Medieval Dartmoor

Dartmoor National Park

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About 1,000 years ago, medieval England began to prosper. The climate improved, making the growing season longer, with bumper harvests, and the population expanded. Competition for land forced people to start farming on the fringes of the higher moor, like their Bronze Age ancestors. They laid out new fields, sometimes based on the stone boundaries of prehistoric fields, and terraced the hillsides. The high moor began to flourish once more.

In the 1340s the Black Death struck. It killed thousands of people, and a worsening climate meant crops repeatedly failed. These upland settlements began to be abandoned as conditions deteriorated, and better land became available elsewhere. The medieval communities survived on the lower ground and began to prosper again, due to the vibrant wool and tin industries. When you look across Dartmoor today, you can still see much of the medieval landscape as it would have looked 700 years ago, with its old manor houses, churches and medieval fields.

For five years, local volunteers have been researching Dartmoor in the middle ages as part of a project called ‘Moor Medieval’. Volunteers have looked at manorial records, undertaken archaeological excavations, examined maps and dug through the archives. Using much of the group’s research, the film ‘Living and Dying on Medieval Dartmoor’ highlights what life on the moor would have been like during this time (running time 12 mins 46 secs).  

Dartmoor is home to one of England’s most iconic deserted medieval villages. The film ‘Houndtor: A Contested Landscape’ (running time 19 mins 35 secs), tells the story of Houndtor medieval village and celebrates the contribution that pioneering female archaeologist, Marie Minter, made towards our understanding and conservation of Dartmoor’s heritage.

Initially thought to have 8th century origins, the settlement is now considered to have emerged as a permanent village in the early 13th century.

As well as investigating the story of the dig and its finds, the film reveals documentary evidence surrounding the marching of 26 men on the ‘vill’ in the 1230s and the tumultuous 1300s, during which climatic change, the agrarian crisis of 1315-1322 and the Black Death of 1348-9 all left their mark on the village.

What caused Houndtor medieval village to be abandoned? Was it a case of retreat and defeat or were the villagers forced out?

Featuring interviews with surviving relatives of the 1960s archaeologists, local historians, volunteers and medieval re-enactments, it also includes new research and input from members of the ‘Moor Medieval’ Study Group.

Use Dartmoor National Park’s Heritage Trails interactive map to look for medieval records across Dartmoor and plan your own walk for when the lockdown restrictions are lifted. 

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