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Book Review: Parks in Medieval England by S.A. Mileson

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It's the centrepiece of many a Regency romance, the attractive wooded park beside the soaring mansion, in which the heroine can flounce as the hero gallops up on a high-mettled steed, fresh from chasing down some innocent deer. Yet there's much more, in complexity and history, to the park than that, as S.A. Mileson explains in Parks in Medieval England. No dashing knights here, however, this is a monograph based on a PhD thesis and it does rather show – dashing it isn't, but there is an interesting story to tell here, and some fine anecdotes.

Milseon follows parks back to the Norman era – and suggests that they may well have had Anglo-Saxon predecessors, and is firm that their primary purpose was always hunting – specifically of deer. He spends quite a bit of this short monograph defending the claim that hunting was central to aristocratic life in the Middle Ages, saying that there is a revisionist strand of history claiming that it wasn't, although this always feels like a bit of a straw man.

Although that does allow for the telling of many compelling stories. I'll never look at Westminster quite the same way again after learning that:

During the celebrations for the coronation of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon at Westminster in 1509, eight bramble-clad knights presided over a group of men dressed as foresters or park-keepers, all in green clothes and complete with horns, who arranged a 'pageante like a park,' with artificial trees, undergrowth and fallow deer. The unfortunate deer were released from the enclosure and chased down by greyhounds in the palace grounds, their bodies presented to the queen and ladies.

Mileson identifies the great age of park-making as the 12th and 13th centuries, a period when the population of England "more than doubled and perhaps trebled," which put strain on hunting lands and particularly on deer populations. The native red and roe deer declined and large numbers of fallow deer were brought from the Continent.

When we think of hunting today we think of a long horseback chase, something that even the largest park would struggle to cope with, but as Mileson explains, it often took forms other than the par force chase., most of which you couldn't exactly call sporting. Often a group of beaters drove deer towards a trap or waiting archers. This seems to have been, Mileson notes, the primary method of hunting in pre-Conquest Britain, when hedges or "hays" were often used as traps. Deer could also be stalked on foot, something Henry V is supposed to have particularly enjoyed.

Yet parks weren't only practical. Mileson shows how having a park could be an important part of creating and maintaining status, particularly for families coming up in the world. He quotes a later source, the late 17th-century agriculturalist, John Houghton, who disliked their uneconomic status, but noted that for their owners "they make or preserve a grandeur, and cause them to be respected by their poorer neighbours."

Perhaps the most interesting, and no doubt difficult to chart, aspect of parks, was undoubtedly their impact on their communities. On an always crowded island, carving out hundreds of acres of land – often including, Mileson shows, valuable farm and pasture land – was bound to have significant impact. Theoretically at least, it was possible to challenge an emparkment:

Free men could, of course, take their grievances to the king, and from the later 12th century there were standardized legal actions available which could be used to claim access to land, but for many people legal action would have been too risky and expensive…around half of the population was legally unfree and had no right to use any court other than their lord's own manor court, which was hardly a sympathetic venue.

The loss was not only of productive land – the physical obstacle to trade and development could be significant. Mileston quotes Devizes in Wiltshire and Sheffield in Yorkshire as two towns that developed in odd shapes due to parks; sometimes even settlements were completely destroyed. Trade also suffered: compensation was given to Ludgershall in Wiltshire in 1348 because a new royal park meant "the paths and ways leading to the town through the field from the both are now closed, whereby men and merchants no longer come to the town to do business there."

There was always resistance – much poaching and "breaking" of park walls was certainly at least inchoately political – an expression of what were felt to be proper rights. The peasant rebels of 1381 demanded that "all game, whether in warrens or in parks and woods should become common to all."

So while this is a story of a specific aspect of the medieval landscape, it does shed light on the development of medieval society and the tensions within it. It's a survey of what the author says is a relatively undeveloped field, so often unsatisfying in its unanswered questions and lack of depth. Yet it's worth sticking with for a different angle of a strange and distant world.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.