Meare: medieval exploitation of wetland resources in the Somerset Levels

Professor Stephen Rippon

Reconstructing a medieval landscape

Rippon, S. 2004: ‘“Making the most of a bad situation”? Glastonbury Abbey and the exploitation of wetland resources in the Somerset Levels’, Medieval Archaeology 48, 91-130.

Meare, in the Somerset Levels, is famous for the Abbot of Glastonbury's 'Fish House', and it is well known that it lay to the south of a large open lake, known as Meare Pool. The manor of Meare was centred on a small bedrock island that protrudes through the extensive wetlands of the Brue Valley, immediately west of Glastonbury: this was about the lowest-lying and most poorly-drained parts of the Somerset Levels, and a question that had to be asked was why on earth did anyone bother living there?

A programme of research at the University of Exeter has reconstructed the wider medieval landscape of Meare and its environs, in particular showing how highly valued wetland resources were in the medieval period. A strongly interdisciplinary approach has been used, taking advantage of Glastonbury's remarkably rich documentary archives (eg Musgrove 1999; 2001). In the past these have been extensively 'quarried' for the information they contain on socio-economic history, but they also include abundant, but previously neglected, references to landscape features - such as settlements, fields, mills, fisheries, roads, and canals (yes, artificial canals!). In this project an attempt has been made to actually locate where these features were and address the question: what did the medieval landscape on one of Glastonbury Abbey's manors actually look like?

The key to this lies within the historic landscape: the patterns of fields, roads, settlements and watercourses that make up the modern countryside, and are represented on the earliest (early 19th century) cartographic sources. 'Historic landscape characterization' is a method for analyzing these different patterns of fields, roads and settlements, leading to the identification of a series of distinctive 'landscape character areas'. Analogy with the recent, well-documented, past shows that different character areas arise from different processes of landscape evolution: an example is that the gradual, piecemeal enclosure of an area will lead to small, irregular shaped patterns, whereas the large-scale, systematic colonization generally results in more regular layouts. Whilst the process of landscape evolution can often be inferred from morphology, however, historic landscape characterization can at best only give a relative chronology for when certain areas were colonized: to improve on this we need to integrate a wide range of other information.

The earliest cartographic sources we have (notably the Tithe Surveys) contain an abundance of names - not just settlements but fields, roads, watercourses - and in many cases these can be traced back to the medieval period, notably when such a rich documentary archive as Glastonbury's survives. In Meare, for example, the former open fields can be located (which covered most of the bedrock island), along with extensive areas of embanked and drained wetland that extended out from the fen-edge. This shows that by the mid 14th century around 4-5 km2 had been reclaimed within the manor, rising to around 9-11 km2 in the early 16th century (most of which was restricted to alluvial soils). Though some of these reclaimed lands were used as arable, they were mostly used as meadow. Glastonbury's wetland manors had a strongly pastoral economy including the Abbey's only major herds of cattle and pigs, and its only horse studs. Even the arable side to the economy of these wetland manors was significantly geared towards pastoral farming, with up to 40% of demesne land being sown with beans (an important fodder crop).

Ripples from the 'Great Replanning'?

The careful analysis of the 'historic landscape', and its integration with documentary evidence, not only allows us to identify areas of medieval reclamation and other field systems but can also be used to study the plans of settlements. This has been demonstrated in another of Glastonbury's manors, Shapwick, lying just to south of the Brue Valley on the Polden Hills (Aston and Gerrard 1999; Corcos 2002). Shapwick is one of a series of carefully planned villages strung out along the Polden ridge, and appears to date to the 10th century when, in common with Midland England, a dispersed settlement pattern appears to have been replaced with nucleated villages and their surrounding open fields (the same process appears to have occurred elsewhere in Somerset, such as on the island of Wedmore and around the Gordano Valley: Rippon 1997, 160-5). This 'great replanning' also appears to have affected Meare, as fossilized within the modern plan of Meare village there is a carefully planned block of ten tenement plots to the north of a now infilled probable market place. Recent excavations on the western edge of this planned village establishes that it existed by the later 10th century (Whitton and Reed 2002). Tentative support for an intensification of landscape exploitation on Glastonbury's estates around this time comes from palaeoenvironmental work that shows a significant increase in sedimention in rivers flowing into the Somerset Levels very approximately AD 1000 (Aalbersberg 1999, 93).

Wetlands and their rich natural resources

Apart from Meare Pool, the rest of the manor was dominated by common pastures (known as moors and heaths) which covered the extensive peatbogs of the Somerset Levels, though even these were a highly valued resource being used for grazing cattle and pigs, the collecting of timber, reeds and sedges, and the cutting of peat. The extent to which these moors were valued is reflected in the long running battle between the Abbot of Glastonbury and Dean and Chapter of Wells over the control of them, which eventually led to the Abbot's excommunication! The Abbey clearly valued its wetland resources, and this is also seen in the way that it manipulated the river system. A series of rivers that enter into the Somerset Levels from the east were blocked from flowing west by the raised peat bogs around Meare, and instead flowing into the old course of the Brue north into the Axe Valley. This was a long and tortuous route, and by the 11th century and artificial canal had been cut between Glastonbury and the coast, past Meare and through the very centre of the present Brue Valley. This formed part of a network of canals and navigable rivers that the Abbey used to transport goods around its various central Somerset manors, and to power a number of watermills.

Wetlands, islands and the 'Twelve Hides'

Water, or rather watery landscapes, may have been significant to Glastonbury in one further way. The core of the Abbey's estates was the 'Twelve Hides', a post-Conquest designation given to a group of manors in the immediate vicinity of Glastonbury itself. A series of charters purport to show that these were amongst the earliest grants of land given to the Abbey, though like the various chronicles that describe the early history of the Abbey, some may owe more to creative writing than fact. Meare's charter of 670, however, probably contains some element of truth, implying that one of the earliest grants to Glastonbury was this small bedrock island and the surrounding wetland wilderness. In fact, the 'Twelve Hides' contained a series of small bedrock islands (or promontories that were described as 'islands') in the Abbeys chronicles in the far eastern part of the Somerset Levels (Meare, Godney, Panborough, Bleadney, Marchey, Nyland Beckery; even Glastonbury itself was described as an island). Most of these islands have evidence for early churches or chapels (Aston 2000, 58; Rahtz and Hirst 1974, 11-12), of which Meare was the most important, said to be the late 5th century hermitage of St Benignus, and being promoted sometime between 971 and 1170 to become one of the 'seven Churches' which Glastonbury held and had exemption from Episcopal and other jurisdiction. The inclusion in the Twelve Hides of what in the late 11th century was still an extensive tract of wetland wilderness, suggests that the area, and notably the small bedrock islands, must have had a special significance in the eyes of the monks.

Aalbersberg, G. 1999: The Alluvial Fringes of the Somerset Levels. PhD Thesis, University of Exeter.

Aston, M. 2000: Monasteries in the Landscape. Stroud: Tempus.

Aston, M. and Gerrard, C. 1999: 'Unique, traditional and charming': the Shapwick Project, Somerset. Antiquaries Journal 79, 1-58.

Corcos, N. 2002: The affinities and antecedents of medieval settlement: topographical perspectives from there of the Somerset hundreds. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports British Series 337.

Musgrove, D. 1999 The Medieval Exploitation of the Peat Moors of the Somerset Levels. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Exeter.

Musgrove, D. 2001: Modelling landscape development in a wetland environment: the medieval peat moors of the Somerset Levels. In Raftery, B. and Hickey, J. (eds) Recent Developments in Wetland Research (Dublin: Department of Archaeology, University College, Dublin), 227-42.

Rahtz, P. and Hirst, S. 1974: Beckery Chapel, Glastonbury, 1967-8. Glastonbury: Glastonbury Antiquarian Society.

Rippon, S. 1996 The Gwent Levels: the evolution of a wetland landscape. York: Council for British Archaeology Res. Rep. 105.

Rippon, S. 1997 The Severn Estuary: landscape evolution and wetland reclamation. London: Leicester University Press.

Whitton, C.J.M. and Reed, S. 2002: Archaeological Recording at 'The Laurels', 60B St Mary's Road, Meare, Somerset. Exeter Archaeology Report 02.52; copy in Somerset Sites and Monuments Record PRN 15772.