Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Francis Pryor - The Making of the British Landscape

The British landscape is far from natural. Almost nothing that we see as our cars and trains cross the countryside is natural in a truely historic sense. Trees and hedges have been planted, farms and fields laid out. Roads planned and forests cleared. By arguing that the landscape around the islands of cities on the British Isles is not natural, Francis Pryor is following the lead of Oliver Rackham's interesting book The History of the Countryside, which I reviewed here.

However, Francis Pryor takes this much further. While Rackham acknowledges the human actions that have created the countryside, Pryor puts human activity at the centre of the story. No mere list of plants, animals and types of forest or waterway for Pryor. Instead his archaeologist approach is to try and understand why and how our ancestors changed the natural world. Pryor doesn't deny the importance of other environmental changes, but argues that these are secondary to the influence of human beings.

At the heart of much of Pryor's other books is a sense of continuity. This continuity between ancient life and more modern times occassionaly seems a bit laboured. But in the case of the countryside, Pryor shows how the world outside our windows is in many cases, truely ancient. We all learnt at school that modern roads often follow the routes of Roman Roads. But those Roman routes often took the same paths as far more ancient pathways. Trading routes of Bronze and Iron Age peoples. Similarly with the edges of agricultural areas, boundaries often stretch back far in time.

The major transformation of the British Landscape took place thousands of years ago - with the clearance of the forests that spread following the last iceage. These were cleared as long ago as 3000 BCE. The ancients transformed the landscape. Even today the bumps and ditches can hide significant ancient activites.

Pryor's story takes us through the changes of Roman times, though here again he is keen to stress that life for the majority of people on these Islands changed little, before and after the invasion. Continuity, particularly in rural life was the reality. Though the Roman's brought with them much, particularly tools and implements that had significant impacts of ancient life. Then we move onto the changes in Medieval times, in a particularly fascinating chapter Pryor takes us through the detailed agricultural evidence that demonstrates the planning that went into the creation of open field or stripping farming schemes in parts of Britain.

Pryor is keen to argue against the notion of revolution. He doesn't appear to like the term, and clearly thinks that when it is applied to agriculture and industry it is particularly inappropriate. But I think he's mistaken. Revolutions are not the short, brief affairs beloved of some historians. They are long drawn out events that bring fundamental change, but aren't always obvious at the time. Take events in Egypt at the moment. The fall of Mubarak was merely the first stage in a much larger revolutionary story.

It would be wrong to characterise agricultural revolutions as sudden events. Though changes could be sudden - imagine the impact of a new type of plough when it arrives in a village for the first time. But the introduction of Open Field systems or their enclosure later on, led to fundamental changes, not just in agriculture, but in terms of property relations, life in the cities and so on. These are revolutions in the truest sense of the word.

That criticism aside, there is lots here of those whose interest are the changes that took place in Britain over the centuries. Because Pryor doesn't pretend that the landscape is only trees, fields and forests, he discusses such interesting topics as the impact of landscape gardening in country houses, the arrival of tourism in the Lake District or the planning of new towns in post World War II Britain.

Once again Francis Pryor has written a fascinating work of history, that will inspire and excite everyone with an interest in social history, it deserves a wide readership.

Related Reviews

Pryor - Britain AD
Pryor - Britain in the Middle Ages
Britain BC

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