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Where did most people live during the Middle Ages?

Most medieval people lived in the countryside. Many people lived in villages, but the size and shape of these were forever changing. As we shall see, archaeologists speak of shrunken, moved and even deserted villages.

The formation of villages is linked to arable or mixed farming, whereas in areas of pastoral (animal) farming, farmsteads and isolated crofts are more common. Keeping a flock of sheep could be managed by one family alone and it was better that this family lived near to the animals and was able to move about with them. In Herefordshire we have a combination of these two types of settlement patterns. 

In medieval Wales bondmen, who were tied to their lord, lived in hamlets and worked his land. Freemen lived in dispersed homesteads. With the Welsh influence in Hereford we can find dispersed homesteads, especially in the western parts of the county.

We have to keep in mind that the Domesday Book of 1086 (Frank and Caroline Thorn (eds.), Domesday Book 17, Herefordshire, Phillimore, 1983) was a survey of estates and manors, not villages. Some of these may in fact have been villages in nature, but until more research is undertaken we simply do not know how many villages there were in medieval Herefordshire.

The Domesday Book mentions 308 separate places of settlement in Herefordshire, although in some parts of the county the Domesday survey was not complete. 45% of these do not appear on the modern map. Unlike many other counties, the distribution of Domesday names is not similar to those of the present-day villages. Sometimes a Domesday name is represented today by a farm or an individual house. Alcamestune, for example, has survived as Chanstone Court Farm in Vowchurch, and Gadredehope is now Gattertop in Hope under Dinmore. (H.C. Darby and I.B. Terrett (eds.), The Domesday Geography of Midland England, 1954)

[Original author: Toria Forsyth-Moser, 2002]