Post-Roman Britain: The Environment

Where people live reflects how they live. Understanding the landscape is the first step to understanding history.

Britain is known as a lush green land with mostly temperate weather patterns. The climate promoted favorable agricultural productivity in prehistoric times. The potential for raising herds and producing surpluses of crops attracted the Romans to this far corner of the empire.

Animals, Forests, and Pastures

Although an island, Britain is well known for its clear waterways and aquatic species. Birds and fish provide abundant food sources. When humans began clearing the forests by felling trees and burning brush in order to make pasture and crop lands, the clearance also enhanced the local populations of wild fowl. Hunters were quick to take advantage, as were fishermen.

Burning also benefited cattle, another domesticated species brought across the Channel in prehistoric times. Careful burning removed the old woody trunks and stems of trees and brush from new pasture lands without damaging the roots. Soon new green shoots from the roots made healthy browsing feed for herds. Any trees trying to take root in the pasture were quickly eaten by cattle. Pastures could be maintained simply through careful use, preventing both under-grazing and overgrazing. During Roman times, the Roman army in Britain was a huge consumer of beef and cattle hides for leather.

Sheep came to Britain with the early farmers seven or eight millennia ago, but the Romans brought their own breeds to the island and promoted a wool processing industry in the south. Today sheep still thrive on the upland heaths and moors. Hardy creatures impervious to most cold and damp, sheep roam many rural landscapes of the British Isles today.

When Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain, probably as early as the late fourth century AD according to archaeological data, they developed a preference for pig products. Anglo-Saxons appeared to have a larger appetite for meat than most Britons. Although accustomed to keeping large numbers of cattle on their homeland farms, Anglo-Saxon immigrants chose to raise pigs in Britain, probably due to their relatively easy maintenance and faster reproductive rates. Pens full of pigs were preferred to a few cattle. Milk cows were valuable, but beef cattle were a luxury. To be sure, goats and sheep were also raised.

Plants and Agriculture

Late Roman Britons cultivated large quantities of rye, wheat, and buckwheat cereals as well as hemp. Wheat was the most desirable grain but also the hardest to grow so far north where temperatures were often cooler, summers shorter, and hours of sunlight fewer. Rye, an acceptable substitute for human consumption, and buckwheat both tolerated rainier and cooler conditions better. Buckwheat was not by itself favored for baking, but it could be mixed with wheat thereby stretching the availability of the scarcer commodity. Buckwheat was also used for animal feed.

Hemp was grown both for its strong fibers and the oil in its seeds. Rope, baskets and mats were woven from hemp. Hemp seeps consist nearly of one-third oil, and the oil was used in cooking and the making of paints, varnishes, soap, and possibly also as lamp fuel.

Climate Change

Geological, dendrochronological, and archaeological evidence points to wetter and therefore windier and cooler weather in Britain throughout much of the fifth century. Some productive lowland farming zones of the fourth century had to be abandoned in the following century due to extensive soil wetness. Crops rotted in the fields. This happened notably in the Somerset Levels, which became wetlands. Archaeologists have documented the movement of farm buildings to higher and higher ground as the generations passed.

Somerset Levels drainage canal

Today, the water table in the Somerset Levels is managed by drainage canals.

The study of pollens (palynology) can also reveal climate changes. Pollen grains can be incredibly durable when buried in the right kinds of sediments. The wetter climate in many areas of Britain led directly to a shift in local plant species favoring those better adapted to wetness and cooler temperatures. Recovery and identification of pollen grains, from soils dated to the fifth century, have revealed species shifts to wetter conditions.

By Dartmouth College Electron Microscope Facility [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pollen grains take a variety of remarkable shapes.

Global cooling beginning in the fifth century has also been indicated by the study of ice cores from Greenland and elsewhere. However, the most dramatic weather change occurred quite suddenly in the sixth century. In the years 535-536, the northern hemisphere suffered substantial cooling and crop failures. Irish annals (Inisfallen and Ulster) record a “failure of bread,” or loss of the grain harvest, and widespread references to droughts and other severe impacts indicate a memorable hardship. A scant five years later, in 541, the bubonic pandemic known as the Plague of Justinian struck, spreading from the Eastern empire through the Mediterranean as far as Britain via trade ships.

The changing environment made life difficult enough in Britain, but the departure of the Romans set more crises into play.

RESOURCES

Dark, Petra. The Environment of Britain in the First Millennium A.D. London: Gerald Duckworth and Co., Ltd, 2000.

Jones, Michael E. The End of Roman Britain. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

posted October 25, 2014

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