Archaeology: Houses yield age-old secrets: Medieval peasants lived better than we thought, at least in the South, says David Keys

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The Independent Culture
UP TO 4,000 of Britain's historic Tudor-style wooden buildings are much older than academics had previously thought.

A survey of a 140-strong sample of small timber-framed houses, mostly built with an early architectural technique known as the cruck system, have revealed that they date from the 13th to early 16th centuries rather than the late 15th to early 17th centuries as assumed until now.

The survey suggests that thousands of rural buildings in Britain are likely to be substantially older than previously believed.

The discovery also shows that medieval English peasants lived in better and more substantial houses than many historians had thought.

Specialists in vernacular architecture and dating techniques, led by Dr Nat Alcock of Warwick University and Dr Bob Laxton of Nottingham University and funded by the Leverhulme Trust, have been able to date the building with extraordinary accuracy.

Using the technique known as tree-ring dating archaeologists are able to work out the exact age of a piece of timber by examining its tree-ring pattern. Each sequence of rings acts as a chronological fingerprint for a particular series of years.

The oldest building located by the survey so far is Sycamore Farm House, a timber-framed dwelling built in 1205 in the Buckinghamshire village of Long Crendon. The original early 13th-century peasant's home, although still partially extant, today nestles inside an 18th- century brick outer skin. Within the building itself, most of the medieval timbers are also invisible, covered by centuries of plaster.

None the less, the medieval building - the timber structure of which is now sandwiched between external brick and internal plaster - is now the oldest known former medieval peasant's house to have survived in the English countryside, and probably in Europe as a whole.

Although the original medieval Long Crendon structure was not built with cruck techniques, the survey has located partially 13th-century cruck cottages in the Oxfordshire villages of Harwell Stephenton and Radley and a perfectly preserved example dated 1335 near Maple Durham, also in Oxford-

shire. These are the oldest cruck buildings known. A cruck cottage differs from other timber-framed buildings by having its roof stretching in an inverted 'V' from the apex of the roof to the ground. They do not require load-bearing walls or sophisticated joinery.

Specialists in vernacular architecture are now speculating that the domestic timber-frame tradition probably first appeared in England in the 12th century. The half-dozen oldest buildings, those pre-dating 1340, examined in the survey - which started in 1988 and should be completed next year - all come from Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, which suggests that living standards in the South in medieval times were higher than they were in the North. The South's peasant dwellings appear to have been larger than their northern counterparts. This enabled them to be more easily converted to two-storey structures later in the Middle Ages.

Smaller, more humble dwellings incapable of such medieval loft conversions must therefore have been demolished, which explains the lack of very early rural timber-frame buildings in northern England.

The survey reveals that medieval peasant houses were almost certainly constructed by professional builders and were not the work of medieval peasant DIY enthusiasts. The sample has also shown that elm was almost as important as oak in medieval housebuilding. At least one-third of the buildings examined were constructed substantially of elm.

The medieval Long Crendon house originally consisted of a central hall, and probably a now long- demolished medieval kitchen and ground floor bedroom, in which the entire family would have slept. Some elements of the structure were replaced throughout the medieval and post-medieval periods and the hall was divided into two storeys in the 17th century.

Long Crendon also has the best group of medieval and Tudor cruck buildings in Britain. Half-a-dozen of them pre-date 1500, at least a further three are early 16th century, and a further seven have not been precisely dated, but are probably 15th-16th century.

The discoveries push the dates for ordinary medieval domestic buildings almost back to the time when the first high-status timber- framed buildings were being constructed - the earliest surviving examples of which are the half-stone, half-wood built hall of Leicester Castle (c1150), the Bishop's Palace hall in Hereford (1180) and the hall of the Knights Templar at Temple Balsall, Warwickshire (1185).

Medieval England at its peak attained a population of around six million, a figure which would have necessitated more than a million dwellings. Today tens of thousands of these medieval houses survive. But to establish how many are as old as the Long Crendon house will require much more research.

(Photograph omitted)

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