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2 - The Saxon Centuries: Prehistory into History

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 April 2021

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Summary

TO UNDERSTAND LOCAL history often involves going back a long way. Much may be recovered, despite subsequent layers of change. Pictures of successive phases of development will emerge, varying in completeness and certainty according to the extent and nature of the available evidence at different times. Local studies contribute considerably to this understanding, both of individual periods and also of change and continuity across periods. The period of earliest local historical record clearly shows this. The six centuries between the departure of the Romans and the Norman Conquest have left extensive traces of continuing relevance. Among them are many present-day place-names, settlement patterns, field systems, manors, estate and territorial boundaries, increasingly large and unified kingdoms and ultimately a single English Kingdom, the eventual emergence of towns and of the familiar units of shires, hundreds, wapentakes and tithings, the coming of Christianity, the establishment of cathedrals, monastic and minster churches, the subsequent emergence of smaller, local churches, and – closely linked to Christianity – the growth of written records.

All these developments were under way before 1066. Historians and archaeologists now often refer to the period as the early Middle Ages, rather than as a sharply separate, pre-medieval era. It is also wise to remember that c.400–1066 is a long time, as long as from the Black Death of 1348 to the present day. It would be foolish to picture the Saxon period as a single phase of experience. A map of late Saxon England (Fig. 2.1, opposite) sums up some significant features by the tenth century near the end of the period, revealing the then dominance of Wessex, the final emergence of a single kingdom of England, the areas of Scandinavian settlement, and that there were some documents (for example, the Burghal Hidage) relating to specific places.

Evidence for the early Saxon period is, by comparison, sparse. Sources for the fifth and sixth centuries are confined to archaeology, some place-names, and a few, unreliable or retrospective accounts in texts and annals. The balance between reliance on the archaeological and landscape record rather than on documents does shift somewhat as the transition from pre-history to history, from unwritten to written record, progresses through the period.

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English Local History
An Introduction
, pp. 33 - 66
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2020

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