30 November, 2012

Post-Roman York: summary

Late Roman York was an important military, political and ecclesiastical centre in the fourth century.  Anglian York was a royal and ecclesiastical centre in the early seventh century.  What happened in between? 

In this sequence of posts, I have briefly summarised some documentary and archaeological evidence that may help to sketch out a picture of York in the post-Roman centuries: 

I have also discussed the ‘Anglian Tower’, built at an unknown date between late Roman and Anglo-Scandinavian York.
In this post I will try to draw the information together.

York as a political and ecclesiastical centre

One aspect that strikes me is the similarity between York at either end of the gap in the documentary record. 

In Late Roman Britain, York was an important centre of ecclesiastical (a bishop of York attended an international church council in 314), military (base of the Sixth Legion and probably of the high-ranking military commander the Dux Britanniarum), and political (the civilian city on the west bank of the Ouse was a colonia, the highest rank of Roman city) power.

When York next appears in documentary records in the early seventh century, it was an important centre of ecclesiastical (seat of the bishop of York and intended by Pope Gregory to become an archbishopric) and royal (chosen by King Edwin (Eadwine) of Deira/Northumbria as the site for his baptism and that of much of the Northumbrian aristocracy) power.  Although military and political power were (in theory) separate under Roman administration, in early medieval Britain both were effectively subsumed under royal authority, as kings were both political and military leaders. 

So York seems to have held broadly similar status on either side of the three-century gap in the historical record.  This could be pure coincidence.  It is possible that Roman York was to all intents and purposes deserted in the fifth and sixth centuries, and that King Eadwine and Bishop Paulinus established their new church and bishopric in a grass-grown ruin that meant nothing to either of them except that Pope Gregory had specified the location.  Even this minimalist interpretation, however, requires that someone at least knew which particular grass-grown Roman ruin Pope Gregory meant, implying that the name of Roman York had been remembered.

More likely, in my view, is that York remained inhabited in some form throughout, and that its political, military and ecclesiastical roles were either retained – no doubt much modified according to changing circumstances – or at least remembered.

Continued habitation in some form is consistent with the archaeological finds, which (although fragmentary) span the gap in the documentary records between them:
  • in the early fifth century, someone left a large quantity of young pig bones in the headquarters building, perhaps the debris from a Roman-style luxury feast;
  • in the fifth to sixth century, someone was interring their dead in cremation cemeteries at The Mount and Heworth;
  • possibly in the seventh to eighth century, someone was interring their dead in an inhumation cemetery at Lamel Hill;
  • someone deposited an early seventh-century hanging bowl at Castle Yard;
  • at some unknown date between the late fourth and mid ninth centuries, someone built the Anglian Tower;
  • in the late seventh to mid ninth centuries, people were living and working on the production of craft goods at Fishergate, by which date York has reappeared in the documentary records.

The environment of post-Roman York

Such continued habitation would be very different from the densely populated urban environment of Roman York. The complex Roman mercantile economy with its network of specialist producers relied on safe transport over long distances, sufficient stability to make long-term investments such as learning specialist skills worthwhile, and a reliable means of exchange so that specialist producers could obtain the means of living that they did not produce for themselves. The economy was already declining in Roman Britain in the late fourth century, undermined by internal power struggles, political purges, raids, piracy, and successive troop withdrawals as a parade of would-be emperors ‘borrowed’ the British garrisons to have yet another try at grabbing the top job via a military coup. When the Empire officially gave up on Britain, in the shape of Emperor Honorius’ letter telling the civitas governments to look to their own defences, the cessation of Imperial funds would have been one more blow to an economy already struggling. People living in late- and post-Roman York would have had to adapt to increasingly erratic supplies at local markets and a near absence of long-distance trade. Increasingly, if you wanted something you would have to grow it or make it yourself, or make something you could arrange to swap for it with someone nearby.

City populations would probably have been less well equipped than rural populations to weather this change. Rural populations who already grew food for their own use and to sell to the city could still eat if trade collapsed, even if they could no longer buy useful manufactured goods; city populations would have lacked both the skills and the land area to grow enough food to feed themselves.  York may have been better placed than many cities to manage the issue of land availability, if the withdrawal of troops by successive usurpers reduced the city’s population and also freed up vacant land that could be converted to cultivation.  If York was very lucky, it may also have had access to military supplies or supply contracts for a while, which could perhaps have been used to smooth the transition. However, even if York fared better than average (which is speculation on my part), the city population would be expected to decrease from its peak as people moved away or died, and to settle eventually at a density sufficiently low to be roughly self-sustaining on the amount of land available. Post-Roman York is probably best thought of as sparsely populated, with settlement dispersed around the city and perhaps also shifting from place to place to make the best use of available land and surviving structures.

Social structure in post-Roman York

The presence of the elaborate hanging bowl at Castle Yard, and perhaps also the pigs in the headquarters building (if they represent the remains of luxury feasting) suggest that some people in post-Roman York had access to expensive luxury goods, and whoever built the Anglian Tower clearly controlled considerable resources. These are consistent with the presence of local rulers or chieftains, perhaps similar to whoever built the post-Roman timber halls in the old Roman fort at Birdoswald. York may have been a permanent base for a local ruler, or perhaps one of several bases visited on a rotating basis by a ruler with a larger territory (or both at different times).

Whether permanent residents or seasonal visitors, such rulers would presumably have needed a working population in and around York to provide for their needs; people who grew crops on areas of open ground, grazed livestock on grass and scrub among the ruins, scavenged for raw materials to work into craft products for use or exchange, built simple houses against convenient standing walls or where space allowed, interred their dead in cremation or inhumation cemeteries according to religion or family custom, and dumped their rubbish on waste ground or in convenient derelict buildings. Such activity would be consistent with the deposits of ‘dark earth’ that separate Roman from medieval archaeological deposits on some sites in York, which would form as rubbish and perishable materials rotted down.


So my suggested model for post-Roman York is one of a sparse and more or less self-sufficient resident population, producing what they needed to support themselves and a small group of visiting or resident aristocrats. This model offers a mechanism whereby York could have retained its status as a political centre if visited (even if only occasionally) by the local rulers, and as an ecclesiastical centre if some of the population continued to follow Christian beliefs and to maintain links with Christians elsewhere in Britain.

Although this model allows for some continuity of occupation and status between Roman York in the early fifth century and Anglian York in the early seventh century, there is a striking apparent change. In the early fifth century York was controlled by Roman officials. In the early seventh century it was controlled by an early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) king. How might that political transition have come about?  More on that in another post.


Constance Brewer said...

This was an interesting post on habitation. I like how you draw your conclusions about resources and raw materials. Looking forward to the next post on Roman vs. Anglo-Saxon transition.

Rick said...

Interesting stuff!

One question that a modern highway map doesn't really answer is the possible geographical advantages of the site. Does it command a ford or navigable waterway, or have some other 'natural' logic the way London does?

These factors could justify either revived importance or continuing importance.

One 'geographical' feature, in this era, is the Roman fortification. A heroic age army couldn't properly garrison it, but still draw military advantage from it.

Carla said...

Constance - glad you found it interesting! This is my interpretation, and underlies the portrayal of York in Exile. I think it's consistent with the limited evidence, but (as ever) no doubt other conclusions could be drawn. The next post should be up some time in December.

Rick - thanks! Yes, it does. Roman cities are usually where they are for a reason. The River Ouse at York is a navigable waterway that flows out to the Humber estuary and thence to the North Sea. York is situated on a gravel moraine ridge from the Ice Age that runs east-west across the low-lying Vale of York. Presumably where this moraine crosses the Ouse would have made a natural fording point, although the Romans built a bridge. So the Roman fortress sitting on top of this moraine (a) avoids flooding and (b) overlooks and controls the crossing. I should imagine it also controlled waterborne traffic.

As well as the fortifications, the Roman road network and bridges would have stayed important features for a long while. You can argue they still are, as some of the modern roads into York are largely on the routes of their Roman predecessors, as is some of the street grid in the city centre. It's not known how long the Roman bridge at York survived, but probably until the Anglo-Scandinavian period. Ouse Bridge in York, its replacement, is downstream of the site of the Roman bridge, and you can see on a street map how some of ths streets have bent round to join up with the new bridge.

So anyone using the Roman roads in the area - which would have been the easiest routes for land travel - and/or wanting an easy way to cross the River Ouse, would have likely found themselves passing through York. If a local ruler making use of the fortifications could control such traffic, collecting tolls could have been a handy source of income. Quite apart from the possible strategic value of controlling the river crossing and the various Roman roads that went through York.

Gabriele Campbell said...

A continuing settlement makes sense. It's the same in German towns; the very fact that Roman sites were re-used (like the Porta Nigra as church) or at least used as quarries shows that there were still settlement processes going on, albeit on smaller scale. One town is interesting as it has moved away from the Roman centre, probably due to the Rhine changing its course: that's why we can find the remains of the Colonia Ulpia Traiana outside present days Xanten. Usually you find the remains when digging new cellars (the baths in York, the Isis temple in Mainz).

Gaul (France) has an even stronger continuity; German towns along the Rhine/Main/Moselle suffered from the barbarian incursions almost the same way Roman towns in Britain got changed by the large scale arrival of Saxons (and probably a few Pictish raids in the north, too).

Beth said...

This has been an incredibly informative series of posts. I'll be interested to read what you have to say on the transition from Roman to Anglian, as well.

Carla said...

Gabriele - yes, I think continuing settlement makes sense, albeit changed to suit the changed circumstances. Geography doesn't change, as Rick mentioned, and some of the features of a Roman city like defensible fortifications and access to Roman roads and river crossings are likely to have remained useful. There are some Roman towns in Britain that aren't the sites of modern towns, e.g. Silchester, and Wroxeter where the modern village is tucked into a corner of the Roman town. Most are underneath their modern counterparts, though, and turn up in cellars as you mention. There's a story of a house in York with a ghostly Roman legion marching knee-deep through the cellar.

Beth - Glad you found the posts interesting! Since you've read Exile you already know my model for the transition :-)

Beth said...

Ah, I wondered if it might be that! :)