MSRG Policy Statement

The Group’s policy statement sets out a research and management framework for medieval rural settlement and landscape. It provides a brief assessment of the current state of academic knowledge and practical issues covering research, survey, conservation, and excavation. The statement seeks to identify an agenda for future work which would fill gaps in our knowledge and present a strategy setting out priorities. In so doing the MSRG has had regard to policy statements prepared on behalf of the Group, as well as to UK and national frameworks.

This statement was prepared in 2007 and updated in 2020.

  1. Introduction

1.1 The MSRG’s Policy Statement is intended to encapsulate the Group’s fundamental values and long-term goals. The first version of the Statement appeared in 1996; it was revised in 2007 and has been further updated in 2020. After defining the subject and summarising its overall value in the context of historical research, the document demonstrates how approaches to rural settlement have developed over the past quarter century, in terms of research and survey, conservation, excavation, the recording rural settlement and its place in the development of wider research strategies relating to the historic environment.

1.2 At the same time, the Group needs to take account of and respond to more immediate and specific developments in rural settlement research. To this end, it commissions decennial reviews of published research, compiled by well-established, authoritative scholars. The first, by Mark Gardiner, was published in MSRG Annual Report 21 (2006) and covered the period 1996-2006. The second, by Stephen Rippon and Benjamin Morton and covering the years 2007-16, was published in MSR 35 (2020) .1 On the basis of this more recent review, the Group’s committee formulated a series of four Research Priorities which will be used to guide the Group’s activities, its advice to external partners, and its distribution of research grants.2

  1. Definitions and Value

2.1 Medieval rural settlements include all habitations from the fifth to the sixteenth century, from the temporary shielings occupied by those herding animals, to the residences of great lords. The great majority consist of farms, hamlets and villages, together with associated landscape features, such as roads, enclosures, field systems, boundary banks and ditches, ponds, parks and woods, mills, manor houses, moats and churches. A high proportion of settlements occupied by c. 1200 are still inhabited, but some have been abandoned and their sites are visible as earthworks. A significant number of late medieval settlements, and almost all of those dating from the period before c. 1000 have no visible earthworks above the ground, but many of their sites can be discovered from cropmarks and soilmarks most clearly recognized from aerial photography, from surface indications, such as scatters of pottery and other occupation debris, and from geophysical or ground-radar survey.

2.2 Medieval rural settlements have been the subject of systematic research in Britain since the late 1940s, and have been located and investigated in every part of Europe. They must be regarded as sites of the greatest importance. Most medieval people lived in the countryside, and here we can investigate the material culture of the whole range of society, including those who have left the scantiest written evidence. Survey work and excavation can reveal much about the housing, possessions, and environment across the medieval social spectrum, together with evidence for production, consumption and technology, both in agriculture and in food preparation, as well as rural crafts and trade. The distribution and layout of the settlements give insights into social structure and social organisation, and into medieval ideas about order and planning, including the division between public and private space. The constant and often sudden changes affecting rural settlements – shifts of site, coalescence of small settlements into large villages, the replanning, expansion, and shrinkage which affected many villages and hamlets, changes in house form, the addition of elements such as market places, greens and churchyards, and sometimes their total desertion – demonstrate the dynamic forces at work across the period, not just the general expansion and contraction of population and agriculture, but many developments in lordship, politics, community organisation, commerce and household life.

  1. Research and Survey

3.1 Research into medieval settlements can cover whole counties or regions, or be concentrated on a single site, but normally a study should take into account the territories associated with farms, hamlets, or villages, and the estates to which the settlements belonged, which could be large and contain many settlements. The inhabitants depended on a particular territory and its resources for their living, and their use and experience of the land should be a dimension of any study, as should their relationship with higher authority. But research should also look to a wider region, as transhumance, trade, and contacts with centres of government and religion took people out of their immediate neighbourhood, and villages and farms will be better understood if they can be compared with the types of settlement that developed elsewhere in their locality and in the wider region. Settlement forms, building techniques and farming methods all help to define the special character and culture of a region, so the study of the wider context of settlements extends understanding of regional frameworks. Key projects which have shown the value of this broad multidisciplinary ‘landscape’ approach to the study of rural settlements include those at Wharram Percy (N. Yorks), Raunds (Northants) and Shapwick (Somerset). These have all used a specific parish or area as the main focus of research. But other projects, notably the Whittlewood Project (Bucks and Northants), have taken a wide sweep of countryside and studied all settlements within it, together with the evolving use of land.

3.2 Although it is convenient to use a long period like the Middle Ages to define a field of enquiry, thereby allowing research to achieve a depth of understanding, no period should be studied in isolation. We must be aware that the landscape of the medieval period had usually been settled and cultivated in earlier centuries, perhaps for millennia, and that prehistoric and Roman patterns of land-holding, delimitation and exploitation influenced their medieval successors. There should be a similar awareness of the subsequent development of sites and their surroundings in the post-medieval period.

3.3 Research should embrace every type of rural settlement. The great variety of settlement forms deserves to be recognized, whether farm, hamlet, large village or incipient market town (the conventional dividing line between a village and a hamlet is based on a minimum village size of six households). In the same way, farms, hamlets and villages which are wholly or partly inhabited should not be neglected in favour of the study of abandoned sites. Subsequent occupation will not have always destroyed the earlier below-ground evidence, and the plan of streets and boundaries will preserve the form of many earlier settlements. As the Whittlewood Project and the more recent investigations in currently occupied rural settlements (CORS) have successfully demonstrated, even in built-up areas and in the gardens of existing houses, hand-dug test pits may be used to identify earlier occupation.3 Local vernacular architecture should also be studied: buildings from the medieval period should be recorded and analysed in their landscape context, as their form and layout are important components of the medieval landscape; and early post-medieval buildings can provide valuable indications of a continuing local building tradition.4 Churches, guildhalls and houses provide invaluable evidence of wealth, social structure and mentality at the community, family and household level.

3.4 Lists of deserted medieval villages and moated sites have been prepared by the Groups which preceded the MSRG, and can be consulted in the MSRG’s archives held by the University of Hull and soon to be deposited at the Hull History Centre. Much work has been done in listing settlement sites in general in the Historic Environment Records (HERs) maintained by local authorities. However, some types of site (particularly farmsteads and hamlets) are less well recorded than others, because of their apparent ubiquity. As a clear distinction is not always made between different types of site, so a long-term aim must be to enhance the data in the HERs.

3.5 Survey programmes provide an important means of discovering new sites, and for increasing our understanding of known sites. Survey techniques include aerial photography, the planning of earthworks, geophysical investigation, fieldwalking, soil sampling and documentary research. Each of these methods is valuable in itself, but they produce the best results if carried out in combination, and if they are applied to the surrounding territory as well as to the settlement sites themselves. Survey is essential for the preparation of site management plans. It is also a necessary part of any rural excavation programme. And, in the event that a threatened landscape cannot be saved by statutory protection, a full survey should be made for the benefit of future research.

3.6 Interdisciplinary research is likely to yield the most satisfying results. The material evidence should be investigated through field survey, excavation and analysis of environmental samples. Documentary evidence (including field-names and place-names) should be studied alongside the material culture. Significant advances in knowledge are likely to proceed from dialogues between archaeologists, historians, geographers, place-name scholars, students of vernacular architecture, and those who work on bone and plant remains. New thinking will be informed by theoretical perspectives in archaeology, such as recent work on spatial perception and understanding, and on the roles of exchange and social organisation in buildings and settlements.

  1. Conservation

4.1 The purpose of archaeological conservation is partly to maintain the storehouse of information about the past that is contained within settlement sites for the benefit of future generations who will possess much more sophisticated methods of research than are available to us, and also to provide a resource to educate and inform the present generation. We must also acknowledge that traces of the past enrich the quality and fascination of the present landscape. It is the ‘time-depth’ of the landscapes of England, Wales and Scotland which gives them their particular characters.

4.2 After a long period in which many sites had been damaged or destroyed by the intensification of agriculture, road building, quarrying and housing development, there followed, in the 1990s, a welcome move towards the preservation of medieval settlements, in part due to changes in agricultural policy and reduced pressure for development. In England a representative sample of the most important sites was selected under (what was then) English Heritage’s Monuments Protection Programme (MPP) for consideration for scheduling. These sites had been chosen on the basis that the countryside is varied in its terrain and land-use, and that settlement sites take on sufficient importance to merit preservation if they are characteristic of a defined region. MPP devised a scoring system which selected the best candidate sites for statutory preservation by virtue of the condition of their remains, their potential and diversity, associated features, documentation and amenity value. The MPP initiative ceased in the early 2000s, but the score sheet developed by Stuart Wrathmell for use in MPP, and containing details of over 1800 sites across England, can be found here, the regional codes being those set out in the Atlas of Rural settlement in England.

4.3 The selection of sites for statutory protection or preservation by other means should not be regarded as a single act, but as part of a continuing review. New sites will be found and new information about known sites will enhance their importance. Advances in interpretation will lead to revisions of the assessment criteria. We expect to see efforts to preserve sites for the future as a continuing process, in which there will be a constant dialogue between those implementing them and those advising, such as MSRG. To take one pressing example, this Group has long argued that preserving a site should not mean drawing a line round the edge of a village, and allowing the destruction of the field system on which the villagers depended for their living, and which we need to appreciate their way of life. Medieval settlements are not ‘monuments’ confined within a fenced enclosure of a few acres, but were the focal points of large living landscapes. We welcome the greater awareness of the historic dimensions of the wider landscape implicit in historic landscape characterisation, historic landscape assessment and the Atlas of Rural Settlement in England project.5 It is important that this is translated into the active management and protection of the many aspects of the historic countryside.

4.4 One type of isolated settlement, moated sites, has been systematically researched and a number scheduled, but other forms of dispersed settlement – farms and hamlets – have not been identified in a similar manner or assessed for preservation. Considering abandoned sites alone, there must be in England 30,000 deserted farms and hamlets compared with the 3,000 or so deserted villages. If conservation policies are to reflect the balance of numbers, many more must firstly be identified, and then recommended for preservation, together with such associated features as roads, field boundaries, and ponds.

4.5 Perhaps the most difficult problem for those seeking to preserve medieval settlements concerns policy towards existing settlements. We all know that the great majority of the settlements occupied around the year 1300 are partly or wholly inhabited at the present time. Many of the boundaries and house sites of twentieth-century villages had their origins in the Middle Ages. There are still features and artefacts buried beneath modern houses and gardens, and even more within the occasional deserted house sites still visible as gaps in an inhabited settlement. Every effort should be made to retain the framework of boundaries, routeways, frontages and related features which reflect the medieval structure of a settlement. We welcome the work of historic landscape characterisation and wish to encourage its use to preserve the historic form of settlements. We also encourage the adoption of medieval settlements in the Environment Stewardship schemes and Heritage Management Plans.6

4.6 Conservation is also important to preserve sites for educational purposes. However, at present these visits tend to be confined to specialist groups who can best appreciate the sites if they are guided by an expert. It is the view of the Group that more sites should be displayed and interpreted for the wider public to enhance an appreciation of the historic dimension of the landscape.

  1. Excavation

5.1 The programme of excavation of since 1952 has vastly extended our understanding of every aspect of the medieval period. Before settlements were excavated we were almost entirely ignorant of such basic issues as the size and shape of peasant houses, and the chronology of village development. The few major excavations in recent decades continue to shed light on these questions. Sites, such as West Cotton (Northants.), Burton Dassett (Warwicks.), and Wood Hall (N. Yorks.), have all produced new types of evidence, such as major deposits of environmental material, and indeed new types of settlement have been revealed, including the failed market village of Dassett Southend. There are still major categories of settlement sites, including villages and hamlets of the tenth and eleventh centuries, deserted dispersed settlements of the Middle Ages; and sites in under-researched counties, such as Lancashire or Kent, which have not been excavated in adequate numbers.

5.2 At present, very few large-scale excavations are taking place on medieval settlement sites. To some extent this is to be welcomed as it marks a move away from the destruction of sites by new developments and a greater emphasis on preservation. However, development may also be seen as an opportunity to investigate new sites and add to our knowledge. Furthermore, excavations provide a training ground for another generation of settlement archaeologists, and often provides a stimulus for further advances in interpretation.

5.3 Such development-led excavations must be conceived as part of a wider research programme of fieldwork and documentary research, and treated as problem-solving sorties, often focussed as much on peripheral areas of settlements, as on the centres. The policy of preservation in situ and limited archaeological intervention needs to be carefully considered. Large-scale archaeological work, if thoughtfully planned and adequately resourced, may be a more appropriate response. Meaningful results may be achieved more often if the excavation covers complete farmsteads rather than small parts of a single building.

5.4 Research excavation also has an important role to play in the development of our understanding. The value of long-term research projects which enable archaeologists to reflect upon problems, develop hypotheses and then investigate them in the field was demonstrated in the work at Wharram Percy and more recently in the excavations at Bishopstone (E. Sussex).

  1. Records and Strategy

6.1 The information on settlements in Historic Environment Records must be improved. The work that has gone into the HERs is of the greatest value, but there is much unevenness between counties. Most of them recognize a category of ‘deserted medieval villages’, but many make no clear distinction between different types of site, and have not attempted a systematic listing of deserted farmsteads and hamlets, nor of shrunken villages. Each county should assemble details of all such sites, defined by agreed criteria. This programme of enhancement would require extensive survey work in many counties and will need to be funded by the heritage bodies in England, Wales and Scotland. But the problem of the still-inhabited villages, hamlets and farms must also be addressed: those settlements with evidence (often documentary) for medieval occupation must be included in HERs. They represent a high proportion of medieval settlements, and must be regarded as potential archaeological sites, as worthy of recording, survey, management, preservation or excavation as much as any deserted or shrunken site.

6.2 Still-inhabited settlements are subject to constant and repeated threats as there is often pressure for infilling, the addition of modern estates, and absorption into suburbs. We need to devise urgently, as well as the programme for identification and listing of sites (see above), a method for judging how much archaeological evidence these places contain, and a strategy for influencing planning decisions concerning new development. Input to local development frameworks, which often deal with specific settlements, may be one means; another may be the use of Conservation Areas for protection. Full advantage should also be taken of work arising out of planning legislation (PPG 15 and PPG 16 in England; Welsh Office Circular 60/96 in Wales; NPPG5 in Scotland), including the systematic dissemination of information resulting from it, and ensuring that HERs receive reports.7

6.3 While recognizing the need to extend the range of settlement sites in need of conservation and research, preserving the deserted and shrunken sites, which contain archaeological material least likely to have been disturbed by subsequent occupation, remains a priority. Conservation measures must continue in other ways: we should look for opportunities through developments in planning and agricultural policy, such as Environmental Stewardship to make sure that medieval settlement sites can benefit. Conservation by agreement with landowners and farmers through management plans based on field survey must also be pursued: for example, farm plans prepared by Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group officers should always contain archaeological and historical information and advice. The aims of the MSRG can often be combined with those of other groups with interests in conservation or amenity value.

6.4 Public awareness of medieval sites and their meaning must be extended, by improving the facilities at sites now open to the public, notably at Wharram Percy, Cosmeston (Glamorgan) and West Stow (Suffolk), by putting more sites on display, and by encouraging the use of imaginative methods of exposition, such as the reconstruction of houses and settlements. We are confident that the enthusiasm felt by visitors to deserted villages when the sites are explained and their past existence evoked by a skilful guide or audio-visual system is important in ensuring the preservation and understanding of the medieval landscape.

6.5 Archaeological projects have helped in a few instances to heighten public awareness of medieval sites, and public-orientated projects, such as Whittlewood have also enabled better recognition of local sites, resources and materials. We particularly welcome moves by Aimhigher to widen participation in archaeology through the Higher Education Field Academy. This allowed school students to participate in the investigation of the archaeology of villages.

6.6 The academic research agenda combines the need to address recent preoccupations, and to take into account new questions. We need to extend our understanding of regional differences, and to assess the influence of the natural environment, and define the extent to which people moulded the landscape and settlement pattern to their own needs. The role of government, or lordship, or market relations in forming regional cultures must be considered. For the study of settlement, the origins and development of different types of settlement and the associated contrasts in landscapes remain central questions. After that formative period, the subsequent changes in settlements, including their growth, shrinkage or desertion, are debated but imperfectly understood. The household is a subject until recently neglected by archaeologists and there is an opportunity to examine the experiences of builders and users of medieval houses by the study of building and settlement plans, artefacts and their distribution. This field of research has the potential to throw light on such fundamental issues as consumption and the family, including gender relationships. Archaeological theory has played relatively little part in interpreting the medieval past, but its application to medieval settlement studies may provide new insights into this area of study.

6.7 The considerable gap in time between fieldwork and final publication remains an impediment to our understanding of medieval sites. Many pieces of developer-funded work may only appear as ‘grey literature’ reports and knowledge of discoveries are not widely circulated, even among specialists. Some major excavations remain unpublished a decade or more after fieldwork ceased, and progress on post-excavation work on a few sites appears to have halted entirely. We hope that the review of the state of knowledge undertaken in the English regions and by the Welsh archaeological units will stimulate further work on unpublished excavation archives. The Group welcomes the growing use of the Archaeological Data Service as a means for widely and rapidly disseminating not just ‘grey literature’, but also older published works, and encourages units to make greater use of this.8

6.8 The academic issues raised above (6.6) can be addressed partly by applying new approaches and theories to evidence already published, and by constructing new syntheses. There is also a need for new research, and in particular for the type of interdisciplinary, problem-oriented enquiry into a manageable but extensive sample of the countryside – a large parish, estate or manor for example – which has yielded such fruitful results in the past. Previous work has tended to be based on nucleated villages and their territories, but now work should be focused on regions of dispersed settlement, or those with both nucleated and scattered settlements. The techniques used in such research, and any site chosen for excavation, must include extensive survey, geophysical investigation, analysis of environmental remains, documentary study, work on standing buildings and the use of every possible source of relevant information.


1 Rippon, S. and Morton, B., ‘Review of medieval settlement research 2007-16’, Medieval Settlement Research, 35 (2020), 1-13

2 Wrathmell, S., ‘MSRG research priorities’, Medieval Settlement Research, 35 (2020), 14-15

3 Lewis, C., ‘A thousand years of change: new perspectives on rural settlement development from test pit excavations in Eastern England’, Medieval Settlement Research, 35 (2020), 26-46

2 In respect of recording buildings advantage should be taken of the opportunities provided by Planning Policy Guidance 15: Planning and the Historic Environment, September 1994.

3 Roberts, B. K. and Wrathmell, S., An Atlas of Rural Settlement in England (2000).

4 ‘The whole of the landscape to varying degrees and in different ways is an archaeological and historic artefact, the product of complex historic processes and past land-use. It is also a crucial and defining aspect of biodiversity’ (PPG 15, Planning and the Historic Environment, September 1994).

5 Planning Policy Guidance 15: Planning and the Historic Environment (September 1994); Planning Policy Guidance 16: Archaeology and Planning (November 1990); NPPG5 – Archaeology and Planning, Scottish Executive (October 1998); Welsh Office Circular 60/96.