Beresford’s Lost Villages


Maurice Warwick Beresford (1920-2005) and Lost Villages

Maurice Beresford stands to the left of the photograph dressed in the honorary graduate robes of the University of Hull. Standing next to him is Donald Woodward, a member of the University of Hull.
Professor Maurice Beresford (left) on the occasion of receiving his honorary degree from the University of Hull, presented by Professor Donald Woodward (on right). Copyright University of Hull.

This is not the place to write another obituary of Maurice Warwick Beresford. Others have made a more fulsome and often very personal record of his life and work, both in tribute to him while he was alive, and then in his obituary (Kirkby 2000: Chartres 2006 in particular). But it is the time to place his contribution more widely in the context of the specific interest of this website. As Beresford explained for himself in his ‘Autobiographical Fragment’ with which he introduced his collection of essays Time and Place, his main career revolved around three major topics: deserted medieval villages; the medieval landscape; and the planted or new towns of the Middles Ages (Beresford 1985: ix). This website is concerned with the first of these themes and we think it is also true to say that most historians associate Maurice Beresford with that theme and particularly the cataloguing of English deserted medieval villages. In 2000 to mark his 80th year friends, former pupils and colleagues contributed to a volume of essays in a special number of the journal Northern History. In his opening essay Ernest Kirby, his colleague and friend of over 30 years, described the events in 1946 when Beresford had his Damascene moment and the realisation that the earthworks at Bittersby in Leicestershire were the remains of a former settlement and that this was most unlikely to have been an isolated event (Kirby 2000: 4).

Beresford was not the first to question the origin of these lumps and bumps in the landscape, but he was the first to suggest the magnitude and spread of their occurrence. The language of desertion was the early language employed, and one of the first alerts to this aspect of history can be attributed to W.G. Hoskins in an essay intended for publication in 1944-45 but which did not actually appear until 1946 (Hoskins 1946: 2). John Chartres in his obituary of his long standing friend and colleague Beresford tells us that Hoskins was engaged on the study of village desertion from 1938 (Chartres 2006). We can trace this subject back yet earlier to the identification of lost Domesday places by the Rev Canon Foster and then also by H.C. Darby in his pioneering work on Domesday (Glasscock 1992). But Hoskins and Beresford were most closely associated with lost or deserted settlements. There is an oft told story of field excursions in June 1948 which were led by Hoskins but with the young Beresford in close attendance (Dyer and Jones 2010, especially the chapter by Everson and Brown). This was perhaps the germination of what became a wider network of historians, geographers and archaeologists interested in settlement desertion or shrinkage and particularly in the recording of such settlements after field walking. It was followed in time by the use of ever more sophisticated techniques of detection beginning with aerial photography.

It was Beresford who became most closely associated with the exploration of ‘Lost’ or ‘Deserted’ villages. He used both forms of description: ‘deserted’ in an essay on Warwickshire for a largely academic audience; and for a general or non academic audience the description ‘lost’ (Beresford 1945 [published 1950] 1946a). The completion date for both of those essays was 1946, the same year that Hoskins’ delayed essay also appeared. In those early years of Beresford’s career one can see the thought processes begin to take shape with heavily referenced essays based on both ground and documentary evidence: from the history on the ground of lot meadows and ridge and furrow, both of which describe a past agricultural scene interrupted by villages which are now lost but are fossilised in the landscape as the ridge and furrow ended and the once village houses and streets began; to the evidence available in the documented church property surveys known as glebe terriers; and the final end of open field agriculture through enclosure. Beresford was interested initially in parliamentary enclosure rather than the earlier history of enclosure which we mostly associate with village desertion, but his attention soon gazed backwards at those earlier enclosures and hence to village desertion which was frequently but by no means always associated with depopulating enclosures, and the changed and changing agricultural emphasis from corn to horn, from arable production to sheep and wool production. All of this linked more widely into the extended history of villages and other settlements, and their adaptations through time (Beresford 1943; 1946b; 1949; 1951a; 1951b; 1951d; 1952; 1953; 1954a).

In time the ‘Lost Villages’ became the nomenclature of choice but not in any systematic or persistent fashion as the term ‘Deserted Village’ lingered on into the late 1960s. But ‘Lost Villages’ was used in his famous and wider study of England in the Geographical Journal, a prelude to his yet more groundbreaking 1954 book and other works (Beresford 1951c; 1954b; Hurst 1989: 213-24). The evidence base for timing village desertion or shrinkage owes a lot to surviving taxation returns. The frustration is that they did not occur frequently enough to offer always precise dates, but we work with them as closely as possible and Beresford demonstrated them to his audiences in 1955, following up with guides to their origin and use in the Amateur Historian, the forerunner of the journal the Local Historian. These guides appeared in the late 1950s when his book was now well established as a major source and discussion point about late medieval and early modern England (Beresford 1954c; 1958c; 1958d; 1958e; 1959a; 1959b; 1959c).

Today generally, and in this website particularly, we use the most modern forms of aerial photography available to help us locate the traces on the ground of lost or shrunken villages, but in his day Beresford had to rely on the aerial photographs that arose mainly from developments pioneered during the Second World War. Yet in spite of technological advances, the Google aerial views we and others use are not nearly as clear as the aerial photographs demonstrated by Beresford and others when the deliberate use of the oblique angle allowed shadow effects to bring out the nuances of the landscape. This use of aerial photography led to much important work and Beresford’s first major collaboration. It was with Kenneth St Joseph in their book on aerial surveying specifically for medieval England. The collaboration was published in 1958, but it arose from joint work dating back to 1951 (Beresford and St Joseph 1958). Moreover, this was not only a work about village desertion, or indeed at times it was only tangentially about village desertion, but it was a pioneering work about the medieval landscape from the air. There was to a degree what they called a ‘preoccupation with decay’ not least because decay was ever present in the landscape whenever and wherever it had not been refashioned by time and settlement expansion. It offered that important glimpse of a period and a place from the past locked in the present (Beresford and St Joseph 1958: v). Yet there are many such landscapes now, many of which would have been lost forever but for archaeological and other attempts at recording and preservation. Cross ploughing of ridge and furrow is one obvious way of obliterating the past but another is urban expansion. The development of Milton Keynes is but the most obvious example as it engulfed many villages and communities in Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and at the margins in Northamptonshire.

Another enduring collaboration followed in his work with J.G. Hurst, a forerunner of which had been an occasional paper in 1965 published by Leicester University Department of English Local History on which occasion Beresford and Hurst were accompanied by Keith Allison. It was yet another county study, this time of Oxfordshire, and a reversion to the language of desertion. It was quickly followed up by an equivalent study of Northamptonshire (Allison, Beresford and Hurst 1965; 1966).

But the most enduring feature of Beresford’s work on the ground, which was shared with John Hurst, was the first lost or deserted village to be excavated in quite the way that it was. This was Wharram Percy in the Yorkshire Wolds. Scholars and interested readers the World over who do not have personal experiences of the British countryside had and still have a glimpse of that countryside through the fame of this East Yorkshire village. See in this respect Beresford’s article in the American journal Scientific American (Beresford 1976). In Britain it sparked the interest of many would-be archaeologists and historical geographers, professionals and amateurs alike, with the annual and weekend excavations of the bumps and hollows close to the church at Wharram. It was through correspondence about Wharram that John Hurst had his first contact with Beresford in January 1952, and from which by the end of that year the Deserted Medieval Village Research Group (DMVRG) had been formed. The DMVRG became in turn the Medieval Village Research Group from 1970-86 and then amalgamated with the Moated Sites Research Group to become the Medieval Settlement Research Group in 1987 (Glasscock 1992: 5). In some respects the culmination of the Beresford/Hurst collaboration was the bringing together of the then known or suspected deserted or lost village sites through Deserted Medieval Villages. This was originally published in 1971, but we have used the 1989 edition. Added to the main section and its chapters on England by Beresford and Hurst there are also sections for Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The present electronic database uses the gazetteer which accompanies the volume and which was compiled by John Sheail, alphabetically arranged by county and including the known deserted medieval villages in 1968 (Beresford and Hurst 1989: 182-212). It was based largely on Beresford’s original work of 1954 with subsequent additions, especially by Robin Glasscock (Glasscock 1963). Fittingly the 1968 gazetteer provides the bedrock of this website.

While Beresford’s interests included much more besides, especially medieval and later urban history, and in particular for the city Leeds, the location of his longest residence and occupation, it might be that the story of English deserted villages will be his enduring contribution to both academic and popular history.

Allison, K.J., M.W. Beresford and J.G. Hurst 1965. The Deserted Villages of Oxfordshire. Leicester: University of Leicester Department of English Local History, Occasional Papers 17.

Allison, K.J., M.W. Beresford and J.G. Hurst 1966. Deserted Villages of Northamptonshire. Leicester: University of Leicester Department of English Local History, Occasional Papers 18.

Beresford, M.W. 1943. ‘Lot Acres’, Economic History Review 13: 74-79.

Beresford, M.W. 1946a. ‘Tracing Lost Villages’, Country Life 15 October 1946.

Beresford, M.W. 1946b. ‘Ridge and Furrow and the Open Fields’, Economic History Review 1: 34-46.

Beresford, M.W. 1949. ’Glebe Terriers and Open Field Leicestershire’, in W.G. Hoskins (ed.) Studies in Leicestershire Agrarian History: 77-126. Leicester: Leicestershire Archaeological Society 77-126.

Beresford, M.W. 1950. ‘The Deserted Villages of Warwickshire’, Transactions of the Birmingham and Midland Archaeological Society 66 (for 1945): 49-106.

Beresford, M.W. 1951a. ‘Glebe Terriers and Open Field Buckinghamshire’, Records of Buckinghamshire 15: 293-98.

Beresford, M.W. 1951b. ‘Glebe Terriers and Open Field Yorkshire’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 37: 325-68.

Beresford, M.W. 1951c. ‘The Lost Villages of Medieval England’, Geographical Journal, 117: 129-49.

Beresford, M.W. 1951d. ‘The Lost Villages of Yorkshire’, Part I, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 37.4: 474-91.

Beresford, M.W. 1952. ‘The Lost Villages of Yorkshire’, Part II, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 38.1: 44-70.

Beresford, M.W. 1953. ‘The Lost Villages of Yorkshire’, Part III, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 38.2: 215-40.

Beresford, M.W. 1954a. ‘The Lost Villages of Yorkshire’, Part IV, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 38.3: 280-309.

Beresford, M.W. 1954b. The Lost Villages of England. London: Lutterworth Press

Beresford, M.W. 1954c. ‘The Poll Tax and Census of Sheep 1549’, Agricultural History Review 2:15-29.

Beresford, M.W. 1958c ‘The Poll Taxes of 1377, 1379 and 1381’, Amateur Historian 3.7:271-8.

Beresford, M.W. 1958d. ‘The Lay Subsidies Part I, 1290-1334’, Amateur Historian 3.9: 325-8.

Beresford, M.W. 1958e. ‘Medieval Inquisitions and the Archaeologist’, Medieval Archaeology 2: 171-73.

Beresford, M.W. 1959a. ‘The Lay Subsidies Part II, after 1334’, Amateur Historian 4.3. 101-9.

Beresford, M.W. 1959b. ‘Fifteenths and Tenths of 1334’, in Elizabeth Crittall (ed), A History of Wiltshire, Vol. IV, 294-303, in the series R.B. Pugh, The Victoria County History of the Counties of England,. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Beresford, M.W. 1959c. ‘The Poll Tax Payers of 1377’, in Elizabeth Crittall (ed), A History of Wiltshire, Vol. IV, 304-313, in the series R.B. Pugh, The Victoria County History of the Counties of England,. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Beresford, M.W. 1976. ‘A Deserted Medieval Village in England’, Scientific American 235: 116-28.

Beresford, M.W. 1985. Time and Place: Collected Essays. London. Hambledon.

Beresford, M.W. and J.G. Hurst (eds) 1971, 1989 ed. Deserted Medieval Villages. Gloucester: Alan Sutton.

Beresford, M.W. and J.K.S. St Joseph 1958. Medieval England: an Aerial Survey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chartres, J.A. 2006. ‘Obituary, Maurice Warwick Beresford FBA, 1920-2005’, Agricultural History Review 54: 335-37.

Dyer, C. and R. Jones 2010. Deserted Villages Revisited.Hatfield:University of Hertford Press.

Everson, P. and G. Brown 2010. ‘Dr Hoskins I presume! Field visits in the footsteps of a pioneer’, in Dyer and Jones: 46-63.

Glasscock, R. 1963. The Distribution of Lay Wealth in S.E. England in the Early Fourteenth Century. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of London.

Glasscock, R. 1992. ‘Obituary: H.C Darby and the Early Years of the Deserted Medieval Village Research Group’. Medieval Settlement Research Group Annual Report 7: 51-52.

Hoskins, W.G. 1946. ‘The Deserted Villages of Leicestershire’, Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological Society 22: 241-64.

Hurst, J.G. 1989. ‘Select Bibliography’, in Beresford and Hurst: 213-24.

Kirby, E.A. 2000. ‘Maurice Beresford, the Man, Time and Place’, Northern History 37: 1-12.

Sheail, J. 1989. ‘County Gazetteers of Deserted Medieval Villages (known in 1968)’, in Beresford and and Hurst: 182-212.

St Joseph, J.K.S. 1958. ‘Preface’, in Beresford & St Joseph: v-viii.