Posted by: cimby | March 12, 2010

Wharram Percy, Deserted Medieval Village

I know what you’re thinking. No really, I do. “What? An update? But it hasn’t been a month and a half since your last one! Something must be wrong!” Nah, its just that classes are over and updating can actually serve as a somewhat productive way to take a break from paper writing. 🙂

For this post, I thought I’d share my trip to Wharram Percy. The town is way off in the middle of no where in what’s called the Wolds- a hilly area of chalky soil that isn’t really the greatest for farming. The day my archaeology class visited, it was a lovely sunny and warmish February day in York. By the time we got to Wharram Percy, it was cold, there was like a quarter inch of snow on the ground, and oh dear the mud… Sometimes I forget how much warmer York is compared to the rest of Yorkshire.

And there you have it folks, snow-covered Wolds.
And here you have archaeology students trampling through the muddy
track to the village, which is a good mile away from the car park 
(that’s parking lot to you Americans!)

Anyway, Wharram Percy is more or less your typical medieval village- and that’s partly because our idea of what a typical medieval village is COMES from Wharram Percy. The site has been extensively studied and excavated, and now serves as essentially the type site for English medieval villages, both deserted and not. While the site has a long history of habitation, the village reached its heyday (is that still a phrase?) around 900-1200 and then began a slow death, largely due to enclosures. If you’re a Thomas More fan (or a medievalist who had to read Utopia), you are likely aware that enclosures were blamed for pretty much everything, but in this case it does appear to have had some merit. As the wool trade became increasingly profitable for English landowners (read: wealthy people who had previously rented out land to peasants to farm), many chose to “enclose” public greens in favor of sheep grazing and at Wharram Percy, like other villages, the local manor lord slowly stopped renting land to tenants as their leases expired and instead used the land to raise sheep for the wool trade. The village was finally deserted in the 16th century, when the lord forcibly removed the last remaining families from the town. (There’s actually surviving evidence about a court case in which these peasant families sued the lord for the right to remain in Wharram Percy. You can guess who won.)

Here you can see the remains of the Church of St Martin nestled in
among the hills. This was taken from the main village area where the
peasant houses would have been and back behind where I’m standing
would have been the plots of land (strips) the villagers farmed.
Here’s a better view of the outside of the church, now missing its
timber roof. The church served as the parish church for several
surrounding villages and actually remained in use until the 1950s.
Here are the remains of a peasant house. The depressions are where the walls would have been.
The house would have been divided into three sections- one for the livestock, a kind of general living space for daily activities (if you can make out the dark splotch towards the upper end of the house, that’s remains of a hearth and would have been in this area) and sleeping quarters for the husband & wife. Any kids or other family members would have slept in that middle area. 
And here we have a bunch of students trying not to slide down the rather steep hill to the church below. And for once I was not the one to slide and wind up on my rear end in the mud. Hurrah!
 Ta da! Like most medieval churches, this one went through a series of additions (and removal of additions). The partially-collapsed tower on the left side is an addition added in the later middle ages. 
Shall we go inside?
Sorry, it isn’t that exciting inside. But I thought I’d show you this window because there are at least three different phases evidenced just in this shot. Bonus points to anyone that can spot them.
Did you find them yet? OK, I’ll fill you in. The central arch is classic Norman chevron ornamentation (likely 11th or 12th century in date.) If you look above it, you can see the Norman arch cuts into an earlier arch (likely a window) that has been filled in. You may also note the difference in building material between the wall and what is inside the main arch around the window area. The arch was likely an open entrance to a side aisle that was taken down in the fifteenth century. When the aisle came down, the arched entrance was filled in with a fifteenth-century style window. Neat, huh? Below is a close up; the differences might be easier to pick out there.
So there you have it, Wharram Percy in a nutshell. Well worth a trip, but be prepared for a hike and for plenty of mud!

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