BY THE THIRTEENTH CENTURY, THE FERTILE RIVER valleys of Huntingdonshire, along with most of the best farmlands of England, had been continuously inhabited for at least five thousand years. The story of their occupation over these five millennia is the story of a series of incursions of migrating or invading peoples, in varying numbers, affecting the population at different levels and in different degrees.1
Native Paleolithic hunting communities were displaced in about 2000 B.C. by newcomers from the Continent who planted crops, founding the first British agricultural communities. Immigrants in the Bronze and Iron Ages expanded the area of settlement, making inroads into the poorer soils of the uplands and forested areas.
By the first century A.D. a modest agricultural surplus created a trickle of export trade with Roman Gaul, possibly contributing to the somewhat undermotivated Roman decision (A.D. 43) to send an army across the Channel to annex Britain. The network of symmetrical, square-cornered fortifications built by the legionaries provided local security and stimulated economic life, which was further assisted by newly built Roman roads, canals, and towns.
One road, later named Ermine Street, ran north from London to York. At the point where it crossed the River Nene a city called Durobrivae was built. Many kilns from the Roman period found in the area indicate a flourishing pottery industry. Villas dotting the neighboring countryside marketed their produce in the city. At one time it was thought that such villas belonged to Roman officials; now it is established that most belonged to a native class of Romanized nobles. Far more numerous were the farmsteads, mostly isolated, some huddled in small, probably kinship, groupings.2
Further traces of Roman agriculture have been found in Huntingdonshire along the edge of the fens as well as on the River Ouse. Across the border in Bedfordshire, on the River Ivel, aerial photographs show patterns of Roman field systems. The rich farmlands that bordered the fens became chief providers of grain for the legions in the north of England, transported through the fenland rivers and Roman-built canals.3
As multiple problems began to overwhelm the Roman Empire,
Reconstruction of houses on site of Anglo-Saxon settlement (c. A.D. 500) at West Stow (Suffolk). Left background, sunken hut.
West Stow reconstruction. Round structure in foreground is poultry house.
the legions were withdrawn from Britain (A.D. 410). Trade and the towns fostered by it declined, the roads fell into disuse, and the new cities shrank or, like Durobrivae, disappeared.
Later in the fifth century a new set of uninvited foreigners came to stay. In the violent early phase of the invasion, in the south of England, the Anglo-Saxons wiped out native populations and replaced them with their own settlements, creating a complete break with the past, and leaving the old Romano-British sites, as in Wessex and Sussex, “a maze of grass-covered mounds.”4 In the later stages, as the Anglo-Saxons advanced to the north and west, the occupation was more peaceful, with the newcomers tilling the soil alongside their British neighbors.5 Scholars believe that some of the Romano-British agricultural patterns survived into the Middle Ages, particularly in the north of England, where groups of estates administered as a single unit, the “multiple estate,” flourished.6
West Stow reconstruction.
In the seventh century the newly melded “English” population converted to Christianity. In what historians have entitled England’s “Saxon” period, little other change occurred except perhaps a partial loss of Roman technology. The English agriculturalists cultivated the cereal grains and herded the animals that their Roman, Iron Age, and Neolithic forebears had known. Pigs, which could largely support themselves by foraging in the woods, were the most numerous livestock. Cows were kept mainly to breed oxen for the plow team; sheep and goats were the milk and cheese producers. Barley was the favored crop, ground up for baking or boiling or converted to malt—“the Anglo-Saxons consumed beer on an oceanic scale,” notes H. P. R. Finberg.7
A new wave of invasion was heralded by a piratical Danish raid in 793. In the following century the Danes came to stay. The contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded the landing in East Anglia in 865 of a “great heathen army” which the following year advanced north and west, to Nottingham and York. In 876, Viking leader Healdene “shared out the land of the Northumbrians, and [the Danes] proceeded to plow land to support themselves.” In 877, “the Danish army went away into Mercia, and shared out some of it, and gave some to Ceowulf,” a native thegn, or lord.8 The territory the Danes occupied included the future Huntingdonshire. At first few in numbers, the Danish warriors were supplemented by relatives from Denmark and also by contingents from Norway and Frisia.
Late in the tenth century Alfred the Great of Wessex (849-899)
Saxon church of St. Laurence, Bradford-on-Avon (Wiltshire), founded by St. Aldhelm (d. A.D. 709).
organized a successful resistance to the Danes but was forced to conclude a peace which left them in possession of most of eastern England.
The Danes having converted to Christianity, a number of monasteries were founded in Danish England. In about 970, St. Oswald, archbishop of York, and Aethelwin, ealdorman (royal official) of East Anglia, donated the land on which Ramsey Abbey was built, a wooded island in Ramsey Mere on which Aethelwin had a hunting lodge.
Between the founding and their deaths in 992, Oswald and Aethelwin donated their own hereditary holdings to the abbey, added land obtained by purchase and exchange, and solicited donations from others, until the abbey held a large block of territory fanning out from the island of Ramsey through Huntingdonshire and three adjacent counties.9
A property that was given to the abbey a few years after the death of the founders was the manor and village of Elton. The origin of the name of the settlement that had grown up near the site of vanished Durobrivae is conjectural. The suffix tun or ton (fence or enclosure in Anglo-Saxon) had broadened its meaning to become “homestead” and finally “collection of homesteads,” or “village”; the suffix inga, combined with a personal name, indicated the followers or kinsmen of a leader. Originally spelled “Aethelington” or “Ailington,” Elton’s name has been explained as either “Ella’s village,” or “the village of the Aethelings,” or “the village of Aethelheah’s people.”10
The benefactor who donated Elton to the abbey was a prelate named Aetheric, who was among the first students educated at Ramsey. During his school days, Aetheric and three other boys as a prank tried to ring the great bell in the west tower and broke its rim. The monks angrily urged punishment, but the abbot declared that since the boys were well-born, they would probably repay the abbey a hundred times when they “arrived at the age of maturity.”11
The Ramsey Abbey chronicler then relates Aetheric’s fulfillment of the prophecy. Elton was by now (early eleventh century) a flourishing village with an Anglo-Saxon lord; when he died,
his widow married a Danish noble named Dacus. In 1017 Aetheric, now bishop of Dorchester, joined an escort traveling with King Cnut “to the ends of the kingdom.” When the party stopped to spend the night in Nassington, a few miles northwest of Elton, Aetheric and four of the king’s secretaries were lodged at Elton in Dacus’s manor house.
In the course of a festive evening, Dacus talked expansively of the cattle and sheep that grazed his meadows, the plows that cultivated his fields, and the rents the village paid him. Aetheric remarked that he would like to buy such a manor. Dacus had no intention of selling, but told his guest, “If tomorrow at dawn you give me fifty golden marks, I will turn the village over to you.” The bishop called on the king’s secretaries to witness the offer and asked if Dacus’s wife agreed to it. The wife gave her assent. Host and guests retired, but Aetheric mounted a horse and rode to Nassington, where he found the king playing chess “to relieve the tedium of the long night.” Cnut listened sympathetically and ordered a quantity of gold to be sent to Elton. At dawn Aetheric wakened Dacus and triumphantly presented him with the money. Dacus tried to renege, on the grounds that a contract damaging to an heir—his wife—was invalid. But the witnesses swore that the woman had ratified the pact, and when the dispute was submitted to the king, Cnut pronounced in favor of Aetheric. The wife made a last protest, that the village’s two mills were not included in the sale and merited another two golden marks, but her claim was rejected. Packing their furniture and belongings, the outwitted couple departed with their household and their animals, leaving “bare walls” to the new lord.
What Aetheric had initially intended to do with his acquisition we are not told, but he soon found a use for it. Obtaining the king’s permission, he left the retinue and visited Ramsey. There, to his dismay, he found the monastery in a turmoil. The current abbot had neglected the discipline of the monks and allowed them to fall into “error” (the chronicler gives no details). Aetheric entered the chapter “threatening and roaring and brandishing anathema unless they amended their ways.” The monks “threw themselves at his feet with tearful prayers.” In reward for their repentance, Aetheric assigned them the village of Elton “in perpetuity for their sustenance.”12 Thus Elton came to belong to Ramsey Abbey as one of its “conventual” or “home” manors, designed for the monks’ support.
Danish political power ceased in England in 1042, but the Danish presence survived in many details of language and custom. Danish suffixes—thorpe (hamlet), toft (homestead), holm (water meadow)—were common in the Elton neighborhood, including the names of Elton’s own meadows and field divisions. The local administrative area was Norman (Northman) Cross Hundred, after a cross that stood on Ermine Street in the center of the hundred (district), probably marking the site where the hundred court met in the open air. The hundred was a division of the shire or county, part of a system of administration that had developed in the ninth and tenth centuries. Theoretically containing 100 hides, tax units each of about 120 acres, the hundreds were made up of “vills”—villages or townships. The village represented a physical reality alongside the institutional reality of the manor, the lord’s estate. The two did not necessarily coincide, as they did in Elton. Throughout Huntingdonshire only 29 of 56 villages were identical with manors.13 The village remained a permanent political entity, a territorial unit of the kingdom, subject to the royal government for military and police purposes.
The Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian invasions had involved mass movements of peoples. The Norman Conquest of 1066 was more like the Roman conquest, the intrusion of a small power group. Where the Anglo-Saxons and Danes had displaced whole regional populations, the Normans at first scarcely disturbed the life of the peasants. Ultimately, however, they wrought an alteration in the social and political system that affected nearly everybody.
Both the feudal and manorial systems were present in some degree and in some regions of England at the time of the Conquest; what the Normans did amounted to performing a shotgun marriage of the two and imposing them on all parts of the country. William the Conqueror appointed himself landlord of England and deputized a number of his principal followers as tenants-in-chief to hold most of it for him, supplanting the Anglo-Saxon nobles who formed the pre-Conquest elite.
The great ecclesiastical estates, such as Ramsey Abbey, remained relatively untouched unless they had aided the Anglo-Saxon resistance, as in the case of the neighboring abbeys of Ely and Peterborough. Ramsey was explicitly confirmed in its holdings:
William, King of the English, to Archbishop Lanfranc and his bishops, and Abbot Baldwin, and the sheriffs, and certain of his faithful, French and English, greeting. Know that I concede to Herbert, Abbot of Ramsey, his sac, and tol and team, and infangenetheof [rights to tolls, fees, and certain judicial profits], in the town and outside, and all his customs, which his antecessor had in the time of King Edward. Witnesses: Robert, Count of Mortain, per Roger Bigod.14
William’s tenants-in-chief in turn deputized followers of their own. Finding the manorial unit a convenient instrument, they used it where it was already at hand, imposed it where it was not, and effected whatever Procrustean alterations were needed with an unceremonious disregard for the affected locals. “Many a Norman newcomer did not find a manor equipped with a demesne [the lord’s own arable land],” says Barbara Dodwell, or with “villein tenements owing week-work [a tenant’s year-round labor obligation]…but rather a large number of petty tenants and cottagers, some free, some semi-free, some servile.”15 In such a case, the new lord arbitrarily appropriated land for a demesne and conscripted the needed labor. A fundamental Norman legal principle, “No land without a lord,” was enunciated and given substance via the manorial system.
As William equipped his tenants-in-chief with collections of manors, and they in turn bestowed them on their vassals, a variety of lordships resulted, with a pyramid of military obligations. Ramsey Abbey’s knight services were for unknown reasons light: although Ramsey was the fourth wealthiest ecclesiastical landholder in England, it owed only four knights. The burden of supporting the four, or of hiring substitutes, was shared among certain of the manors.16
As it turned out, the abbey might have done better immediately to endow knights with estates in return for military service—to create “knights’ fees.” The lack of clear-cut military tenures encouraged knights to settle illegally on abbey lands. Two sister villages of Elton, also bestowed on Ramsey Abbey by Bishop Aetheric, were seized by a knight named Pagan Peverel, a veteran of the First Crusade. The abbey protested and the suit was heard in Slepe, the village where St. Ives was buried and which soon after took his name. The biographer of St. Ives recorded with satisfaction that not only was justice rendered and the property returned to Ramsey Abbey, but that Pagan Peverel was further punished on his way home:
On that same day, before Pagan arrived at his lodging, the horse on which he was riding had its feet slip from under it and fell three times to the ground…and a hawk which he was holding was shaken from his hand and made for the wood in swift flight, never to return. The horse of the priest who was traveling with him slipped and fell as well, and its neck being broken—although the priest was unharmed—it breathed its last. There was also Pagan’s steward, called Robert, who came in for a more deserved punishment, because…most faithful to his master, he had given approval and assistance to the man’s wickedness.
Robert succumbed to a serious illness but was cured after praying at St. Ives’s shrine.17
Twenty years after the Conquest, to the inestimable profit of historians, was compiled the survey known as the Domesday Book, which one historian has called “probably the most remarkable statistical document in the history of Europe.”18 Executed at the orders of William the Conqueror, the Domesday survey undertook to inventory all the wealth of England, to assure efficient tax collection. Consequently, after a long age of informational darkness, a floodlight of valuable data illuminates the English scene. After Domesday, the light dims once more, until almost as suddenly in the late twelfth century written manorial surveys make their appearance, and in the middle of the thirteenth manorial court records.
Domesday Book records about 275,000 heads of households, indicating a total English population of some one and a half to two million, much above early medieval times (though some scholars think that population was higher in late Roman times). Settlements—homesteads, hamlets, villages—already dotted the landscape. In Yorkshire, five out of six of all hamlets and villages had been founded by the time of Domesday.
The Domesday surveyors, proceeding from village to village and calling on lords and peasants to furnish them with information, confronted the difficulty that manor and village (manerium and villa, in Domesday’s Latin) did not necessarily coincide. From the village’s point of view, how it was listed in the survey made little difference, and the surveyors simply overrode the problem, focusing their data on the manor. Enough villages are named—some 13,000—to make clear their importance as population centers, however. Churches were given erratic notice, much in some counties, little in others, but enough to indicate that they were now common, if not yet universal, village features.
Under the abbot of Ramsey’s holdings in Norman Cross Hundred, Elton was listed with a new spelling:
M. [Manor] In Adelintune the abbot of Ramsey had ten hides [assessed] to the geld [a tax]. There is land for four plows in the demesne apart from the aforesaid hides. There are now four plows on the demesne, and twenty-eight villeins having twenty plows. There is a church and a priest, and two mills [rendering] forty shillings, and 170 acres of meadow. T.R.E. [in the time of King Edward, 1042-1066] it was worth fourteen li. [pounds] now sixteen li.19
The “ten hides” credited to Elton tell us little about actual acreage. Entries in Domesday were assessed in round numbers, usually five, ten, or fifteen hides. Evidently each shire was assessed for a round number, the hides apportioned among the villages, without strict attention to measurement. Furthermore, though the hide usually comprised 120 acres, the acre varied.
No further information about Elton appears until a manorial survey of about 1160; after that a gap follows until the middle of the thirteenth century, when documentation begins to proliferate.
Drawing on the collection of documents known as the Ramsey Abbey cartulary, on a royal survey done in 1279, on the accounts and court records of the manor, and on what archeology has ascertained from deserted villages, we can sketch a reasonably probable picture of Elton as it was in the last quarter of the thirteenth century.
The royal survey of 1279 credited the “manor and vill” of Elton with a total of 13 hides of arable land of 6 virgates each. Originally designed as the amount of land needed to support a family, the virgate had come to vary considerably. In Elton it consisted of 24 acres; thus the total of village arable was 1,872 acres. The abbot’s demesne share amounted to three hides of arable, besides which he had 16 acres of meadow and three of pasture. Two water mills and a fulling mill, for finishing cloth, successors of the two mills that Dacus’s wife had claimed in 1017, also belonged to the abbot.20
The village scarcely presented the tidy appearance of a modern English village. Houses did not necessarily face the street, but might stand at odd angles, with a fence or embankment fronting on the street.21 The nexus of a working agricultural
Conjectural map of Elton, c. 1300. Exact location of tofts and crofts (house plots and gardens). and of lanes and secondary streets is unknown. The River Nene is now canalized at Elton; its course in the Middle Ages is uncertain.
system, the village was a place of bustle, clutter, smells, disrepair, and dust, or in much of the year mud. It was far from silent. Sermons mention many village sounds: the squeal of cartwheels, the crying of babies, the bawling of hogs being butchered, the shouts of peddler and tinker, the ringing of church bells, the hissing of geese, the thwack of the flail in threshing time. To these one might add the voices of the villagers, the rooster’s crow, the dog’s bark, and other animal sounds, the clop of cart horses, the ring of the smith’s hammer, and the splash of the miller’s great waterwheel.22
Stone construction was still rare in England, except in areas like the Cotswolds where stone was plentiful and timber scarce. Elton’s houses in the thirteenth century were in all likelihood timber-framed with walls of wattle and daub (oak, willow, or hazel wands coated with clay). Timber-framing had been improved by the importation from the Continent of “cruck” construction, a system of roof support that added space to interiors. The cruck consisted of the split half of the trunk and main
Cruck construction supporting roof of early fourteenth-century tithe barn, Bradford-on-Avon.
branch of a tree. Two or three such pairs, sprung from the ground or from a foundation, could support a ridgepole, their curvature providing enough elevation to save the need for a sunken floor and to put an end to the long, murky history of the sunken hut. Progress in carpentry permitted the framing of walls with squared uprights planted in postholes or foundation trenches, making houses more weathertight.23
Roofs were thatched, as from ancient times, with straw, broom or heather, or in marsh country reeds or rushes (as at Elton). Thatched roofs had formidable drawbacks; they rotted from alternations of wet and dry, and harbored a menagerie of mice, rats, hornets, wasps, spiders, and birds; and above all they caught fire. Yet even in London they prevailed. Simon de Montfort, rebelling against the king, is said to have meditated setting fire to the city by releasing an air force of chickens with flaming brands attached.24Irresistibly cheap and easy to make, the thatched roof overwhelmingly predominated century after century atop the houses and cottages of medieval peasants and townsmen everywhere.25
Some village houses were fairly large, forty to fifty feet long by ten to fifteen wide, others were tiny cottages.26 All were insubstantial. “House breaking” by burglars was literal. Coroners’ records speak of intruders smashing their way through the walls of houses “with a plowshare” or “with a coulter.”27 In the Elton manorial court, a villager was accused of carrying away “the doorposts of the house” of a neighbor;28 an angry heir, still a minor, “tore up and carried away” a house on his deceased father’s property and was “commanded to restore it.”29
Most village houses had a yard and a garden: a smaller “toft” fronting on the street and occupied by the house and its outbuildings, and a larger “croft” in the rear. The toft was usually surrounded by a fence or a ditch to keep in the animals whose pens it contained, along with barns or storage sheds for grain and fodder.30 Missing was a privy. Sanitary arrangements seem to have consisted of a latrine trench or merely the tradition later recorded as retiring to “a bowshot from the house.”31
Drainage was assisted by ditches running through the yards.
Private wells existed in some villages, but a communal village well was more usual. That Elton had one is indicated by a family named “atte Well.” Livestock grazed in the tofts—a cow or an ox, pigs, and chickens. Many villagers owned sheep, but they were not kept in the toft. In summer and fall, they were driven out into the marsh to graze, and in winter they were penned in the manor fold so that the lord could profit from their valuable manure. The richer villagers had manure piles, accumulated from their other animals; two villagers were fined when their dung heaps impinged “on the common highway, to the common harm,” and another paid threepence for license to place his on the common next to his house. The croft, stretching back from the toft, was a large garden of half an acre or so, cultivated by spade—“by foot,” as the villagers termed it.32
Snow highlights house sites, crofts behind them, and surrounding fields in aerial photograph of deserted village of Wharram Percy. Upper left, modern manor house, with ruined church behind it. Cambridge University Collection of Air Photographs.
Clustered at the end of the street in Nether End, near the river, were the small village green, the manor house, and the mill complex. An eighteenth-century mill today stands on the spot where in the thirteenth century “the dam mill,” the “middle mill,” and the “small mill” probably stood over the Nene, apparently under a single roof: “the house between the two mills” was repaired in 1296.33 The foundations were of stone, the buildings themselves of timber, with a thatched roof, a courtyard, and a vegetable garden.34 A millpond furnished power to the three oaken waterwheels.35 Grass and willows grew all around the pond, the grass sold for fodder, the willow wands for building material.36
Back from the river stood the manor house and its “curia” (court), with outbuildings and installations. The curia occupied an acre and a half of land,37 enclosed with a wall or possibly a fence of stakes and woven rods. Some manor houses had moats to keep livestock in and wild animals out; the excavations of 1977 at Elton revealed traces of such a moat on the side toward the river. An entry gate led to the house or hall (aula), built of stone, with a slate roof.38 Manor houses were sometimes constructed over a ground-level undercroft, used for storage. The Elton manorial accounts also mention a sleeping chamber, which had to be “pointed and mended” at the same time as the wooden, slate-roofed chapel adjacent to the hall.39
Kitchen and bakehouse were in separate buildings nearby, and a granary was built up against the hall.40 The manorial accounts mention repairs to a “communal privy,” probably restricted to the manorial personnel.41 Elsewhere on the grounds, which accommodated a garden and an apple orchard, stood a stone dairy, equipped with cheese presses, settling pans, strainers, earthenware jars, and churns.42 The “little barn” and the “big barn” were of timber, with thatched roofs; here mows of
Abbey barn, c. 1340, storehouse for the home manor of Glastonbury Abbey (Somerset).
Tithe barn, for tithes paid in grain, Bradford-on-Avon, with fourteen bays, two of them projecting into porches.
grain were stored. The big barn had a slate-roofed porch on one side protecting a great door that locked with a key, and a small door opposite. The door of the little barn was secured by a bolt.43
Under a thatched roof, the stone stable housed horses, oxen, and cows, as well as carts, tools, and harness.44 A wooden sheepfold, also thatched, large enough to accommodate the lord’s sheep and those of the villagers, was lighted with candles and an oil lamp every spring at lambing time.45 Still other buildings included a kiln for drying malt46 and a pound—a “punfold” or “pinfold”—for stray animals.47 Two large wooden thatched dovecotes sheltered several hundred doves, sold at market or forwarded to the abbot’s table.48 Among other resident poultry were chickens and geese, and, at least in one year’s accounts, peacocks and swans.49 On its waterfront, the manor possessed several boats, whose repairs were recorded at intervals.50
Across the street from the curia stood one of a pair of communal ovens to which the villagers were obliged to bring their bread; the other stood in Overend. The ovens were leased from the lord by a baker. A forge was leased by a smith who worked for both the lord and the tenants.51 The green, whose presence is attested by the name of a village family, “atte Grene,” could not have been large enough to serve as a pasture. Its only known use was as a location for the stocks, where village wrongdoers were sometimes held.
At the opposite end of the village, in Overend, stood the parish church, on the site of earlier structures dating at least to the tenth century. The records make no mention of the rectory, which the enclosure map of 1784 locates in Nether End.
South of the church in Overend lay the tract of land on which two hundred years later Elton Hall was built. In the thirteenth
Medieval dovecote, Avebury (Wiltshire).
Dovecote. Bodleian Library, Ms. Bodl. 764, f. 80.
century, this was a sub-manor of Elton, a hide of land held by a wealthy free man, John of Elton, who had tenants of his own.
A medieval village did not consist merely of its buildings. It
Man driving geese out of the grain with horn and stick. British Library, Luttrell Psalter, Ms. Add. 42130, f. 69v.
included the plowed fields, the meadows, and even the surrounding woods, moor, and marsh. Aerial photographs of deserted medieval villages show open fields with their characteristic pattern of ridge and furrow produced by the plowman. Elton’s fields, under continuous and changing use, show few such traces. A survey of Elton at the beginning of the seventeenth century listed three fields—Ogerston, Middlefield, and Earnestfield—but whether they existed in the thirteenth century remains unknown.52 None of the dozens of place names in the manorial records can be identified with an entire field. Many are names of furlongs, the subdivisions of fields (Holywellfurlong, Knolfurlong, Michelgrove), others of meadows (Gooseholm, Michelholm, Le Inmede, Butterflymead, Abbotsholm), or marsh (Oldmoor, Smallmoor, Newtonmoor, Broadmoor, Oldwychslade). Some are recorded as being leased on a regular basis—to the rector, a furlong called Le Brach, to others Milnespightle (Mill Close), and Clack. The village also had a vineyard, possibly connected with the curia.
Brian K. Roberts (The Making of the English Village) divides the elements of villages into three overlapping categories: public space, where everyone, including outsiders, has rights; communal space, where all inhabitants have rights, even when the lord holds the land; and private space, where access and use are open only to the proper individuals. The public elements are the church and churchyard, and the highways, streets, and lanes. The communal are the green, the punfold or pound, the oven, the pond, the wells, the stocks, and, most important, the open fields. The private are the manor house and its appurtenances, and the tofts and crofts of the peasants. Some elements are ambiguous: the entries and exits to the fields are both communal and public; the church is not only both public and communal but private, since it belongs to the lord; the smithy, the houses of the demesne servants (cowherd, shepherd), and the rector’s house are both communal and private.53
Archeologists have classified village plans on the basis of major design elements: “green” villages, clustered around a green or common; street or row villages, built along a street or highway; polyfocal villages, with more than one hub; and composite villages combining several of these types. Elton would seem to be all of these, one of its two sections built around a central green, the other along a highway, each with a separate focus (the manor house, the church). The classification does not really seem very meaningful, and considering the difficulty in tracing the chronology of village plans, not very exact. R. H. Hilton comments that the main physical characteristic shared by medieval villages was their shapelessness. Village streets appear to have come into existence after the tofts and crofts were established, as the paths between the houses became worn down and sunken by the traffic of people, animals, and carts. The village network was in fact more paths than streets.54
Elton in the late thirteenth century was a large village, capable of summoning 327 residents to a harvest in 1287.55 The royal survey of 1279 lists 113 tenants, heads of families.56 Allowing for wives, children, and landless laborers, a figure of five to six hundred for the total population might be reasonable. This accords with Hilton’s estimate that 45 percent of the villages of the West Midlands had a population of between 400 and 600, with 10 percent larger, the rest smaller.57
Villages like Elton were not cut off from the world around them. Many Elton surnames indicate family origins elsewhere, and the records sometimes explicitly speak of immigration: Richard Trune, a cotter (cottager), came to Elton from Fotheringhay, in Northamptonshire.58 Many villagers paid an annual fee for license to live outside the manor (or were cited for failing to pay it). Elton village officials traveled to the fairs and markets to make purchases; so did ordinary villagers to sell their produce. Carrying services owed by villeins took them to Ramsey and “any market where the lord wishes inside the county [of Huntingdonshire].”59 Other Ramsey Abbey villagers journeyed as far as London. Free tenants of Elton attended the abbot’s honor (estate) court at Broughton twice a year, as well as the royal courts at Huntingdon and Norman Cross. The world came to Elton, too, in the guise of monks, churchmen, nobles, craftsmen, day laborers, and royal officials.
Thus the village of Elton, Norman Cross Hundred, Huntingdonshire, England, belonging to Ramsey Abbey, occupying some 1,800 acres of farmland, cultivated its crops and herded its animals in much the same fashion as thousands of other villages in England and on the Continent. By the standards of a later age, it was neither rich nor prepossessing. But in comparison with earlier times, it was a thriving social organism, and an important innovation in social and economic history.