Unit 11 Landscape

Section 1

Using the Modern English word search, look up the word ‘landscape’. What do you find? ... There are no results. This reminds us that words in one language do not always have direct equivalents in another. As we shall see in this unit, Old English had a much wider variety of terms for individual landscape features than Modern English. Nevertheless, no general term for landscape is on record.

Now look up the word ‘hill’. This will return 13 results. Choose the first heading, ‘hill, mountain’, and click on ‘View this section’. Scroll down and see how many of the words look familiar. You should be able to recognise several of them as the ancestors of Modern English words: dun > dune/down, hyll > hill, munt > mountain, cnoll > knoll, heafod > head, top > top, side > side, steap > steep, clif > cliff, weall > wall, ecg > edge, although they did not necessarily have exactly the same meanings in Old English.

Q1. How many Modern English words for ‘hill’ can you think of that do not come from Old English words included in this section? What does this suggest about the respective sizes of this area of the vocabulary in Old and Modern English? Answer Q1

Go back to the search results and choose the third heading, ‘hill’. Scroll down this section, and notice that hills may be classified according to size, shape and surface, with different terms for ‘high hill’, ‘round/conical hill’, and ‘sand-hill’. When you come to the sub-section ‘Other kinds of hill’, see if you can work out the meanings of the words listed there. One of them — hær — is flagged ‘q’, which is used for words whose existence is very doubtful. The other seven, however, are compounds, so we can work out the meanings of the individual elements. Some of them should be recognisable from their modern counterparts, but you will need to look up the others using the Old English word search. (You will not find mærc ‘boundary’, as it appears in the thesaurus under an alternative spelling mearc.)

Q2. What kinds of meanings are represented by the first elements of these compounds:
fox-hyll; mærc-cnoll; neah-dun; stan-beorg; wearg-beorg; winter-dun; wulf-hliþ?

Although such words would not be hyphenated in Old English, we have put hyphens between the parts here so that you can see how they are constructed. Once you have worked out what they mean, can you put them into semantic groups? Answer Q2

Q3. Cognates of OE wearg in other Germanic languages mean ‘wolf’, and it has been suggested that the Old English word may have had this meaning in addition to the recorded sense that you have found in the Thesaurus. Would this be a plausible interpretation of the first element of weargbeorg? Think about whether or not a compound ‘wolf hill’ would fit into any of the groups you have identified. Answer Q3

Q4. You were probably able to recognise both elements of winterdun without needing to look them up. However, the meaning of the compound still requires some thought. What do you think it refers to? Check if you are right by entering winterdun in the Old English word search. This will produce two results: one for its entry in this section, and one for an entry in another section of the Thesaurus classification, which will help to clarify the meaning. Which of your groups would you now put it in? Answer Q4

Look for other compounds with winter as the first element by going back to the Old English word search, selecting a Wildcard search, and clicking on ‘beginning-of-word’. Enter ‘winter’ in the search box and click on ‘Submit query’. 34 results will be returned, of which the first three are Hill winterdun, Stream winterburna, and Spring, fountain, well winterwille.

Q5. What do you think the compounds winterburna and winterwille mean? Click on ‘view this section’ and scroll down to each term to find out if you are right. Answer Q5

Notice that winterwille has the flag ‘o’ against it, while winterburna has the two flags ‘og’. These indicate that each word is recorded once only (o), and that the sole occurrence of winterburna is in a glossary (g). Many Old English words are recorded only rarely, making it difficult to assess whether they were in fact in general use. This applies particularly to compounds, which may sometimes have been formed for particular occasions rather than being fully established as independent words. It also applies to terms recorded in glossaries, which may represent attempts to produce equivalents for Latin words that — like ModE landscape — did not actually have corresponding terms in Old English.

Go back to the search menu, and click on ‘Flags indicating restricted occurrence’. Under flag ‘o’ ‘single recorded example’, click on ‘Split into major Thesaurus categories’. Choose the first category ‘The Physical World’, and click on ‘View category’. Choose ‘Earth, world’ and click on ‘View category’. You will find that there are over 400 words in this category, i.e. over 400 words in the semantic field of ‘Earth, world’ are recorded only once.

Q6. Using the flags g and p, repeat the exercise to find out whether there are more words in the category ‘Earth, world’ that are recorded only in glossaries, or more that are recorded only in poetry. Answer Q6

Q7. The compounds fifeldor ‘door of monsters’ (a river-name) and fiþerfledende ‘flowing in four streams’ are each recorded only once. One appears in a glossary, the other in a poem. Which do you think is which and why? Use the Old English word search to check if you are right. Answer Q7

Q8. Finally, look up the word ‘scenery’. What do you find? What does this suggest about the Anglo-Saxons’ attitude towards the physical world? Answer Q8

Section 2

The landscape of Anglo-Saxon England
The Anglo-Saxon countryside was much more heavily wooded and contained a higher proportion of wetland than at the present day, supporting varieties of flora and fauna that have since become extinct. The major roads were those dating from the Roman occupation of Britain. These were designated by the Old English word stræt ‘paved road’, as in Ermine Street and Watling Street, while for ordinary paths and tracks the Anglo-Saxons used the terms rad (literally ‘riding’) and weg, the ancestors of the words road and way. The walled towns built by the Romans were equally distinctive, and were designated by the Old English word ceaster ‘Roman town’, as in Chichester, Doncaster, Dorchester and Manchester.

Despite the importance of agriculture in the Anglo-Saxon economy (see Unit 9 Farming), there were fewer hedges and divisions of land than in modern farming complexes. This was because an open field system was in operation as opposed to the later system of enclosed fields. Detailed evidence of layout and organisation can only be uncovered through archaeological excavation; but the overall change in practice is reflected in the semantic development of the word feld > field from ‘open land’ in Old English to ‘enclosed plot’ in Modern English.

Uses of natural resources
The natural resources available were exploited extensively throughout the medieval period. Woodland was valuable as a source of timber, the main building material in Anglo-Saxon England, although stone was quarried for high-status buildings such as churches. Other uses of wood were for fuel, and for making a range of products from farming equipment to musical instruments. Seventh-century laws impose heavy financial penalties for cutting down trees, especially those large enough for thirty pigs to stand underneath — presumably a reference to oak trees, which produced acorns for fattening pigs in autumn. The theme recurs in laws issued by King Alfred the Great during the late ninth century, which add that if a workman was killed by a falling tree, his relatives were entitled to keep it as compensation.

Again, semantic changes reflect changes in the landscape. Although about 15 per cent of the country was still wooded by the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, some previously forested areas had been cleared, leading to a development in meaning of OE leah (surviving in poetry as lea) from ‘wood’ to ‘clearing in a wood’ and ‘meadow’, and of OE weald from ‘forest’ to ‘open high ground’. Some of the objects that could be made from wood are illustrated by recorded uses of OE beam ‘tree’ ( > beam (of wood)) to refer to a rune-stave, a gallows, or part of a plough. OE byme ‘trumpet’ is from the same stem. Light is also thrown on the uses of different types of trees, with the Old English word æsc ‘ash(wood)’ having the additional meanings ‘spear’ and ‘ship’.

Charter bounds
Detailed information on minor landscape features is preserved in charter bounds. These are descriptions of the boundaries of estates, included within charters (legal documents) recording land transactions. Their purpose was to define the area of the land concerned, and they did so by giving directions for a journey or ‘perambulation’ around the boundary, listing the landmarks along the way. The unique term weargbeorg discussed in Section 1 is recorded in the bounds of Littlebrook in Kent, granted to the bishopric of Rochester by King Æthelred in 995 AD. In the same bounds are references to a public road, a path, a pool, a stream, a mill-place, an enclosure in a marsh, a meadow, a dike, the bishop’s boundary and the king’s oak-wood, alongside the names of neighboring landholders who included a woman called Beorhtflæd and a man called Leofhere.

About a thousand Anglo-Saxon charter bounds survive, and they preserve a level of detail unparalleled in other sources. Indeed, where versions of the same bound survive from different dates, it is even possible to track small changes in the landscape such as the upgrading of a river-crossing from a ford to a bridge, or an increase in the area of land used for agriculture. A major project, ‘The Language of Landscape: Reading the Anglo-Saxon countryside’, has made this corpus of material more widely available. For more information, see: http://www.langscape.org.uk/

Some charter bounds can still be walked today, offering an enjoyable way of combining historical research with outdoor exercise. A parallel is the ‘riding of the marches’ that takes place in Scottish border towns such as Hawick. (The border was not fixed in Anglo-Saxon times: see Unit 2 Life in Anglo-Saxon England.) As you may realise from Section 1, ModE march here is a descendant of OE mærc ‘boundary’.

Many place-names in current use derive from the Anglo-Saxon period and originated as descriptions of the natural or man-made landscape. Examples include Alderholt (‘alder wood’) from OE holt ‘wood’, Benham (‘Benna’s river-meadow’) from OE hamm ‘river-meadow’, Bowood (‘bow wood’, i.e. bow-shaped, or a source of material for bows) from OE wudu ‘wood’, Broxbourne (‘badger’s stream’) from OE burna ‘stream’, Claydon (‘clayey hill’) from OE dun ‘hill’, Farnborough (‘hill growing with ferns’) from OE beorg ‘hill’, Millbrook (‘brook by a mill’) from OE broc ‘brook’, Nettlecombe (‘valley growing with nettles’) from OE cumb ‘valley’, Oxford (‘ford used by oxen’) from OE ford ‘ford’, Presthope (‘priests’ valley’) from OE hop ‘valley’, Ryhill (‘rye hill’) from OE hyll ‘hill’, Swinden (‘pig valley’) from OE denu ‘valley’ and Whitlow (‘white hill’) from OE hlaw ‘hill’. These testify to the appearance of the countryside at the time they were coined, as well as preserving information on vegetation, wildlife, ownership and farming practices.

Place-names also preserve linguistic evidence for the meaning of individual terms. This is an area that has been investigated in detail by Margaret Gelling and Ann Cole (2000). Their approach is based on fieldwork: visiting and photographing places named from the same term in order to identify common features. By this means, they have succeeded in establishing precisely differentiated meanings for words previously regarded as synonyms. Comparison of places named from the four hill-terms mentioned in the previous paragraph shows that dun characteristically designated a low hill with a level summit suitable for a settlement-site, while beorg was used for a smaller hill with a more rounded profile, hyll for a hill with a spiky outline, and hlaw for a tumulus or burial mound. Similarly, comparison of places named from valleys shows that denu represented the standard term for a main valley, while cumb referred to a shorter, broader valley shaped like a bowl, and hop to a remote enclosed place. As regards words for woods, wudu appears to have been the more general term and holt a specialized term often used of a single-species wood. Regional variations also emerge, with broc predominating in the north-west, burna in the south-east, and hamm found mostly in southern England.

Subtle distinctions in landscape features were important to the Anglo-Saxons, both during the early stages of settlement when the choice of a suitable site was crucial to survival, and later when the prosperity of established farming communities depended on the most effective use of land (see Unit 9 Farming). They are less relevant to modern society, and so this area of vocabulary is no longer as fully developed. Modern English has only general categories such as ‘hill’, ‘valley’ and ‘wood’ to cover the semantic fields more finely differentiated by terms such as dun, beorg, hlaw, hyll, denu, cumb, hop, wudu and holt. The distinctions can of course still be made through descriptions such as ‘low hill with a level summit suitable for a settlement-site’, but this is a long-winded way of expressing a concept that could be summed up in a single Old English word.

Section 3

Further reading

Cameron, Kenneth. 1996. English Place Names. new edn. London: Batsford.
Cole, Ann. 1994. ‘The Anglo-Saxon traveller’. Nomina 17, 7–18.
Faull, Margaret L. 1979. ‘Place-names and past landscapes’. Journal of the English
          Place-Name Society
11, 24–46.
Gelling, Margaret (1998). ‘Place-names and landscape’. The Uses of Place-Names,
          ed. Simon Taylor. Edinburgh: Scottish Cultural Press, 75–100.
Gelling, Margaret and Ann Cole. 2000. The Landscape of Place-Names. Stamford:
          Shaun Tyas.
Hall, David. 1988. ‘The late Saxon countryside: villages and their fields’. Anglo-Saxon
, ed. Della Hooke. Oxford: Blackwell, 99–122.
Higham, Nicholas J. and Martin J. Ryan, eds. 2011. Place-Names, Language and the Anglo-Saxon Landscape. Woodbridge: Boydell.
Hill, David. 1981. An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Blackwell.
Hooke, Della. 1992. ‘Charters and the landscape’. Nomina 15, 75–96.
Hooke, Della. 1998. The Landscape of Anglo-Saxon England. London: Leicester
          University Press.
Hooke, Della and Simon Burnell, eds. 1995. Landscape and Settlement in Britain
          AD 400–1066
. Exeter: Exeter University Press.
Jones, Richard and Sarah Semple, eds. 2012. Sense of Place in Anglo-Saxon England. Donington: Shaun Tyas.
Rackham, Oliver. 1986. The History of the Countryside. London: Dent.


Language of Landscape Project

Whittlewood Project

Mapping Anglo-Saxon Charters Project

Landscape Research Centre (includes Heslerton, an important AS village site
in its landscape context)

Ordnance Survey guides to origins of place-names in Scotland and Wales (but not England): https://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/resources/historical-map-resources/origins-of-placenames.html

Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland Ireland (click on ‘Photos’ for photographs of landscape features illustrating place-name elements, taken by Margaret Gelling and Ann Cole as part of their research)

English Place-Name Society

Ideas for essays or projects

1. Look at a section of TOE relating to one or more aspects of the landscape, such as ‘Marsh’, ‘Valley’ or ‘River’. Notice which concepts are heavily lexicalized, suggesting importance, and which are now obsolete. Use the data as the basis for an essay on EITHER the relationship between language and culture OR changes and developments in language from Old English to Modern English.

2. Look at a section of TOE relating to one or more aspects of the landscape, such as ‘Land’ or ‘Sea/ocean’. Pay particular attention to the use of the three flags, g, o, p. Use the data as the basis for an essay on EITHER the landscape of Old English poetry OR problems in using written sources as evidence for Old English.

3. Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of different types of evidence for the Anglo-Saxon landscape.

4. Write an essay on changes in the English landscape from Anglo-Saxon times to the present day.

5. Write an essay on changes in attitude towards the English landscape from Anglo-Saxon times to the present day.