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Medieval Cornwall

Medieval Cornwall


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Medieval Cornwall

Ann Preston-Jones and Peter Rose

Cornish Archaeology, No. 25 (1986)

Introduction: For the purposes of this paper, which covers the period from the 5th to 16th centuries, the following terminology has been followed: early medieval — 5th to 11th centuries; later medieval — late 11th to mid 16th century. In some instances it has also proved useful to apply post-Roman to the 5th to 7th centuries, and late medieval to the 15th to mid 16th centuries.

Though of course there are considerable changes over the period it is best treated as a unity. The framework of the later medieval period, which underpins much of the organisation of the Cornish countryside today, has its foundations very firmly in the early medieval period. Early medieval society and settlement in turn had their roots in the Roman period, but the 5th to 7th centuries does genuinely appear to be a time of changes. Firstly, Christianity was adopted. Many of today’s parish churches are on sites that have been in use for Christian worship since this period; and most are on sites established at some date before the Norman conquest.

Second, there appears to have been a change in the form of settlement: the rounds went out of use and unenclosed farms and hamlets, including the ubiquitous tre settlements, became the norm, forming the pattern of dispersed settlement that is so much a feature of Cornwall. Meanwhile, maritime contact between Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and Brittany intensified with Welsh/Irish immigration from Wales and emigrations to Brittany. The legendary peregrinations of saints are another aspect of this fluidity and Cornwall’s later medieval trading links with these countries could be seen as part of this same long tradition.

Cornwall in the 11th to 14th centuries was in many ways typical of other parts of Britain. Economic and population growth, leading to pressure on available resources, can be seen in the colonisation of areas like Bodmin Moor, in the development of sub-divided arable, and in the growth of a large number of small towns. The Norman Conquest marks a change in direction in Cornwall’s urban development. Earlier markets were mostly associated with important ecclesiastical centres; later ones with seigneurial enterprise. Unlike other areas Cornwall had wider scope for economic expansion. Trade, fishing, quarrying, the cloth industry and especially the tin industry all expanded in this period, developing the diverse economic and social base which was so characteristic of Cornwall’s later medieval and subsequent history. Cornwall’s Industrial Revolution merely represents an intensification of processes that had been established for centuries.


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