British History Online recently published the six inventory volumes for the county of Northamptonshire. To help to put these volumes in context, Professor Chris Dyer has kindly written a guest blog post explaining their importance. Chris Dyer is Emeritus Professor of Local and Regional History at the University of Leicester, and so is the perfect person to introduce these volumes. Professor Dyer writes:

“The inclusion of the Northamptonshire volumes of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, England on British History Online will be welcomed by anyone interested in Northamptonshire, but also in the study of many aspects of the material evidence for the history of the English countryside. When they appeared these volumes marked a high point in the work of the Royal Commission. There were volumes on historic buildings, which was the traditional strength of the RCHME’s earlier county inventories, but these were more inclusive and systematic than in the early volumes, because village plans were included, with the older buildings marked, and accompanied by brief descriptions of ordinary houses and cottages, and occasional plans and photographs. Larger houses and churches, the usual subjects of surveys of local architecture, received full treatment as well. All of this was thoroughly researched, with  documentary background studies as well as scholarly architectural analyses.

The great innovation and achievement of the Northamptonshire volumes however, is to be observed in the volumes devoted to archaeological sites. Air photograph evidence of field boundaries and settlement sites, mainly of the iron age and Romano-British period, were transcribed on to modern maps, and for the medieval period hundreds of sites marked by earthworks were carefully planned and analysed. They included the famous deserted medieval village sites, and the remains of villages that still survived but had once been much larger. These had only been identified as sites 30 years or so before the Royal Commission planned them. Part of  the medieval rural landscape were the fields, visible as ridge and forrow, and some examples of these survivals were also planned. There was also a great variety of sites and features : park boundaries, moated sites, fishponds, pillow mounds from former rabbit warrens, sites of water mills and the mounds on which windmills had stood. Any past activity which involved digging into the earth and making heaps left indelible traces for the researchers of the RCHME to discover. As the work progressed the plans grew ever more sophisticated, and the interpretations of the meaning of the sites became more accomplished. To give one example of the lessons learned from preparing these volumes, post medieval garden earthworks were recognized and planned in detail, and researchers all over the country realised that the expanses of mounds and ditches that had puzzled them suddenly became explicable. Anyone interested in the formation and decline of rural settlement, landscape history, and aristocratic manipulations of the landscape will find important source material in these volumes. They also mark a chapter in the intellectual history of the study of the rural past. They are finally a sad comment on the philistine treatment of the heritage, because not long after these volumes were completed, instead of declaring the intention of carrying out similar studies of the other English counties, the Royal Commission was merged with English Heritage, and ceased to compile inventories.”

Chris Dyer