Beresford’s Lost Villages


The low remaining walls of Hound Tor village on Dartmoor with a view across the valley.
One of the longhouses at Hound Tor, Devon.

The phenomenon of desertion in the medieval landscape has been studied in earnest in this country since the 1940s. Since this time there have been changes of nomenclature, changes in focus as well as in-depth study and investigation of documentary and archaeological sources. This section of the website explores what is meant by deserted medieval village, or DMV for short, a brief history of their study, a look at causes of desertion, a section on terminology, and finally a list of publications on deserted medieval settlements and key sites. A number of summaries have already been published on the development of the study of deserted settlements and these have been referred to here and readers are pointed towards these for a fuller exploration of the topic. In 1971, Beresford and Hurst summarise the work on deserted settlements up to 1968, looking at both the historical and archaeological work (Beresford and Hurst 1971). In the annual reports of the Deserted Medieval Village Research Group and its successors there have been several reviews of work at key points in its development (Beresford et al. 1980, Hurst 1986, Gardiner 2006). In 2011, a review of settlement research was undertaken on a large scale (Christie and Stamper 2012). The essays in this volume include one by Dyer and Everson (2012) which reviews settlement investigation from 1880 to 2010.

What is a deserted medieval village?

As outlined below, gradually a number of settlements have been identified from a combination of archaeological and historical evidence, which show that during the medieval period, a population lived together in one particular area, but at some point since this population has disappeared and the settlement is no longer a coherent group of dwellings. The evidence may simply be medieval taxation documents recording payments, it may be a church standing isolated in the midst of agricultural fields, or may be the tell-tale humps and bumps outlining previous building locations. Of course these may not signify a concentrated, nucleated village as we understand it today or a complete desertion. It may be indicating a dispersed settlement of small hamlets or farms, it may never have been a settlement at all, or it may be evidence of settlements that have moved location or shrunken in size, but still exist. This website explores all of these sites and the title that is now most often used is deserted settlement to include the full range of possibilities. For information on the causes of desertion see the following page of this website. For information of the different types of settlement patterns visit the terminology page.

Development of the study of deserted settlements

Initial identification

The phenomena of deserted medieval villages (DMVs) was first discussed in historical and archaeological circles in 1940s. However it was commented on much earlier. Antiquarian writers spoke of settlements that had been depopulated by landowners and in the 1770 poem, Oliver Goldsmith, recounts the fate of one village that has been depopulated. From the eighteenth century through to the final acceptance of deserted settlements in the 1950s, there has been a reluctance to acknowledge the presence of abandon settlements.

In his poem The Deserted Village, Goldsmith laments the loss of village life and the destruction of settlements. Goldsmith’s views were not held by all contemporaries. Even in his dedication of the poem to Joshua Reynolds he acknowledges critics who have claimed ‘the depopulation it deplores is no where to be seen, and the disorders it laments are only to be found in the poet’s own imagination’ (Goldsmith 1770: vi). He goes on to say ‘I sincerely believe what I have written; that I have taken all possible pains, in my country excursions, for these four or five years past, to be certain of what I alledge’ (Goldsmith 1770: vi). Some commentators at the time did not follow the line suggested by Goldsmith that there was massive rural depopulation, but instead that, in essence a changing settlement pattern could be seen with dispersal of settlement (Mitchell 2006: 124). This is echoed in later years with a number of critics at the time of Beresford’s 1954 publication The Lost Villages of England (see below).

The understanding of desertion was one thing, but it took a while for the recognition that the physical remains represented medieval settlement. The earliest excavations to reach published form were those at Woodperry in Oxfordshire (Wilson 1846). Here the excavations revealed part of the church and churchyard but also a number of buildings. Although it was clear that the reasons for excavating in the area were to look for the lost village and church, some of the reporting of the finds shows the preoccupation with early periods. The results published in Archaeologia, reported the Roman Antiquities discovered at Woodperry in Oxfordshire with only a brief mention of the settlement (Wilson 1847). Another early excavation of a deserted medieval site was that at Trewortha in Cornwall in 1891-2 by Rev. S. Baring Gould (1895a, 1895b). Here he excavated a number of long houses in a complex landscape of prehistoric and medieval field systems and settlements. He revealed the walls and internal features of this settlement, but could not date it, with the only suggestion being post-Roman conquest. To help explain the structures and their use he drew parallels with published information on Eskimo communities, as well as describing one of the buildings as a Council Chamber (1895b). This aside, his plan of the settlement and excavated remains must be admired for their detail, even if they may be a little fanciful. Slowly the connection between features on the ground and once present villages was being made. In 1908, Hadrian Allcroft notes ‘there survive not a few sites of such deserted villages’ and proposes a range of reasons for desertion (Allcroft 1908: 551). These include plague, fire and forced eviction. He also notes that ‘the characteristic of these sites is the rude rectangularity of the individual foundation-blocks and of the streets’ (Allcroft 1908: 553).

The Ordnance Survey included antiquities on the maps from its beginnings and in the 1840s with the production of 6-inch maps, more detailed surveys could be carried out and this included deserted settlement and the recording of Wharram Percy on the first edition county map published in 1854.The first aerial photograph of a deserted village was published by O.S.G. Crawford in 1925 of the site at Gainsthorpe in Lincolnshire (Gerrard 2003: 81). This was another step along the road of identifying the humps and bumps in fields as medieval and not of the more remote past. In publishing the picture, taken initially at the suggestion of the presence of a Roman camp, Crawford draws on a seventeenth-century account of the site by Abraham de la Pryme (Crawford 1925). In 1697 De la Pryme gives the account of the remains of the settlement, describes foundations of buildings, streets and a possible location of a church. For seventeenth-century antiquarians the connection between humps and bumps was easy to make, perhaps as the desertions had happened in the recent past and folk memory maintained the knowledge of the settlement. He recounts local tales that the town was ‘exceeding infamous for robberys, and that nobody inhabited there but thieves; and that the country haveing for a long while endur’d all their villanys, they at last, when they could suffer them no longer, riss with one consent, and pulld the same down about their ears’ (De le Pryme 1870: 127-128). He does continue suggesting that a more likely explanation was ‘the town has been eaten up with time, poverty, and pasturage’ (De le Pryme 1870: 128).

County lists of deserted settlements slowly started to appear – with one of the first being that for Lincolnshire published by Foster and Longley (1924). It appears in a transcription of the Domesday Book for the county as appendices of extinct villages and other forgotten places. As a forerunner to later lists – here places mentioned in medieval documents but since disappeared are listed with map references and small descriptions of the documentary evidence and occasionally reasons for desertion and evidence on the ground (Foster and Longley 1924: xlvii-lxxii, lxxxvi-lxxxvii).

Excavations started to increase with those at Great Beere in Devon conducted between 1938-39, which is an excellent example of early scientific approach (Jope and Threlfall 1958). By the 1940s regional studies of deserted settlement were undertaken more widely but still on a small scale. One of the first county-based studies was that of Leicestershire by W.G. Hoskins. This was initially published in 1945 in the Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological Society, and later revised and republished in his Essays in Leicestershire History in 1950 (Hoskins 1950). In the forward to this revised publication he states he ‘believe[s] may be the first lengthy study of such sites in any county’ (Hoskins 1950: vi). One of his particular revisions of this work was the addition of aerial photographs which had become available in the meantime. He also provides a helpful guide to those wishing to pursue deserted villages elsewhere.

In 1948 a number of events saw the ‘genesis’ of medieval archaeology (Gerrard 2003: 103-104), and particularly the development of deserted medieval village studies. These events included a seminar organised by Michael Postan in Cambridge, at which both William Hoskins and Maurice Beresford spoke about their recent research on deserted settlement. On the same day, unbeknownst to this gathering, Kenneth St Joseph was taking aerial photographs of village earthworks. Then over the next eight days, both Beresford and St Joseph independently came over the remains of Wharram Percy (Gerrard 2003: 103).

From these early starts, the 1950s saw the rapid expansion of the study of deserted settlements, even if not everybody was convinced at first. In 1954 Maurice Beresford published the extensive Lost Villages of England – the first attempt at trying to locate as many of these deserted villages as possible.

Beresford’s Lost Villages

To us in the modern day, the concept explored by Beresford in his 1954 Lost Villages of England are well established, rehearsed and although debated, very much accepted. It is therefore hard for us to understand, how in many ways he stuck his head above the parapet with the publication and identification of medieval desertion. In his own review of historical research in 1971, he recalls the scepticism of the peer reviewer of the book before publication. The hype surrounding the book even resulted in one historian offering the following advice: ‘I feel impelled to advise you to consider whether or not you should really go ahead with such a book, and to weigh it very carefully…’ (Beresford 1971: 3). But publish he did. This 400 page book set the scene for the study of deserted settlement over the next fifty years and was the touch paper that set alight life-long collaborations. It has been described as ‘one of those rare books that changed an academic subject, or rather invented a new subject for investigation and debate’ (Dyer 1998: xii). As well as setting the scene, exploring the sources that can be used in investigating sites and the background to on–going work, this book is the first attempt at a country-wide gazetteer of lost villages. It is not presented as complete, it is very much proposed as a work in progress. Not all counties are covered. In some cases more by chance than lack of academic research. Beresford recalls how Cornwall does not appear in the gazetteer as the page fell down the back of the piano and wasn’t discovered until 1958! (Beresford 1971: 3). After this publication Beresford refrains from using the term lost in some of his future work ‘mainly under the influence of logical critics who argue that villages could not really be “lost” if I had found them’ (Beresford 1971: 4).

Deserted Medieval Village Research Group – Medieval Village Research Group –Medieval Settlements Research Group

In 1952, after late night discussions at Wharram Percy between John Hurst and Maurice Beresford the Deserted Medieval Village Research Group was formed, which would act as a platform for further study of desertion by people from a range of disciplines. One role of the group was the compilation of county lists of deserted sites. This took as its basis the list of 1353 sites that Beresford had provided in his Lost Villages of England in 1954. Through a network of county correspondents and the tireless visits of Maurice Beresford and John Hurst, this list was added to and amended, with the publishing of all sites identified up to 1968 (2263) in Deserted Medieval Villages in 1971 (Beresford et al. 1980, Sheail 1971). After 1970 the regular meetings to add settlements to the list became less frequent and a backlog built up, so the list was supplemented by those produced by county correspondents. This increased the number of settlements to 2813 by 1977 and a new distribution map drawn, but no consolidated list ever published (Beresford et al. 1980). This continued work showed that counties originally with few deserted sites, where gradually appearing on the distribution map (Aston 1985). As well as compiling lists of sites, the group also played a part in the preservation of sites and the emergency recording of those under threat. This was partly due to John Hurst’s day job at the Ministry of Works and with particular oversight of budgets and funding allocation.

Over this period the study of medieval settlement had grown. This included a growth in the excavations at deserted sites and the development of medieval archaeology as a separate discipline, but also a realisation that surviving settlement was also worth studying. The word deserted was dropped from the title of the research group in 1971 to emphasise this interest in all types of settlements, not just those that were deserted (Beresford et al. 1980). This had restricted some of the research avenues that had emerged in the intervening years, particularly looking at issues of settlement development.

By the 1980s people were questioning the title of deserted medieval village. Mick Aston suggested in fact very few settlements were totally deserted, many more shrunken or still containing population in the form of scattered farms. Also most were not deserted in the medieval period but much later, and had origins further back in time. Yes they were present in the medieval period, but were neither medieval in origin or disappearance. Finally many were not in fact villages, but hamlets, farmsteads and other forms of settlement. This resulted in the questioning of all elements of the DMV label (Aston 1985: 57, Dyer and Jones 2010: xviii).

In 1986 a merger with the Moated Sites Research Group resulted in a further name change to the Medieval Settlement Research Group. The removal of the term village – one that was always laden with issues regarding size and differential settlement pattern across the country, acknowledged that you cannot only study deserted, but also extant settlements. During the 1990s more forms of specialist settlement were identified (Rippon 2002: 12). Focus has also shifted to looking at the agency involved in change and taking the power from the hands of the landowners and placing more choice and movement in the hands of the general populace (e.g. Dyer 2010).

Interest in medieval settlement is still strong. But focus is wide – all types of settlements, all types of evidence – those that became deserted and those that survived. This does not play down or demote the study of desertion to the past – it places it at the centre of a vibrant academic pursuit. In the same way that ‘deserted’ was removed from the title as work shifted to medieval settlement as a whole, the focus must still include the full range of evidence and deserted settlements are key to this understanding.

Future study

With the study of desertion still relevant today, and with over 60 years since Lost Villages of England was published, are we any nearer at having a full picture of desertion across the country? In 1971 there were several counties listed that needed further study, and here and in all other counties, the records of deserted settlement have altered over time. One reason for an increase in recorded deserted settlement has been the inclusion of other forms of settlement such as hamlets and farmsteads. For example Jones suggests the increase of identified sites in Norfok by 33% can be largely accounted for by the inclusion of other types of settlement (Jones 2010: 11). Also the wide range of fieldwork projects, whether research, managerial or commercial have resulted in many areas of settlement, on many occasions not recorded in the documentary evidence, increasing the list of possible deserted settlements. However since the early days of Beresford and Hurst travelling the country, checking reported sites and applying strict criteria to each one, we have lost the quality control. There has been no one attempt at oversight to compare, contrast and collaborate on a national list. The Medieval Settlement Research Group closed its archive in 1986 when the remit of the group expanded and the standardised approach of Beresford and Hurst could not continue after their retirement.  Hopefully this website can start to provide a more consistent approach to the current classifications.

The next section of this website explores issues of terminology – looking at the idea of village and hamlet, nucleated and dispersed as well as the form of settlement remains.


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Aston, M. 1985. Interpreting the Landscape. London: Batsford.

Baring-Gould, S. 1895a. ‘An Ancient Settlement of Trewortha Marsh’, Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall 11: 57-70.

Baring-Gould, S. 1895b. ‘Ancient Settlement of Trewortha’, Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall 11: 289-90.

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