The emergence of concentrated settlements in medieval Western Europe: explanatory frameworks in the historiography
By Daniel R. Curtis
Canadian Journal of History, Vol.48: 2 (2013)
Abstract: There is now a general scholarly consensus that the concentration of rural people into settlements in Western Europe (as opposed to dispersed or scattered habitations across the countryside) occurred in various stages between the eighth and twelfth centuries, though with regional divergences in precise timing, speed, formation, and intensity. What is clear from the literature is that a “one-size fits all” model for settlement development across Western Europe is not possible. Concentrated settlements appeared in certain parts of Europe for different reasons. This article discusses the strengths and limitations of four of the most influential frameworks for explaining patterns of medieval settlement concentration and their relation to social and economic change. The frameworks under analysis emphasize, respectively, power, coercion and lordship; communalism and territorial formalization; field-systems and resource-management; and urbanization and market-integration.
Introduction: The collapse of the economic and political structures connected to the Western Roman Empire led to a population nadir in many parts of Western Europe by the sixth and seventh centuries. Although recent literature has warned against exaggerating the extent of this decline, it is widely accepted that many regions experienced contraction in settlement in the centuries directly after the end of the Roman period. Land went out of cultivation and formerly wooded areas regained their trees. Many settlements were totally abandoned, including towns. Some scholars have noted for certain regions that a contracted and low-level population remained in place over a number of centuries — for example all the way up to the eleventh century in Northern Apulia in Southern Italy.
After the settlement decline connected to the demise of the Western Roman Empire, the view that is currently most widely disseminated is that the concentration of rural people into villages in Western Europe (as opposed to dispersed or scattered habitations across the countryside), occurred across various stages between the eighth and twelfth centuries. The shift in settlement to new, potentially more fertile sites, may have begun in earnest from 700 onwards. The actual chronology of this process varied according to region, with the formation of concentrated settlements beginning earlier in some areas of Western Europe and later in others. In some areas settlement concentration took the form of nucleated villages (people compacted around a main focal point). In other areas houses were laid out in a linear row perhaps along a dike, main street, or waterway, while elsewhere the concentration of habitation seemed to come together from multiple foci. It is important to note that this process did not necessarily predicate higher population densities in the concentrated settlement areas (in comparison to the dispersed or isolated settlement areas) but instead a rearrangement of the settlement structure.