Offa’s Dyke Between Nature and Culture

AT THE END of the twentieth century, postclassical Europe basked in the warm glow cast by a revisionist historiography that emphasized the early Middle Ages’ many accomplishments. This was quite an achievement for a period often disparaged as the Dark Ages. But in the decades after the Second World War, specialists delved deeper into the surviving documents, including the non-narrative ones earlier historians neglected, until their researches had illuminated what began to look like a golden age of European peasantries, when landlords proved less efficient at extracting surplus than they had been or were to become after A.D. 1000.[1] Other early medievalists re-evaluated the post-Roman economy to show its agricultural vitality, its multiple commercial linkages, and its industrial strengths: In this they were aided by the new field of medieval archaeology, whose discoveries built up knowledge of early medieval Europe’s production, distribution, and demand.[2] Despite some residual skepticism among those who clung to the “miserabilist” conception of the prevalent social and economic forms, and to the traditional idea of decline and fall from Roman splendor into barbarian gloom, much more sanguine views of how things were in the seventh to tenth centuries took hold of the practitioners of early medieval history.[3] Their optimism even began to infect medievalists preoccupied with later portions of the Middle Ages, and its impact is visible in the more even-handed treatment of the entire medieval millennium in current American college textbooks.[4]

This rehabilitative surge also affected views of the capacities of early medieval governments. The activities of the powerful are, of course, a traditional field of inquiry for all historians, and early medievalists were not exceptional in lavishing attention on rulers and administrative tools. The change involved the recognition of postclassical rulers’ ability to affect their subjects’ lives. More historians now believe that the barbarian successor states that replaced the western Roman empire after the 400s shaped people’s lives through all manner of informal methods as well as through the formal institutions and hierarchies familiar to people who inhabit modern states.[5] One symptom of the new respect accorded to early medieval political capacities is the ongoing effort to rewrite the period’s military history. Rather than the puny, underequipped armies that the scholars of the early 1900s envisioned doing battle in unstrategic, messy ways, we are now expected to think of (say) eighth-century Frankish armies as large, highly structured, well trained, and endowed with enviable logistical support.[6]

Figure 1. Offa’s Dyke.
Offa’s Dyke on the west slope of Hergan Hill, Salop, showing the bank on the counterscarp.
Cyril Fox. Offa’s Dyke: A Field Survey of the Western Frontier—Works of Mercia in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries A.D. (London: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 1955).

The massive linear earthworks which are the subject of this essay fit tidily in the revisionist current that swept early medieval historiography in the latter twentieth century. In post-Roman Europe, especially in the eighth and ninth centuries (though chronology for this kind of artifact is imprecise), powerful Europeans involved themselves in the creation of very large, long ditch-and-bank structures, usually in borderlands. The most spectacular and best-known examples are in the southern Jutland peninsula, in the southern Danube basin, and between England and Wales. The ditches had different shapes and designs, but seldom were more than two meters deep. The spoil from digging the ditches was piled up on one side, and sometimes added to from other sources, to create a linear embankment that could extend for dozens of kilometers and occupy a width of some thirty meters. These early medieval dikes always have exercised the imaginations of historians, for they are still visible, indeed ostentatious, and the logistical feat of moving thousands of tons of soil is intriguing. Because this period has thin material and documentary records, interpretations have varied: Some have thought the dikes defensive structures, while others see them as border delimitations, and still others as both simultaneously. Regardless of the particular “reading” given to the giant fosses, the fact that they crop up often in recent historiography is unsurprising. In light of how early medievalists have recast their period, it is similarly not surprising to observe that linear earthworks have become “exhibit A” in discussions of the range and power of early medieval governments.[7] The ditches and the resulting banks are thought to be awesome reminders of the power some men had over resources and labor and of early medieval ability to organize tasks on a grand scale.[8]

Figure 2. Sketch Map of the Mercian Frontier.
Offa’s Dyke, Wat’s Dyke, and the Short Dykes are shown. The latter are labeled A to Q.
Cyril Fox. Offa’s Dyke: A Field Survey of the Western Frontier—Works of Mercia in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries A.D. (London: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 1955).

While scholars often have discussed the great dikes of postclassical Europe, some important aspects of their construction and impact remain unexplored. By examining the most famous of all the earthworks, Offa’s Dyke, this essay aims to raise the issue of the environmental significance of the European dikes. Early medieval Europeans’ impact on the landscapes they inhabited is in general a neglected subject, so the effect of constructing a vast earthen structure on the environmental relationships in its vicinity has not been probed. Yet this is a question that deserves as much attention as the geopolitical and military meaning of the dikes, and one whose answer can advance understanding of early medieval societies and rulership. Given the widespread nature of the “ditch-digging” phenomenon in postclassical times, some analysis of how one very grand earthwork made a difference for the ecologies and economies around it can serve as a case study through which to comprehend the culture of earth shifting in barbarian Europe. Such analysis also can shed some light on the nature of pre-modern environmental transformations: As Peter Coates observed, it is easy to underestimate pre-industrial environmental change, and the assumption that true modification of ecological balances “is a function of modernity” prevails.[9] The case of Offa’s Dyke, therefore, offers an opportunity to evaluate the extent to which an eighth-century potentate could shape environments, and to test the current revisionist mode in early medieval historiography, as well as to remind ourselves that pre-modern people, too, lived in environments that they modified, sometimes spectacularly, and not always in intended ways.

Offa’s Construction and its Critics

THE PEOPLE we call Anglo-Saxons were diverse, mostly Germanic-speaking immigrants from northern Europe, who settled in the British isles in the fifth and sixth centuries and formed many separate kingdoms there. The new settlements interacted with the older ones of romanized Britons, whose Latin and Celtic culture, as well as their style of Christianity, may have kept them apart. One of the most potent Anglo-Saxon polities was called Mercia, a name derived from the Old English word for boundary or border, making the Mercians “the people of the border.” The Mercian power base lay in the Midlands of England, but its rulers always were aware of the dangers and opportunities their western borderlands afforded. Indeed Penda, the first very successful Mercian ruler, managed to elevate Mercia’s political profile in the mid-seventh century by allying with the British peoples who lived across Mercia’s western border, in what is today Wales. British support proved invaluable against Mercia’s Anglo-Saxon rivals thereafter, too. Under King Offa, who ruled Mercia between 757 and 796, Mercia enjoyed its heyday. Offa subjected several other Anglo-Saxon rulers in southern England to his authority, and exercised some power over the British peoples who lived in the western part of Britain. His dealings with the British west of Mercia were various and flexible, involving a mixture of alliances, raids, and colonizations. Apparently the earthwork ascribed to Offa, running north-south between Mercian and British spheres of influence, is one part of Offa’s multifarious policies designed to control and exploit the unruly borderland.[10]

Oddly, in light of the evidence for Offa’s success as a Dark Age ruler, the biggest contribution to maintaining Offa’s memory after 796 came from John Asser, a British cleric from Wales, who wrote King Alfred of Wessex’s biography in 893, a good century after Offa’s hegemony. To Asser, Offa was an imperialistic bully whose progeny alone surpassed him in unsavoriness.[11] This makes it more remarkable for Asser to have produced the earliest sure attestation of Offa’s involvement in the great linear earthwork still known as Offa’s Dyke. This structure includes more than one hundred kilometers of ditches, on average two meters deep, with a corresponding bank along their eastern lip, made from the spoil taken from the ditch. Thanks to Asser, few today question that this “great ditch between Britain and Mercia from sea to sea” (that is, from the estuary of the Severn river in the south to the Irish Sea, where the Dee ends its course, in the north) is “Offa’s.” Thanks to a hostile clergyman, in other words, “the greatest public work of the whole Anglo-Saxon period” has become a major piece of evidence for Offa’s importance and power.[12] More, even, than the grandiloquent charters he issued in the territories of other rulers or than his Carolingian-style coinage, the enormous movement of soil ascribed to Offa has served, over the past 1,100 years, to preserve and magnify the reputation of an otherwise forgotten potentate.

Clearly this is no ordinary ditch. Both the artistry of its construction and, especially, its extent impressed Sir Frank Stenton, the pre-eminent Anglo-Saxonist, and induced him to think it unique. Actually it is the tributary of a distinguished local tradition of monumental ditch-digging and earth-moving. Wat’s Dyke is a similar linear earthwork running through the same borderlands as Offa’s Dyke, but restricted to the north and to a mere 65 kilometers’ length. It is now known to be older than Offa’s; a chance discovery of charcoal beneath Wat’s Dyke’s embankment, in the course of salvage work in the mid-1990s, permitted a carbon dating to the mid-fifth century of the construction of Wat’s Dyke.[13] And Wat’s Dyke is in good company. There are also numerous “Short Dykes” and many iron-age barrows around the West Midlands and in Wales, some reused as burials and as claims to ownership of circumventing lands in the sixth and seventh centuries.[14] Archaeologists also have determined that bank rampart defenses, made of earth, circled some of the main royal sites of eighth-century Mercia.[15] All told, these constructions represent sizable movements of soil. Their presence indicates that digging up dirt was not an exceptional or innovative activity in the early medieval West Midlands. Mercia participated in the soil-moving traditions of early medieval Europe at large.

What was exceptional and new about Offa’s Dyke, and what excited the imagination of later generations, was the sheer size of Offa’s enterprise. To Asser, the length “from sea to sea” alone made it noteworthy.[16] Sir Cyril Fox, the first modern archaeologist to study Offa’s Dyke in detail (in the 1920s and 1930s), agreed with Asser.[17] Alas, in recent years this exceptional length has been much reduced by other surveys and digs. It now seems Offa’s Dyke never reached from sea to sea and much of the famous length of the structure appears to have been a gracious gift from Asser to Offa.[18] In particular, the so-called “missing sections” that Fox could not discern through field survey, but whose former existence was to him axiomatic, are now known never to have crossed the foothills of the Cambrian Mountains. The realization abbreviated Offa’s Dyke to just over 100 kilometers from Fox’s postulated 250-odd kilometers’ length; it also raised questions about the military effectiveness of so incomplete a barrier.

Shrunken in its extent and deprived of much of its uniqueness, Offa’s Dyke nevertheless represents a landscape modification of staggering proportions for western England and eastern Wales. It is much more extensive and impressive than any of the other English earthen structures, and indeed than the other early European ones too. With this in mind, we can move beyond the usual questions about the fosse (was it a defense against Welsh raids? was it a demarcation of Mercia’s western border?) by considering the environmental repercussions of Offa’s impressive monument. For whether this trench was a defensive fortification to ward off raids from the highlands, or whether it was a boundary marker designed to clarify to everybody where Mercia lay, it was first a major human manipulation of the local environment. If Offa’s Dyke had an impact on the interaction between local people and ecosystems, it must itself have responded to the environmental conditions that pre-dated it in the marcher area. To unravel how the earthwork fit into local ecologies, as well as economies, can tell us something about environmental thinking in early medieval Mercia and can add to the image of the ineffable Offa revealed by the few chronicles, the handful of charters, and the distinctive silver coins minted under his authority.

Ecology of a Medieval “Public Works Project”

IN ORDER TO form an idea of how Offa’s giant construction project interacted with the environments through which it cut, we can begin by considering its effects on the hydrology of the Welsh-Mercian borderland. At several points along the great earthwork, modern archaeologists have noted its ditch serving as a local, small-scale drainage channel, and in at least one stretch Offa’s Dyke has long served as the preferred bed of a small stream. As a consequence, its bottom has become over-deepened by erosion. Although this was almost definitely not the intention of those who designed the structure, the vast digging has had a small impact on the hydrology of parts of the borderland, improving drainage and hence enhancing cultivability by both removing run-off and lowering the water table, which is good for root growth.[19] Since Offa’s Dyke superimposed itself on an array of pre-extant land-use systems, in most cases ignoring the parish boundaries, grain fields, pastures, and other human transformations wrought by the people who inhabited the borderland, this impact on the way water behaved would have mattered to many people whose economic activities focused on areas the Dyke crossed.[20] At least in some places, water flowed differently after the erection of the bank and the cutting of the ditch, calling on people whose fields, pastures, or woods had been bisected by Offa’s diggers to work out new relationships with the land and with each other.

But the earthwork long attributed to Offa had begun to re-shape the ecological give-and-take of its region even before it was finished. The process of construction itself altered balances people had established with the landscape before Offa took an interest in the area. Charcoal and other traces of a first fiery clearing of a broad swathe of territory around Offa’s Dyke have cropped up in places where archaeologists sampled the earthwork. Such signs remind that the flora, and forms of life dependent on it, received a jolt prior to excavation. Extensive use of fire, the most potent modifier of ecosystems available to pre-industrial humanity, shaped an altered ecosystem more than one hundred kilometers long and at least forty meters wide, often much wider.[21] Making Offa’s Dyke must have increased the biodiversity of the region by giving plants that recolonize quickly in open, burned terrain optimal conditions they may not have enjoyed beforehand.[22]

The method used to clear undergrowth that might impede diggers’ efforts was quite traditional in this part of Britain, where the creation of nutritious summer pasture for flocks of sheep and herds of cattle depended on cyclical burnings.[23] Burnings also could have agricultural purposes: In his catalog of challenging tasks set to his daughter’s suitor, the Medieval Welsh giant Ysbaddaden includes the order to clear a “great thicket” and burn its wood to fertilize the land before plowing. The author of the Mabinogi, a late medieval Welsh collection of adventure stories set in earlier, more heroic days and derived from earlier material, clearly understood the banality of fire in rural Wales.[24] Yet students of Offa’s Dyke have not paid enough attention to the environmental implications of these burnings. Not only does the fact of burning reveal something of the construction technique and the probable timing of the work effort, but it also helps reconstruct the landscape through which Offa’s Dyke coursed. In order for the fire to prepare the way for construction, the people who set it must have chosen a period of the year when the flora was most susceptible to flames, before the spring greening which would rob their fire of its best fuel. Rather than late autumn, when the country might also be combustible but when agriculturalists have much else to do, the period around Easter is the likeliest time, for longer days, scant rainfall, and less agrarian work typified this season.[25] Thus the combustion that preceded the digging fit into the economic and ecological patterns of the borderlands. It represented a concession from the mighty Mercian ruler to local rhythms and customs, and to local climate and botany.

Attention to the ecological effects of large-scale burning such as seems to have preceded the creation of the Mercian earthwork also helps to clarify indigenous types of land use. If the fire were to clear an adequate space along the surveyors’ marking-out bank, the likeliest ecosystem is not one of “damp oakwood forest” so impenetrable that it formed a “completely effective natural obstacle,” as the first modern investigator of Offa’s Dyke postulated.[26] The archaeological traces of burning thus complement other ecologically informed objections to the tradition according to which the Mercian borderland included much forested wilderness. According to Fox, whose opinions about the Dyke only began to be questioned in the late twentieth century, it was especially the areas just south of Hereford in the middle reaches of the Wye River, and west of Shrewsbury around the Severn’s source, where intractable woods excused the Mercian diggers from erecting any artificial barrier against Welsh intruders. Yet in southwestern England woodland is only impenetrable for about sixty years from its regeneration, and there is no reason for thinking that the borderland’s woods had only begun to grow in the early eighth century so as to retain their dense inviolability when Offa needed it. Hence we may assume local woods had the normal mix of mature and younger trees in the 700s and were quite traversable. In any case, in West Midland climatic and geological conditions, grazing deer are enough to keep thick undergrowth at bay, so even in those places along the trajectory of Offa’s Dyke where stands of younger trees clustered, they did not form an impenetrable barrier.[27]

Along with observations on English tree-growth rates and the effects of wild animals’ browsing, the evidence of the use of fire to grub out the terrain for the Dyke helps to establish the degree of forest cover in the region. The burning implies an open woodland landscape with some grasses below whatever stands of trees existed, since shade—inimical to the grasses and brush that help fire—and rainfall made heavily wooded land difficult to burn in Britain. This was something the Anglo-Saxons seem to have understood, as their legislation focused on malicious destruction of single trees by incendiaries, not willful setting of forest fires. A couple of generations before Offa (whose laws are lost), another Anglo-Saxon king compiled a short collection of laws to supplement the customs of Wessex, the kingdom southwest of Mercia. The laws of King Ine impose a heavy fine on anyone convicted of burning a tree in someone else’s woods (“because fire is a thief” whereas “the axe is an informer and not a thief” in the case of illicit felling), but do not imagine the possibility of causing a massive conflagration in a wood.[28]

It is certainly possible to exaggerate the stability and careful management of English woodlands between the Stone Age and the Industrial Revolution.[29] Nevertheless, Fox was surely wrong in his hypothesis that wild, jungle-like forests existed in the eighth century and explained those gaps in the line “from sea to sea” where he could not find traces of the Dyke. Fox’s view depended on a now-outmoded conception of primitive English history and the appropriate landscape for barbarians to inhabit. Though Fox was the most environmentally sensitive of the Dyke’s students, he embraced the idea of a static and passive natural world in pre-industrial England that reflected the rusticity and simplicity of the land’s earliest Englishmen.[30] It now seems that the blissful state of nature ended long before the Anglo-Saxons settled in Britain. Anglo-Saxon woods do not, in fact, appear to have been frightening, desolate no-man’s lands. On the contrary, they were valuable assets, sought after and managed for their resources, including pannage, charcoal, and game. The various human settlements along the course of Offa’s Dyke, especially in Cheshire and Staffordshire, whose name includes the “–leah” ending (today’s “-ley”) that indicates the presence of woods at the time of Anglo-Saxon settlement, suggest that far from being repulsive to people near Offa’s Dyke, woodlands were deeply attractive to them.[31] An interesting account of the humanized nature of the borderland wilderness is in the Life of St. Beuno, a Welsh aristocrat of the early seventh century with ascetic leanings. The biographer, who wrote long after the events he depicted, represented the area near the Wye River where St. Beuno’s ancestral estates lay as a mix of cereal fields and forests through which people and their hunting dogs could pursue game.[32] Thus the cultivated and the uncultivated wooded portions of the borderland landscape intertwined, making an organic unit offering benefits to its human occupants. The utilization of woodland resources in the borderland appears to have been intense. In light of this, it appears that after the great Dyke had been built, an important set of customary practices changed; now berries, mushrooms, charcoal, and leaf-fodder no longer could move from their original locations with the ease that had characterized earlier exchanges in the area. To people on one side of Offa’s Dyke, access to the nutritious seeds of beech and oak trees on the other side also would have become more difficult. The Mercian earthwork affected communication patterns and increased regulation of local movements of woodland products. Fox was therefore right to stress the importance of woods for the history of the great fosse, but his image of enormous, dark oak woods impervious to the passage of people missed the mark. Woodlands mattered to Offa’s Dyke because they were integrated into the borderland economy, not because they were forbidding spaces.

A more moderate and less Romantic sense of the extent and nature of woodland in southwestern Britain is bolstered by studies of pollens preserved from the first millennium A.D. Palynological studies of sites near the Welsh borderlands indicate that agricultural plants continued to grow in the post-Roman period and that any recolonization by wild species after 400 was circumscribed. Indeed, at several Welsh sites there is evidence that woodlands receded between 400 and 800 A.D.[33] Pollen samples have their limitations, as is well known, and the wind-borne pollens always predominate over insect-borne ones, while self-pollinating plants like wheat leave little trace of their past presence; therefore, certain tree species are underrepresented, and grasses are difficult to distinguish by species through their pollens. Moreover, palynologically useful evidence tends to survive in specific sorts of places, and for the borderland that means especially at higher altitudes, not in areas likely to have been most agricultural. Still, palynology is good at detecting massive changes in woodland, and through its lens it does not seem that the Dark Ages marked a period of expansion or strong contraction for the oak, hazel, birch, alder, and ash trees which flourished in the borderland area.[34] At Crose Mere in Shropshire, hazel, a tree that responds well to coppicing and was a favorite in managed woods, actually declined in postclassical times, when flax, buckwheat, and other cereals grew. In postclassical Wales, alders and hazels expanded in some highland contexts, but at other sites pollens typical of open land and pollens from cereals continued to leave signs of their early medieval presence.[35]

In general, the world within which Offa inserted his Dyke emerges from this analysis looking far more humanized than was formerly imagined. Making the great fosse was one of many human manipulations of this land. As such it was less remarkable, perhaps, than it might have been in a countryside less transformed by people. But in another respect the Dyke also took advantage of this human presence. There are no records of Mercian maintenance of the Dyke, and dikes are hardy structures able to survive for centuries even if abraded and reduced by atmospheric and other agents. However, Mercia’s eighth-century rulers were assiduous in asserting their subjects’ obligation to provide labor for “public works” (specifically for repairs to bridges and town fortifications), so we might imagine Offa’s retainers furnishing gangs long after the construction effort to keep the Dyke free of trees and other impediments to visibility.[36] Once it was made, the earthwork participated in a cycle of further modifications, like other human changes on the land, some of which were part of the builders’ design, but some of which were not. Independent of the efforts of those assigned the task of keeping the embankment clear, in the years after construction the Dyke provided a novel habitat to which some plants and animals were better suited. Plant species better able to take advantage of the disturbance, especially grasses, recolonized the raw earth and gave it some stability. (Perhaps the wide berm on Offa’s Dyke, which was tactically dangerous because it gave attackers a foothold as they scaled the mound, had the purpose of facilitating the growth of plants and reducing erosion.) Thus a special, garden-like ecosystem, where sun and wind found fewer obstacles than in other parts of the borderland, could continue to exist for years. Offa’s Dyke was more than a sudden irruption of a special kind of artificial land form on the Welsh-Mercian border, destined to subside rapidly. Along an extensive ribbon of territory, Offa’s Dyke ostentatiously created a unique, enduring ecosystem, more open and sunnier than the wooded landscapes surrounding it, and less intensively exploited than other agrarian spaces it traversed.

Part of the reason the earthwork snaking through the marcher district made a difference to locals may have been related to its hydrological impact or to the changes it fostered in the behavior of plants. But perhaps a more significant reason is that the Dyke draws a careful dividing line between the highlands created by the foothills of the Cambrian Mountains, and the lowlands traversed by the rivers Severn, Wye, Dee, and Teme. These two quite different ecological zones are separated on modern maps by contour lines, and although in one spectacular stretch around Clun Forest north of Knighton the Mercian ditch-and-mound structure climbs to almost four hundred meters in altitude (on Llanfair Hill), along much of its known length Offa’s Dyke tends to respect the two hundred-meter contour.[37] Without modern Ordinance Survey cartography to rely on, the Mercian diggers drew on other indicators for the extent of the lowland they wished to demarcate. The lowlands have a different climate, warmer and drier than that of the uplands, and though, unlike the territory at higher elevations, the lowlands suffer from heavy fogs because of the swift temperature changes and prevailing winds in the highlands, especially the northern ones, it is difficult to grow grain much above two hundred meters in this part of England (it is easier in the south, where the Bristol Channel wafts more temperate air in and extends the growing season in spring and autumn).[38] In the twentieth century, mean July temperatures averaged one degree Celsius less in the Cambrian foothills than farther east, and each one hundred meters of elevation subtracted 0.6 degrees from the average. Rainfall also was much higher, and cloud cover reduced vegetative growth and solar radiation, and diminished the growing season for plants.[39] Of course this need not have been the case 1,300 years ago, but according to standard accounts of the history of climate in the British isles, early medieval people endured colder and damper conditions than those which prevail today; this pattern would have shortened growing seasons and reduced crops’ ability to profit from solar energy everywhere, but the effects would have been more acute in the highlands.[40] Indeed, some speculate that human habitation, rather like tree lines in the Alps, responded to the postclassical climate regime and that upland sites that were frequented in Roman times had to be abandoned because they no longer sustained human economic activities.[41] The Anglo-Saxons in general, and the Mercians in particular, favored river valleys and low-lying areas for their settlements, perhaps driven there by the increased difficulty of farming at higher elevations in the centuries after the Roman legions retreated.[42] In sum, in the territory west of Offa’s Dyke, with the exception of some pockets of fertile valley land, cultivation was even more difficult in the eighth century than it is now.

For Cyril Fox there was another, subterranean explanation for the different cultural adaptations people made to the environments to the west and east of Offa’s Dyke. In his estimation, from the earliest manifestations of human activity in Britain, a major geological fault line separated the highlands and the lowlands of western Britain and produced very different civilizations (though he allowed that other factors impinged as well). The highland zone of Wales has soils that respond anemically to preindustrial agricultural blandishments. The geology of the Welsh borderland is dominated by older “Paleozoic rocks-slates, sandstones, shales, hard and massive limestones.”[43] The younger and softer formations that shaped lowland soils begin abruptly (for Fox “a natural frontier”) and offer conditions in which agricultural activity is most proficuous, something that the Anglo-Saxons understood, judging from the archaeological evidence of their settlement.[44] Thus, in Fox’s rather environmental-deterministic vision, Offa’s Dyke appears as an artificial reiteration of ancient and inexorable geological realities that created two radically separate cultural spheres, one in the agriculturally favored lowlands, and one in the unagricultural highlands of the west.

Even if we accept that environmental conditions guided the human economic adaptations prevalent in the early Middle Ages in western Britain, we should be wary of thinking that the Welsh uplands were cut off and utterly separate from the Mercian lowlands, and that the Dyke merely reflected environmental and economic realities. Climate, geology, and relief together created differences, but people’s choices also made the grain-growing lowlands and the pasture-rich highlands interdependent and complementary.[45] On the eastern slopes of the Cambrian Mountains, especially west of the middle stretch of Offa’s Dyke, herding predominated among people’s productive activities. After the third century, to judge from the pollen evidence, those who lived much above two hundred meters’ altitude expanded their reliance on pasturage and thus, we must presume, on pastoralism. While they exploited the pastures of the higher districts, locals lived in small communities during the early Middle Ages. Because of the tiny size of their communities, the economic specialization of their members, and the ecological constraints imposed by the uplands, inhabitants of the higher areas were accustomed to rely on the larger lowland communities for markets and supplies. For example, in the highlands the summer pastures supported animals whose milk had to be preserved using salt from the lowland, from places along the Bristol Channel that had specialized in salt production in Roman times. Droitwich, in northern Mercia, whose salt works, flooded in the seventh century, revived in Offa’s day, disposed of an excellent network of salt ways along river valleys, and distributed its precious product widely.[46] The Dark Age site of Dinas Powys in southern, coastal Wales, whose faunal remains suggest the locals exported pork and imported beef, might represent the sort of place with which uplanders were in contact: an agricultural community that did not produce everything it consumed, and could spare resources for some luxury consumption.[47] Beyond these simple contacts with agricultural centers able to provide markets, there was another mechanism encouraging borderland connectivity and exchanges between lower lying and highland communities. Transhumance, with a cyclical return to the lower and warmer grasslands in winter, was a vital borderland activity which sewed together in an elaborate quilt of human economic practices the patches of distinct ecological zones that did not correspond tidily to linguistic and “ethnic” zones.[48] The ongoing search for pasture, whose cadences the seasons dictated, led livestock and people through a cycle of movements, uphill and downhill, that integrated high- and lowlands. Even those who tended pigs had reason to use different parts of the landscape at different times of the year, following the rhythms of acorn and mast growth, which also are affected by altitude.[49] Thus east and west of the two hundred-meter contour different adaptations to environmental conditions existed in the 700s, but strong connections stretched across this borderland.

Offa’s intervention therefore amounted to a slicing through the symbiotic ties between lowland and upland economies with a two-meter deep ditch and a correspondingly tall rampart. Offa’s Dyke may therefore have been a king’s attempt to redefine how local resources were allocated in the frontier zone at the close of the era of Mercian conquests at Welsh expense.[50] One of the primary effects of this early “Big Dig” was to make much more arduous movements by herds and people along the natural lines of communication in the region, the “ridge ways” which follow the hydrology and lie on east-west courses.[51] The ridge ways link the highland and lowland regions by means of gently sloping routes whose immemorial use characterized the borderland. Offa’s Dyke, lying on a north-south line, truncates many of these rustic highways. Though it also ignores some roads (and even some Roman valley-bottom highways) that facilitated connections between the eastern and western sections of the borderland, it threw up a respectable impediment to the movement of people, animals, and vehicles between highland and lowland. Indeed, it ran “across the grain of the country.”[52] In the early tenth-century Ordinance Concerning the Dunsaete there survives a meticulous regulation of relations between cattle-, sheep-, pig-, and horse-herders of the upland (by then “Welsh”) and lowland (mostly English) in the Wye valley.[53] This Ordinance is an exceptional document, a short statement of current legal practice written down without official involvement by two neighboring communities for whom murder and animal theft were the primary concerns. Despite its uniqueness, the pact allows some useful observations into borderland conditions a century and a half after Offa. It is well to remember that there is no earlier evidence of the identification of Welsh-speakers with animal herding and of English speakers with more sedentary occupations: the early seventh-century St. Beuno, a proper Welsh farmer, was horrified when he first heard guttural English spoken close to his grain fields by Anglo-Saxon hunters.[54] In the deep heartlands of Mercia, moreover, eighth-century landlords made ample use of pasture and woods even as they reorganized the agrarian landscape to increase their ability to profit from it.[55] The point, then, is that early medieval people developed flexible and varied strategies to cope with their environments, and it is imprudent to exaggerate the divide between agricultural and agropastoral land-use in central Britain.[56]

But perhaps the Ordinance reflects the tensions that arose after the erection of Offa’s Dyke in one special corner of Britain, when the complementary economies of the highland shepherds and the lowland farmers, already affected by the early medieval cold spell, had been severed and ethnicized—and, when, to put it another way, the natural integration of this peripheral region’s hills and valleys was interrupted and redirected by the political and cultural aspirations of an outsider, Offa.

The Culture of Offa’s Dyke

BY THE LATE seventh century, literate Anglo-Saxons were Christians, and some of the ideological distance between them and the Britons shrank. Despite Christianization, some learned Anglo-Saxons could still write about an anthropomorphic Mother Earth; but since the pre-Christian religion of the Anglo-Saxons was transmitted orally, and since Anglo-Saxon folklore likewise went unrecorded for posterity, it is not possible to say with certainty what numinous echoes Offa’s manipulation of the matter from which all life springs and to which all life reverts may have had for eighth-century audiences.[57] At any rate, medieval writers, even before the twelfth-century Renaissance, did like to think of nature as a goddess so as to advertise their classical learning.[58] In the end, to evaluate the cultural impact Offa’s Dyke may have had we must content ourselves with some suggestive bits of evidence. They indicate that Old English interpretation of landscape signs was refined. For instance, the common re-use of older stone and earthen monuments by Dark Age people implies an ongoing interest in the land’s markers, and a capacity to reinterpret and culturally appropriate them for Dark Age purposes.[59]

Likewise the literary products of the Anglo-Saxon imagination contain several examples of how landscape signs were carefully parsed. In their physical world Anglo-Saxon literati divined many traces of past people’s monumental activity, suggesting a poignant awareness of humanity’s capacity to change its surroundings, yet the writers remained realistic, convinced also of the inevitable brevity of people’s efforts to reconfigure the environment.[60] One recent study of how Anglo-Saxon poets imagined the natural world stresses that within God’s Creation English people perceived endless menaces. Plants, animals, and the weather (we are talking about England, after all) turn up in Anglo-Saxon poetry as hostile forces with overwhelming power over humans. This glum representation of the natural environment is quite unlike contemporary ones created by Welsh and Irish literati; it distinguishes an English poetic tradition. In this tradition, however, there is also a category of heroic Übermenschen whose capacity to resist the hostile forces of nature, to dominate them, and even to compel them to serve the heroes’ ends, is a measure of their greatness.[61]

If one were to apply these findings to Offa’s Dyke, it would emerge that, to people imbued with the “metropolitan” culture of the literate and to those with the power to make monuments, the architect of the grandiose ditch-and-bank structure in western Mercia was a hero rather like a Beowulf or a Hrothgar. For whatever else the Dyke was, it was a bold manipulation of the landscape and an imposition of a new human form on the resilient earth, hills, and gorges of the borderland. By refashioning complex ecosystems along a respectable stretch of land, by reshaping the natural interconnectedness of hills and plains, and by the sheer flagrance of its unmistakable presence on the land, Offa’s Dyke triumphed over the early medieval borderland environment, exhibiting Offa’s mastery of space, labor, and nature. Offa’s Dyke certainly possessed an uncommon longevity compared to the fleeting interventions of other people.

Today, when wind and rain and the tireless burrowing of badgers have wrought havoc on the Dyke, it may seem to us that the Anglo-Saxon writers were not so wrong in their evaluation of humans’ basic powerlessness before natural forces. But in the short run, Offa may have won a heroic victory over oblivion. Thanks to Asser, and thanks to those medieval readers who perpetuated Asser’s assertions, the victory against time’s effacement obtained by Offa’s great digging also had a long-term impact on people’s memory. This was fortunate, as the more standard measures of royal success—the narrative histories, the charters, and the other official tools of government—survive sparsely from Offa’s reign. The meteoric decline of the fortunes of the royal Mercian line in the ninth century seems to have eliminated most Mercian records, and consigned Offa, quite early on, to the gloomiest corners of the Dark Ages, where what little light shines derives from the pens of people who were neither Mercian nor friendly toward Mercia’s kings.[62]

At the conclusion of his biography of Offa, Matthew Paris, a monk of St. Alban’s who wrote an important chronicle for his abbey in the thirteenth century, inveighed against the laxity of the monastery’s early abbots, who had failed to secure for their house the tomb of that great ruler of Mercia. Since Offa had founded St. Alban’s, just north of London, Matthew thought it a “reprehensible negligence” for the monastery not to have manifested its gratitude, and also its prestigious royal connections, with an appropriate burial place for its primitive benefactor. Matthew certainly did his part to retrieve Offa, and went to great lengths to find things out about him and include them in his historical works. Yet even as he cleaned up a somewhat unsavory reputation which clung to Offa into the 1200s, the chronicler had to make up much of what he said about the Mercian king. Thus Matthew endowed him with that special clairvoyance that leads people to discover long-lost relics like those of the martyred saint Alban, and blamed Offa’s wife for some notorious sanguinary acts that took place during his long reign.

Overall, Matthew’s writings about Offa indicate how, 450 years after his death, even people with the skill and desire to learn about him had little to go on. What St. Alban’s historian wrote about Offa’s tomb is revealing in this regard. Hearsay suggested Offa was buried in 796 in a chapel on the banks of the river Ouse near Bedford, north of St. Alban’s, but the river soon washed the chapel away. Summertime bathers in the Ouse told Matthew that sometimes one could spy Offa’s sepulcher beneath the river’s clear waters; however, all attempts to retrieve it failed. Like the historical figure about whom Matthew wanted to know, Offa’s tomb was unreachable.[63] This episode in early underwater archaeology serves to underscore the central importance of Offa’s Dyke to the king’s memory. Like the crystalline waters of the Ouse, which afforded tantalizing glimpses of the patron-king’s precious tomb, so the great fosse dividing England from Wales offers the best views into the history of the Mercian borderland in the eighth century and into the rule of an evanescent early medieval potentate. But if his Dyke proved the most enduring and memorable of Offa’s creations, it did so by making a difference to the borderland environment. It is a reminder that environmental transformation was not a modern invention. As postclassical Europeans emerge from the historiographical shadows endowed with hitherto unsuspected capabilities, it is wise to recall that they, like all other people, dealt with environmental realities creatively, as Offa did.

Paolo Squatriti teaches medieval European history at the University of Michigan. Much of his work to date has centered on the relations between people and landscapes, especially in early medieval Italy. He heartily recommends taking a hike along the remnants of Offa’s Dyke in modern England.


I am grateful to Alison Cornish, Rich Hoffmann, Michael Wintroub, and the editor and referees of this journal for suggesting improvements to my article.
1.� Chris Wickham, Land and Power (London: Variorum Reprints, 1994), 33–36.

2.� Adriaan Verhulst, The Carolingian Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Michael McCormick, The Origins of the European Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Olivier Bruand, Voyageurs et merchandises aux temps carolingiens (Brussels: De Boeck Université, 2002); Richard Hodges, Towns and Trade in the Age of Charlemagne (London: Duckworth, 2000).

3.� Giampiero Brogiolo and Sauro Gelichi, Le città nell’alto medioevo italiano (Bari: Laterza, 1998); Robert Fossier, “L’économie du haut Moyen Age entre Loire et Rhin,” in La fortune historiographique des thèses d’Henri Pirenne, (Brussels: Archives et bibliothèques du Belgique, 1986), 51–59 are miserabilists. Bryan Ward-Perkins, “Continuitists, Catastrophists, and the Towns of Post-Roman Northern Italy,” Papers of the British School at Rome 65 (1997), 157–76, surveys the issues.

4.� Gerd Althoff, Spielregeln der Politik im Mittelalter (Darmstadt, Germany: Primus, 1997); Janet Nelson, “The Historiography of the Medieval State,” in Companion to Historiography, ed. Michael Bentley (London: Routledge, 1997); Barbara Rosenwein, “The Family Politics of Berengar I, King of Italy (888–924)” Speculum 71 (1996): 247–89.

5.� Bernard Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).

6.� Some recent examples: T. M. Charles-Edwards, “Wales and Mercia,” in Mercia: An Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in Europe, ed. Michelle P. Brown and Carol A. Farr (London: Leicester University Press, 2001), 90; Gareth Williams, “Military Institutions and Royal Power,” ibid., 302; Joanna Story, Carolingian Connections: Anglo-Saxon England and Carolingian Francia c.750–870 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), 174–5; Ian W. Walker, Mercia and the Making of England (Stroud, England: Sutton, 2000), 8–10.

7.� For a quick introduction to this topic and a survey of the literature, see Paolo Squatriti, “Digging Ditches in Early Medieval Europe,” Past and Present 176 (2002): 11–18.

8.� It is unwise to exaggerate this point. Using simple tools and family labor, persistent people can erect big, visible, long-lived structures. See Charles John Erasmus, “Monument Building: Some Field Experiments,” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 21 (1965): 277–301; Gary S. Webster, “Monuments, Mobilization, and Nuragic Organization,” Antiquity 65 (1991): 840–56.

9.� Peter Coates, Nature: Western Attitudes Since Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 40; the title of John R. McNeill’s fine book, Something New Under the Sun (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), implies modernity was a radical departure in the environmental history of the world, after millennia of relative changelessness.

10.� A straightforward introduction to early Mercian history is in Walker, Mercia, 1–21.

11.� John Asser, De Rebus Gestis Aelfredi, ed. William Henry Stevenson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1904), 12. Asser’s evaluation of Offa’s offspring held sway into the twelfth century: Symeon of Durham, Historia Regum 64, ed. Thomas Arnold, Rerum Britannicarum Medii Aevi Scriptores 75.2 (London: Longman, 1885), 66.

12.� Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 212. This opinion still echoes: Edward James, Britain in the First Millennium (London: Arnold, 2001), 145; Williams, “Military Institutions,” 302.

13.� This disproved that Wat’s was contemporary with or later than Offa’s Dyke: Medieval Archaeology 42 (1998): 150–1.

14.� Nancy Edwards, “Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculptures in Wales,” Medieval Archaeology 45 (2001): 18–19, 36–8; Howard Williams, “Ancient Landscapes and the Dead,” Medieval Archaeology 41 (1997): 1–32; C. J. Arnold, An Archaeology of the Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London: Routledge, 1997), 224: Robert Van de Noort, “The Context of Early Medieval Barrows in Western Europe,” Antiquity 67 (1993): 67–9.

15.� Martin Welch, “The Archaeology of Mercia,” Mercia, ed. Brown and Farr, 159.

16.� Asser, De Rebus 14, p. 12: “vallum magnum inter Britanniam atque Merciam de mari usque ad mare.”

17.� Cyril Fox, Offa’s Dyke: A Field Survey of the Western Frontier—Works of the Mercia in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries A.D. (London: Oxford University Press, 1955).

18.� Concise accounts of how recent surveys pared down the Dyke include Margaret Worthington, “Offa’s Dyke,” in Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England ed. Michael Lapidge, et al. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 342; David Hill, “Offa’s Dyke: Pattern and Purpose,” Antiquaries Journal 80 (2000): 195–206.

19.� Della Hooke, Anglo-Saxon Landscapes of the West Midlands (London: British Archaeological Reports, 1981), 260, discusses other dikes’ usefulness in controlling floods. On how Offa’s Dyke became a drain, see Fox, Offa’s Dyke, 78; Frank Noble, Offa’s Dyke Reviewed (London: British Archaeological Reports, 1983), 61; Helen Burnham, Clwyd and Powys (London: HMSO, 1995), 109.

20.� On the Dyke’s relation to older land systems and boundaries, see Fox, Offa’s Dyke, 121–3, 267–71, 283–4; Noble, Offa’s Dyke Reviewed, 11, 20, 49–50, 76; Margaret Gelling, The West Midlands in the Early Middle Ages (Leicester, England: Leicester University Press, 1992), 104–5.

21.� David Hill, “Offa’s and Wat’s Dykes,” Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society 79 (1977), 29, 31; Patrick Wormald, “The Age of Alcuin and Offa,” in The Anglo-Saxons, ed. James Campbell (Oxford: Phaidon, 1982), 121, generalize from “numerous fragments of carbon in the pollen preparations” at one northern site that was meticulously sampled.

22.� George F. Peterken, Natural Woodland: Ecology and Conservation in Northern Temperate Regions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 91–5, 117–39.

23.� Stephen J. Pyne, Vestal Fire (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 350–2, 363; Christopher Y. Tilley, A Phenomenology of Landscape (Oxford: Berg, 1994), 117. The firing also may have signaled possession: Johan Gouldsblom, Fire and Civilization (London: Allen Lane, 1992), 29, 32; Pyne, Vestal Fire, 355. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records such appropriative use of fire in England in 1006 (English Historical Documents 1, trans. Dorothy Whitelock (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1955), 218.

24.�The Mabinogion, trans. Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones (London: Dent, 1949), 113.

25.� David Hill, “The Construction of Offa’s Dyke,” Antiquaries Journal 65 (1985): 141, discusses agricultural calendar and construction. Much later Welsh accounts identified the summer, after the year’s campaigning was over, as the season for the Dyke’s erection: Brut y Tywysogion AD 784, ed. and trans. John Williams (London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1860), 9.

26.� Fox, Offa’s Dyke, 207, 270 mirrored the Romantic notions of William G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1955) for whom the pristine English Urwald survived until industrialization. William Linnard, Welsh Woods and Forests. A History (Llandysul: Gomer, 2000), 19, follows Fox. Actually oak woods burn very poorly in England: Pyne, Vestal Fire, 365; Petra Dark, The Environment of Britain in the First Millennium (London: Duckworth, 2000), 7–9; Peterken, Natural Woodland, 335.

27.� Noble, Offa’s Dyke Reviewed, 8, assailed Fox’s notion of primeval forests. Noble observed, 31, local rates of tree growth (and of shrubbery in the ill-lit ground below the trees) and the effects of deer grazing. See also Dark, Environment of Britain, 122; Wendy Davies, Wales in the Early Middle Ages (Leicester, England: Leicester University Press, 1982), 10–12, who argues for more woods, especially at the higher altitudes where moors now prevail; and Gelling, West Midlands, 6–19, who thinks woodlands were circumscribed.

28.�The Laws of King Ine chap. 43 (Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen 1, ed. Felix Liebermann (Halle: M. Niemeyer, 1903), 108–9; translated into modern English by Whitelock, English Historical Documents 1, 309). See also later West Saxon legislation, like The Laws of King Alfred chap. 12 (Liebermann, 56–7; Whitelock, 376). On Offa’s law, Patrick Wormald, “In Search of King Offa’s ‘Law Code’,” in People and Places in Northern Europe, ed. Ian Wood and Niels Lund (Woodbridge, England: Boydell Press, 1991), 25–45.

29.� Oliver Rackham’s “continuationist” views on British forests are expressed in History of the Countryside (London: Dent, 1986) and Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape (London: Dent, 1993). See also his “The Medieval Countryside of England,” in Inventing Medieval Landscapes, ed. John Howe and Michael Wolfe (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2002), 15–7, 21.

30.� Robin Alan Butlin, Historical Geography: Through the Gates of Space and Time (London: E. Arnold, 1993), 99–101, comments on Fox’s style of environmental history “avant la lettre.” On Fox’s approach to Anglo-Saxon studies, see also Arnold, An Archaeology, 9–10.

31.� Gelling, West Midlands, 6, and Dark, Environment of Britain, 2, on “-leah” endings; Dark, Environment of Britain, 104 , and Patrick Sims-Williams, Religion and Literature in Western England 600–800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 389–90 on the utility and attractiveness of woodlands.

32.� “Beuno Sant” ch. 8, trans. Arthur W. Wade-Evans, Archaeologia Cambrensis 85 (1930), 316. The original fourteenth-century Welsh text is in Vitae Sanctorum Britanniae et Geneaologiae, ed. Wade-Evans (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1944), 17.

33.� Ian Tyers et al., “Trees and Woodland in Anglo-Saxon England,” in Environment and Economy in Anglo-Saxon England ed. James Rackham (York: Council for British Archaeology, 1994), 12–22; and esp. S. P. Dark, “Palaeoecological Evidence for Landscape Continuity and Change in Britain c. 400–800,” in External Contacts and the Economy of Late Roman and Post-Roman Britain, ed. Ken R. Dark (Woodbridge, England: Boydell Press, 1996), 32–33, 37–38, 40–44, 46–47, 50.

34.� On the species predominant in this area of Britain, see Oliver Rackham, “Trees and Woodland in Anglo-Saxon England,” 7–8, in Environment and Economy, ed. Rackham; Davies, Wales, 12; Jim Gould, “Lichfield Before St Chad,” Medieval Archaeology and Architecture at Lichfield, ed. John Maddison (Leeds: British Archaeological Association, 1993), 1; Linnard, Welsh Woods, 18–25. The portentous oak St. Beuno planted over his father’s grave that killed all Anglo-Saxons foolish enough to pass under it is a rare example of early medieval reforestation in which the tree species is known: “Beuno Sant,” ch. 6, trans. Wade-Evans, 316.

35.� Dark, Environment of Britain, 81, 115, 143–4.

36.� Nicholas Brooks, “The Development of Military Obligation in Eighth- and Ninth-Century England,” in England Before the Conquest, ed. Peter Clemoes and Kathleen Hughes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 69–84.

37.� On the altitude of the dike, see Fox, Offa’s Dyke, 291; Della Hooke, The Landscape of Anglo-Saxon England (Leicester, England: Leicester University Press, 1998), 42; John Davies, A History of Wales (London: Allen Lane, 1990), 65. On the importance of the two-hundred-meter contour, Sims-Williams, Religion, 368.

38.� On rainfall and fogs, see Davies, Wales, 6; Sims-Williams, Religion, 364, 370–1, 377–80; Nancy Edwards, “Landscape and Settlement in Medieval Wales,” in Landscape and Settlement in Medieval Wales, ed. Nancy Edwards (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 1997), 1.

39.� Peter Vincent, Biogeography of the British Isles (London: Routledge, 1990), 29–34. Peterken, Natural Woodland, 35, suggests Wales and England have similar growing conditions for woods.

40.� Hubert H. Lamb, “Climate from 1000 BC to 1000 AD,” in The Environment of Man, ed. Martin Jones and Geoffrey W. Dimbleby (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 1981), 57, 60 and his Climate, History and the Modern World (London: Methuen, 1982), 157; Dark, Environment of Britain, 19–33; Mario Pinna, “Il clima nell’alto medioevo,” Settimane di studio del CISAM 37 (Spoleto, Italy: Centro italiano per lo studio dell’alto medioevo, 1990), 438–46; Carole L. Crumley, “The Ecology of Conquest,” in Historical Ecology ed. Carole L. Crumley (Santa Fe, N.M.: School of American Research Press, 1994), 196; Joel D. Gunn, “AD 536 and its 300-Year Aftermath,” in Tracing AD 536 and Its Aftermath, ed Joel D. Gunn (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 2000), 11.

41.� Abandonment was not restricted to high altitude sites. See Stephen Rippon, The Transformation of Coastal Wetlands (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 138, 142–3. On reduced human activity above 150 meters, see Dark, Environment of Britain, 152–3.

42.� Arnold, An Archaeology, 61–5; Tony Brown and Glenn Foard, “The Saxon Landscape,” in The Archaeology of Landscape, ed. Paul Everson and Tom Williamson (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1998), 69–71.

43.� Cyril Fox, The Personality of Britain (Cardiff: National Museum of Wales, 1943), 29–37. For Welsh podology, see Vincent, Biogeography, 41.

44.� Fox, Personality, 33.

45.� S. C. Stanford, The Archaeology of the Welsh Marches (London: Collins, 1980), 19, makes this point well.

46.� Rippon, The Transformation, 116, 133; Welch, “The Archaeology,” 156–7; Della Hooke, “Mercia: Landscape and Environment,” in Mercia, ed. Brown and Farr, 171.

47.� Roberta Gilchrist, “A Reappraisal of Dinas Powys,” Medieval Archaeology 32 (1988): 57–59.

48.� For Mercian rural settlement, see Sims-Williams, Religion, 361–3; on Welsh settlement, see Edwards, “Landscape,” 2–5. Nicholas Higham, The Origins of Cheshire (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1993), 102, points out that parts of Mercia were agricultural backwaters. Dark, “Palaeoecological Evidence,” 36, discusses the shift from agriculture to pasture after c. 400 in highland districts. On herding and transhumance, see Fox, Personality, 14–16; Davies, Wales, 39–41; Tilley, A Phenomenology, 113, 117, 120; D. P. Kirby, “Welsh Bards and the Border,” in Mercian Studies ed. Ann Dornier (Leicester: Leicester University Press 1977), 37–39, shows cattle to have been the most desirable animals in the borderlands, despite the higher valuation of stallions in the Ordinance Concerning the Dunsaete (treated below). On ethnicity and settlement, see Diane Brook, “The Early Christian Church East and West of Offa’s Dyke,” in The Early Church in Wales and the West, ed. Nancy Edwards and Alan Lane (Oxford: Oxbow, 1992), 82–3; Wendy Davies, Patterns of Power in Early Wales (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 62.

49.� Swine were highly protected animals in the fine-list of The Ordinance Concerning the Dunsaete (see below). The Laws of Ine chap. 44 (Liebermann, 109; Whitelock, 369) heavily sanction the felling of a tree that can shelter thirty swine. Oliver Rackham and Alfred Thomas Grove The Nature of Mediterranean Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 194–5 discuss acorn production.

50.� That the Dyke ended the Saxon expansion was suggested by John Edward Lloyd, A History of Wales 1 (London: Longman, 1911), 198; see also Sims-Williams, Religion, 53.

51.� That moving beasts across the Dyke became harder (in the context of Welsh cattle rustling) is stressed by Fox, Offa’s Dyke, 170 (“it might be impossible … to induce fat Mercian beeves … to negotiate such a barrier”), 271; Noble, Offa’s Dyke Reviewed, 42; Wormald, “The Age,” 119; Davies, Wales, 110; Worthington, “Offa’s Dyke,” 342. On the ridge ways’ (and other routes’) natural east-west orientation following the geography, Fox, Offa’s Dyke, 45, 113, 114, 116, 163 fig. 69, 167 n.2, 168–70, 205; Noble, Offa’s Dyke Reviewed, 29, 42–45, 56–57, 63, 67, 69, 82–83; Davies, Wales, 14; Davies, Wales, 31 shows Roman roads sagely followed the east-west folds in the topography. See also Victor Erle Nash-Williams and Michael G. Jarret, The Roman Frontier in Wales (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1969). In economies where pastoralism has importance, continuous physical boundaries that hamper movement (as opposed to imagined ones created by a few fixed landmarks) are unpopular: Luciano Lagazzi, Segni sulla terra (Bologna, Italy: CLUEB, 1992), 86.

52.� Cyril Fox, “The Boundary Line of Cymru,” Proceedings of the British Academy 26 (1940): 279. On ridge ways interrupted by Offa’s Dyke, see also Stanford, Archaeology, 192–3.

53.�Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen v. 1, ed. Lieberman, 374–9; v. 2, 214–9; v. 3, 355–6; Noble, Offa’s Dyke Reviewed, 105–9; Patrick Wormald, The Making of English Law (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 232, 381–2. “Dunsaete” means “hill-people” according to Sims-Williams, Religion, 9.

54.� “Beuno Sant” ch. 8, trans. Wade-Evans, 316. The ethnicization of Beuno’s encounter is probably due to the late composition of his biography.

55.� Brown and Ford, “The Saxon Landscape,” 79–82.

56.� Peter Sawyer, From Roman Britain to Norman England (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978), 51–56, catalogs affinities between Celtic and Germanic societies in Britain.

57.� Karen Jolly, “Father God and Mother Earth,” in The Medieval World of Nature, ed. Joyce E. Salisbury (New York: Garland, 1993), 222–3, 235 analyzes the “Averbot Charm.”

58.� George Economou, The Goddess Natura in Medieval Literature (South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002), 28–58.

59.� See note 14 above.

60.� Nicholas Howe, “The Landscape of Anglo-Saxon England: Inherited, Invented, Imagined,” in Inventing Medieval Landscapes, ed. John Howe, Wolfe, 92–93, 95–96.

61.� Jennifer Neville, Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 8–18, 38–41 (comparing Irish and Welsh compositions; on Welsh compositions, see also Nora K. Chadwick “The Celtic Background of Early Anglo-Saxon England,” Celt and Saxon: Studies in the Early British Border, ed. Nora K. Chadwick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 337–40), 64–67 (on the heroic, and divine, power to refashion nature), 114–33 (examples of such heroism). See also Coates, Nature, 58–59.

62.� Frank Stenton, “The Supremacy of the Mercian Kings,” in Preparatory to ‘Anglo-Saxon England,’ ed. Doris Mary Stenton (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), 62, called Offa “at once the most important and the most obscure of early English rulers.” For the charters, see Walter de Gray Birch, Cartularium Saxonicum 1 (London: Whiting, 1885); for the coins, Philip Grierson, Mark Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 276–82; for the narratives, see the laconic entries in the tenth-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, between A.D. 755 and 796, in the variant versions of an account sponsored by the court (of Wessex) that most benefited from Mercia’s eclipse (Whitelock, English Historical Documents 1, 162–8). Carolingian sources were ambivalent about Charlemagne’s rival: Janet Nelson, “Carolingian Contacts,” in Mercia, ed. Brown and, Farr, 132–3; Story, Carolingian Connections, 135, 138.

63.�Vitae Duorum Offarum, in Matthaei Paris Chronica Maior, ed. William Wats (London, 1684 {orig. 1571}), 980–1 (misdeeds of his wife), 983 (invention of the relics), 987 (burial, with Matthew’s theatrical laments for the “supina fatuitas” and “neglegentia reprehensibilis” of the early abbots). Note that it is “juxta multorum opinionem” that Offa died at Offeley, that “refert autem usque in hodiernum diem omnium fere comprovincialium assertio” about erosion, that “ut quamplurimi perhibent” the tomb fell into the middle of the river, and it is the “incolis loci” who see it underwater (987): Matthew had delved into local oral traditions for information.