Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.09.15

Peter Fowler, Farming in the First Millennium AD: British Agriculture between Julius Caesar and William the Conquerer.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2002.  Pp. 412.  ISBN 0-521-89056-X.  $38.00.  

Reviewed by Michael Decker, Rice University (
Word count: 1724 words

Despite the growing interest of classicists, medieval historians and archaeologists in past landscapes and rural society, monographs dedicated to the agrarian history of any region are few. Fowler's Farming in the First Mellennium AD (hereafter FIFM) is a welcome addition. Fowler assigns himself the task of treating a thousand years of agrarian history in the British Isles, which he accomplishes in a relatively modest 295 pages. This book is a sequel to the author's much earlier study (1983) The Farming of Prehistoric Britain. Given the volume of new material now available and change in scholarly fashion and methods, the earlier book is worth noting primarily to highlight the author's previous experience and longstanding interest in all things agrarian on the British scene. The resulting synthesis is an example of a balanced scholarly work that successfully maintains its readability while fulfilling its stated objective as a textbook intended for undergraduates and general readers. It is not without value for those engaged in scholarly research as well. The range of evidence employed is extensive, including written evidence, manuscript illuminations, archaeological survey and excavation. The deftness with which F. wields the material data in particular reminds us of what we've been lacking in the past three decades, as archaeological data collection in many areas has run far ahead of scholar's pursuit of the big picture. In this regard, F. lifts us out of the dell and onto the down where the view is sometimes more expansive.

The geographic focus is Britain as a whole, though much information concerns England, especially the south. But there is a good overall regional balance and judicious use of quality data from the north of England and from Scotland. Critical studies from Wales and comparative information from Ireland provide not only geographical completeness but a good picture of regional diversity. It is laudable that F. is able to range far and wide geographically while not distracting the reader from whatever theme he is exploring at a given moment.

Agriculture includes not only crop farming but also animal husbandry and associated activities on the landscape (such as herb production). Despite the title, there is less about actual methods and processes of production and more concentration on an overview of country life throughout the examined timeframe. While landscape organization and exploitation, such as what field systems looked like in the Roman period, dominates, there are briefer explorations of social issues, such as belief and conservatism in the countryside, that enrich the book. Judicious use of textual evidence in certain instances permits insight into the working and living conditions of those on the land across the millennium.

The work is divided into fourteen chapters. From the outset, the author makes apparent his discomfort with attempting to tenon agrarian history within the mortise of political history and conventional periodization. Issues of convenience and continuity with his previous work aside, the selected chronological boundaries provide a suitable frame. At one end lies the advent of the historical period in the British Isles and at the other the foundations of an agrarian countryside that already had begun to adapt itself to the needs of a nascent nation state unwittingly marching towards the Industrial Revolution. How two Conquests, the one Mediterranean and imperial, the other Continental and opportunistic, impacted agrarian life over the long term is addressed head-on in chapter one and in the concluding chapter, "Farming in the first millennium AD". In the former, F. sets the table by sketching the climate, landscape, people and languages. In the latter, he traces out a picture of long, slow transformation not without moments of rapid change.

Chapter 2 handles the key problems of evidence, including the basic problems and shortcomings inherent in his datasets, text or otherwise. By his own admission F. is more at ease with the archaeological data than the textual. A critical eye for the complexities of handling the variety of sources reappear in specific instances throughout the work, which respects scholars and offers students a view into the mortar of his argumentation. Most important for this chapter and for the tenor of the entire book is the authors efforts to stress the need to marshal and utilize in a refined manner all available evidence. This point might seem painfully obvious to some, but to those working in areas such as landscape study where the division between "text people" and "spade people" continues, F.'s call for interdisciplinarity is welcome. Even more welcome is the fact that he heeds his own call throughout FIFM.

In chapters 3-7 we are offered a telescoping view proceeding through Environment, Land, Settlements, Farms, and Fields, respectively. Space does not permit the coverage of each subsection. It will suffice to treat chapter 3, "Environment" in some detail, as F. utilizes similar arrangements in most other chapters. Environment is broken down into components of climate, soils and woodland, with woods and wastes best representing, in F.'s view, those landscapes often considered variable or marginal, such as marsh and moorland, where special circumstances of adaptive agriculture often prevailed. The chapter continues with a rather workaday description of the flora and fauna of the British Isles that could have offered more details about changes over time, e.g. the Roman introduction of the rabbit into the landscape. Rounding out the chapter is a series of three case studies from around the island. Watkins Farm, Oxfordshire, provides a view of a regional environment in the early Roman period, where mixed farming seems to have been the norm, perhaps leaning more to the pastoral side. The second is a regional study of eastern Scotland based primarily on palynological evidence that shows a decline in arable farming, interpreted by F. as a result of deliberate Roman destabilization of a frontier region that was ungovernable. More importantly, the negative regional impact of the Roman presence for eastern Scotland contrasts with the intensification and enhanced productivity brought on by imperial involvement elsewhere on the island. Overall the chapter takes the long view of the British environment, which was already heavily anthropogenically altered by the time the Romans arrived and quite varied regionally and locally.

Throughout most chapters the main theme is explored via its various components and anchored in space and time by specific case studies, most often recent scientific excavation and survey work. It is a fundamental strength of the work that the general is illuminated and enriched through a specific and well-chosen data set. The fact that F. is able to ask (and satisfactorily answer) the questions he broaches in the work is a tribute to the marked progress made in recent decades by British landscape archaeologists; the range and depth of data which underpin many of the issues fundamental to the study is a relatively recent phenomenon. This work could not have been produced with such neatness only a decade ago.

Technology, including the major arena of scholarly contention, the ard and plough, is the focus of chapters 8-9. Chapter 8 offers a study of hand tools. As he frequently demonstrates, F. is aware of the global issues relevant to those working in agrarian history: he addresses overarching questions, such as persistence and change in various hand tool forms, the availability of a range of tools throughout time and space and perhaps most critically, access by farmers to iron tools. Chapter 9 demonstrates the author's particular interest in the ard and plow debate and attempts to quell once and for all the belief that the heavy plow was an Anglo Saxon introduction into Britain. At the same time, F. presents a nuanced picture of regional variation with observable but essentially unknowable causes that underlay the working of the landscape in various places at various times. In both chapters the British data are ramified both for the temperate continent and even the contemporary Mediterranean, where agricultural historians encounter the same obstacles. The book sheds much of its textbook feel in such instances and provides useful comparanda for scholars engaged in rural studies.

Chapters dedicated to livestock, food and diet and agrarian society round out the main body of the work. The concluding chapter summarizes the state of our knowledge of the millennium, divided here into eight phases. Here the reader is treated to a firmer view of the changes occurring over time, as the focus of the "de-periodized" book rightly stresses basic continuity across time.

Given the range of this work and the obvious depth of research that shows throughout, it is slightly unfair to take issue with areas of coverage. When we bear in mind that the work's primary intended audience is the undergraduate student, the effort to present an overview of a tremendous array of subjects is both laudable and comprehensible. However, the thoroughness in coverage of the work in many regards, for example the inclusion of a section devoted to herb production and use, makes one wonder why such major components of the rural landscape as gardens and orchards, were left out. The schematic treatment of other issues stands in conspicuous contrast with the detailed case studies and extensive theoretical and evidential debate presented elsewhere. Overall the impression is that some items (an example being the discussion of livestocking on uplands) were included for the sake of perceived completeness in producing a textbook, but their cursory treatment lends little to the work's overall impact.

In general the quality of presentation is high, with clean, well-edited presentation, few redundancies and a good index. Illustration is fine overall. There are instances, however, when extremely detailed discussion is dependent upon the illustrations, for example within chapter 7 ("Fields"), where placement of the illustrations in text under the relevant headings would have been more effective. Likewise, in those photos where multiple landscape features are present (e.g. pl. VIII) in-photo markers and labels would be helpful.

None of these issues significantly diminishes the overall impact of the book, which capably traverses difficult scholarly territory and presents an engaging general picture of British agriculture over a thousand-year period. As a student textbook, a useful reference collection and bibliographic tool for scholars of the British landscape, the volume is certainly of value. Those engaged in research of agricultural history outside the British Isles will find FIFM a well-researched work that will support comparative work and in addition a lucid example of how much archaeological synthesis has to offer to rural studies as a whole.

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