade. And since no enemy ever appeared from the woodlands on the higher ground behind the village, these people, determined that they should have enemies, chose to vent their spite on the peaceful People of the Brook. Not content with their own side of the river, they laid claim to a stretch of land on the south side, where they pastured their animals and reaped a crop of hay every year.

The Brook People, having no alternative, tolerated this violation of their territory. Likewise they were more curious than resentful when the other people used the south side of the river for their burial-ground. What did come near to rousing them to protest was the discovery that the People-beyond-the-river, instead of burying their dead decently in the chalk like every sensible clan, made a practice of burning their dead on a great fire of wood, and putting the ashes in pots, which they then buried. This wasteful practice, it seemed, only applied to the richer and more important members of the clan; and the richer a man was when alive, the bigger and better the pot in which his remains were buried. The Brook People came to this conclusion after digging up as many of the pots as they could find in the dark. Of course the People-beyond-the-river soon discovered what was going on, and they put an abrupt stop to the pot-stealing by breaking the pots at the time of burial and placing them inside larger pots, likewise rendered unusable. If you will glance again for a moment at the map you will see a spot marked C, not far from die river and the ford. It was here that in 1852 one of these burials was accidentally discovered by a man whilst ploughing. The rare and attractive Arretine1 bowl, found fragmented inside an amphora, was reconstructed and is now in the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Whether the People belonged to the federation of tribes which we call the Iceni, or to the Trinovantes, or to some other group, I cannot say, not knowing where the tribal boundaries were, if there were any. They themselves were probably equally uncertain on this point, simply paying tribute when it was demanded either in the form of corn or cattle or young men to serve in the army of whichever tribal 'king' happened to be the most aggressive at the moment. There is reason to believe from what little is known of the political situation in England before the coming of the Romans that our People of the Brook lived through a period of anxiety as a result of the aggressive expansion of the group of Belgic tribes called Catuvellauni to die south-west of them. The People-beyond-the-river may well have formed part of one of these hostile tribes.

When the Roman army of Julius Caesar defeated the Belgic chieftain Cassivelaunus and destroyed his stronghold at Wheathampstead our People probably enjoyed about two generations of relative peace and prosperity. There is evidence to show that, after the events of 55 and 54 BC, and perhaps because of those events, their mode of living was markedly influenced by trading contacts with Gaul and the rest of the Roman Empire. One of the principal items of commerce imported into the country seems to have been pottery. This impression may be distorted by the fact that pottery is almost indestructible; broken fragments survive when most other materials perish. It is nevertheless clear that much pottery was imported, and that the pots were bigger and better than those which the British had been making and using.

One effect of this was the abandoning by the People of their age-old practice of storing their grain in pits dug in die chalk, a method of storage which can never have been really satisfactory. Even though the grain was part-roasted to prevent germination, it would still have gone mouldy after the same pit had been in use for a few years, a fact borne out by the large numbers of these grain-pits which have been found. It may be, of course, that partly-germinated, slightly mouldy grain was what was needed to make the kind of drink which best suited British palates. Some such brew will figure in our story for a very long time. But bread was needed as well as beer, and the storage of grain in large earthenware jars was an undoubted improvement on the old method; it was still in use some thirteen hundred years later. The People continued to use their rough locally-made pots, of course, but it would seem that they preferred the better, imported wares when they could get them.

It has been suggested that they were introduced to a heavier and more efficient type of plough at about this time. The evidence for this however is slight, and on these light soils they would have been able to manage well enough with the wooden contraption, little more than a suitable crooked branch fitted with an iron point - perhaps even without an iron point which they had always used. Hones for sharpening knives and sickles, and circular querns for grinding corn, were certainly imported from across the Channel and used by our People, for numerous fragments of such articles were found on the site of their village.

So well established was the contact with the Roman world that when, in ad 43, a Roman army again invaded Britain, many of the Celtic population in the south-east actually welcomed the invaders, possibly feeling that they had less to fear from them than from their own turbulent neighbours and racial kinsmen. Such opposition as there was, led by Caratacus, one of the sons of old King Cunobelinus, was rapidly overcome, and Colchester became the capital of a Roman province. Within a few months the People of the Brook would be made aware of their new status as subjects of the Emperor. What that meant in effect was that from then on they would pay their tribute of corn, hides and wool to the agents of the Roman Governor, and their young men would be liable for enlistment in the auxiliary units of the Roman Army. It might also have meant that a quota of their womenfolk was demanded for service as slaves; but if that were so, it was not a Roman innovation. Any memory which may have lingered on as to their tribal origin and allegiance could now be allowed to lapse, for tribal hostilities were a thing of the past. Having been conquered, the People ran no risk of being attacked by anybody, and it seems reasonable to suppose that in the early days of the Province the Roman soldiers aroused more admiration than fear in the native inhabitants.

We know of course that there were some who were not content with their new masters, and that many of them fled westwards into regions where resistance presented fewer risks. The others stayed where they were and continued to till their lands. When the Governor Ostorius ordered the disarming of all the natives in the Province it seems that there was a fair measure of compliance with the order. Our People most probably had nothing but sickles and knives in any case, to which the order did not apply. The Iceni however, living in the territory to the north-east, resented the order to disarm. Instead of handing in their weapons they used them in an attempt at revolt, a rash gesture which involved them in a crushing military defeat. The site of the battle, if it could be called a battle, is not known, but it was probably near enough to the People of the Brook for them to hear about it at first hand, perhaps to see some of the wounded who fled the slaughter. They can hardly have known that they were witnessing the opening scene of a tragedy which was to wreck their own lives.

Peace was quickly restored and life went on as before. The People probably saw little of the Romans, though some of them may have participated compulsorily in the construction of the great new road a few miles to the west of the village. This road, straight as a spear, came from the south and led to the north for such distances in both directions as the People had no need or wish to travel. Whether it interested them or not, however, they must have been forced to admit that it was a great improvement on the numerous tracks which traversed their area and had served as roads until that time, and which indeed were to serve as roads for many centuries yet to come.

Soon after this the sight of Roman soldiers must have been even rarer, for the bulk of the army was campaigning in the west, far beyond the boundary of the Province. Before setting out on his campaign Ostorius inaugurated a measure which was to prove of great interest to the People. Many of the soldiers had by this time completed their twenty-five years of service and were due for discharge. Rather than return to their homes - if they had any 'home' after marching all over Europe for the best part of their lives - many of them chose, or were ordered, to stay in Britannia. Some had no doubt taken British wives; others probably intended or hoped to do so.

The Governor, whilst needing every available man in his army, also needed to leave behind in the Province a nucleus of trained men in case further trouble should break out. So he established what was called a colonia, based on and administered from Colchester. To each time-expired veteran was allotted a plot of land in the vicinity of the capital, where the old soldiers could become new farmers. The officers naturally expected something on a grander scale, and their gratuity took the form of quite considerable grants of land, which was obtained by the simple expedient of taking it from the British. The size of these officers' holdings meant that they could not be concentrated near the capital, as was the coloniay and that they would be widely scattered over the whole province, even in the remotest parts.

That obvious fact, and the evidence brought to light by excavation recently on the site of the village, justifies the use of a certain amount of imagination in reconstructing the events of the year ad 48 (or thereabouts) in one of those remote parts of the province. We cannot know all the facts, and must therefore make some assumptions based on the facts which we do know. We may safely assume, for instance, that the People of the Brook received a visit from a small party of officials, in the course of which visit they learnt that a portion of their land had been granted to an ex-officer of the Roman Army; learnt also, no doubt, the serious consequences which would follow any attempt to thwart or hinder the settlement of that exofficer. Likewise we may assume, with near certainty in this instance, the arrival soon afterwards of a team of workmen with cart-loads of bricks, tiles and sawn timber, things which the villagers had never seen before.

Any resentment which had been caused by the first visit, or kindled since that visit, would, I feel sure, have given way to an excited curiosity as a result of the second visit. Soon the villagers would have been busy collecting large flints and stones from the surrounding fields, whilst others dug loads of grey chinch from the pits a short distance to the north-west Whether they were paid for the work or not I cannot say; if so, they must have taken good care of the coins which they received, for not one seems to have been lost - at least, not one has yet been found. Perhaps they were used to make bracelets or necklaces. Payment, if any, may have been made in kind. The villagers may have been conscripted for the work and kept at it with the aid of whips, though I cannot believe that that was so. I cannot imagine a man taking up residence in a spot such as this, at a time like that, without the friendly co-operation of the native populace. Coercion would have entailed the presence of an armed guard. There could not have been sufficient armed men available to watch over the construction of every villa in the province, or to ensure their protection when once built. All the known facts of the circumstances point to a considerable degree of collaboration.


Excerpted from The Common Stream by Rowland Parker. Copyright © 1975 Rowland Parker. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of illustrations,
List of maps,
1 British Village and Roman Villa,
2 The Brook-Makers,
3 Lords and Villeins,
4 The Medieval Village,
5 Black Death,
6 The Middle Ages Linger On,
7 The Great Rebuilding,
8 Noysome Synkes and Puggell Water,
9 Many Yeomen but no Squire,
10 Eighteenth-Century Parish and Poor,
11 Stagnation,
12 Revolution and Revival,
Note on currency,

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