Our homes are fragile things. Even in today's world of durable building materials, the houses we live in will not endure much longer than we do. Communities become the foundations of larger communities, and so most of the places where our forebears' dwelt are lost under the concrete of our modern towns. Where such places remain rural, the structures that stand there are soon broken by weather and plough or by the simple pragmatism of re-use.
The buildings that have survived since medieval times are built of stone. They are the relics of those who ruled, whether by sword or cross, but the homes of their subjects were altogether more ephemeral. We call these subjects 'peasants', and we think of them as different from ourselves, but in an important way they were much the same. They were the ordinary majority of the populace. Had we lived then, we would have lived among them and shared their lot.
There are more than a thousand undisputed locations of ancient hamlets in Britain. Twice as many sites again are strong candidates for Deserted Medieval Village1 status. One of the best preserved is known as Gainsthorpe, five miles south-east of Brigg in rural North Lincolnshire, and this Entry explains the little we know of its history.
The Vicinity Today
Very little of Lincolnshire rises over 100 metres above sea level, or for that matter approaches the average English population density of 300 people per square kilometre. The prevailing landscape is conspicuously agricultural and flat, and the area around Gainsthorpe is typical. The site is on the lee slope of a shallow limestone escarpment, with the Trent valley to the west. The Romans drove a road along the ridge, exploiting its north-south alignment. We know it as Ermine Street today, or more prosaically as the A15, and Gainsthorpe lies 500 metres east of it alongside a minor road linking the villages of Kirton Lindsey and Hibaldstow.
The remains of Gainsthorpe village are almost as hard to spot as the chain of hills on which it stands. There are modern farm buildings at the south-east corner of the preserved field, but on all sides beyond it the ground is tilled and has long been subjected to intensive agriculture. Half a mile to the west is a limestone quarry. As a result of this later activity, all the remaining evidence of the ancient settlement lies in a roughly square area 200 metres across. There is no trace of masonry: the sole prominent features are shallow trenches and low banks, and a casual inspection would miss their significance. A more diligent observer might notice that some are unnaturally straight and others too sharply curved to be accidental, but it is only when seen from the air that the structure of deliberate earthworks becomes obvious.
Foster and Crawford
The proximity of Ermine Street caused Gainsthorpe to be overlooked for a long time. Roman relics are widespread through much of Europe, and by the early 20th Century the legacy of the world's first wave of globalisation was consequently being treated as something of an archaeological commodity. The Gainsthorpe site was known, but presumed to be adjunct to and contemporary with a 2nd Century road fort. Among the people who underestimated the importance of the site was a local cleric, Canon Foster of Timberlands, who drew up his Lincolnshire Domesday and the Lindsey Survey in 1924. He included an appendix which listed all of North Lincolnshire's known medieval settlements, and his list proved to be pioneering since its many emulations provided the foundation for the modern record. He omitted Gainsthorpe, though, because of its apparent Roman roots.
Foster nonetheless knew that there was a medieval Gainsthorpe somewhere: he just failed to locate it. There is a village mentioned in Domesday as the second settlement of Gamal, but until this obscure Danish landowner's main demesne2 was identified, Gamelstorp could have been anywhere among hundreds of square miles of rural Lindsey. In Foster's time, around 2,000 of the 13,000 places mentioned in Domesday were similarly untraced, but the consolidation of records made possible by the Internet has reduced the number to a few dozen today. The administrative systems of Danelaw were still in place in Lincolnshire right up to the time of the Normans, and wapentake3 sources pinpoint Gamal's manor at Hibaldstow, only two miles from the Gainsthorpe site. The similarity of names seems obvious now, but the transposition of letters that converted Gamelstorp to Gainsthorpe seems to have been the result of a relatively modern clerical error. The proximity of the entirely unrelated town of Gainsborough probably helped.
It didn't take the Internet to put Gainsthorpe on the medieval map, however. Within a couple of years of Foster's book, a man named Osbert Crawford took a hand. Crawford had studied geography at Oxford before serving as an observer in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I, and this combination of experiences convinced him of the effectiveness of aerial photography as a map-making tool. By the mid-1920s he was demonstrating its usefulness in testing the historical record too. He became the first Archaeological Officer at the Ordnance Survey, and the highlight of his spectacularly iconoclastic career was to be the discovery of Woodhenge. In 1925 he photographed a series of Lincolnshire sites from the air, and the images of Gainsthorpe quickly dispelled any idea of Roman antecedence. This was clearly something different. Crawford and others who followed him rapidly found similar sites, and the realisation that a characteristic village layout of medieval England had been discovered soon followed.
Classifying the Earthworks
We now know that what we see at Gainsthorpe is the partial footprint of a much larger community. The centre was probably about 200 metres beyond the existing northern boundary. What remains contains a possible manorial complex with a fishpond and two dovecotes, and two distinct streets running east-west. Along these streets are the traces of footings of some 30 buildings, including longhouses and barns. Many of these have an associated croft or toft, the typical allotment variants of the feudal homestead. There are also fragments of field boundaries in the form of ridge and furrow structures.
More recent records than those of the Normans mention Gainsthorpe too. The next after Domesday is from an ecclesiastical survey of 1208 in the reign of King John. At that time, the place still referred to as Gamelstorp had a chapel and a windmill. After that, the only substantive references are in the writings of one man at the end of the 17th Century. Abraham de la Pryme was another churchman who felt moved to record his parish's history. He called the village Gainsthorpe, but he was already writing about an abandoned settlement consisting of nothing more than humps and hollows in the soil.
In 1697, de la Pryme wrote in his diaries about a trip to Lincoln from the village of Broughton where he was curate. He travelled along Ermine Street and visited the remains of Gainsthorpe en route. He recalls that local tradition had Gainsthorpe as once being a 'pretty large town' and that he 'easily counted the foundations of about two hundred buildings and beheld three streets very fair'. He also refers to another local story which has Gainsthorpe as a community of thieves and that the village was destroyed in a planned and collective action by their long-suffering neighbours. De la Pryme prefers a less romantic explanation: 'I fancy that the town has been eaten up with time, poverty and pasturage'.
Life in Gainsthorpe Village
The manor at Gainsthorpe was not a very grand building, even though it was the home of the most prosperous and revered member of its community. Its main distinction from its neighbours, apart from its size, was the keeping of livestock in a separate barn. It would most likely have been a cruck4 house, in common with the others in the village. If any stone was used in its construction it was probably limited to hearth and chimney, and none of it is evident today.
Cruck houses were built using timber in an A-frame construction with a single longitudinal roof beam. Their walls were made by plastering a woven panel of branches or reeds with mud, a so-called 'wattle and daub' construction. The roof was a reed thatch. Around Gainsthorpe, reed would have been plentiful in the river floodplains to east and west. Only the high ground along the ridge would have been forested with anything more substantial than birch and willow, and competition for timber would have become intense over the years. Diminution of wood stocks might have been a factor in the dereliction of the village.
There was little furniture in feudal peasant houses. They were basically shelters, with straw bedding and dirt floors. Windows were open portals to allow air circulation in summer but were probably patched over in winter to conserve heat. Cooking usually took place outside in the open air. Washing, if done at all, would have been carried out in open watercourses. Hygiene and general health were lamentable, and life expectancy at birth would have been around 20 years. Few peasants enjoyed any kind of land ownership or even security of tenure in their houses or on the land they farmed. The majority were serfs, and essentially slaves.
Some improvement in the lot of peasants was taking place by the early 14th Century and the reign of Edward III. Leasehold tenure meant that a free labouring class began to appear, able to work as they chose provided that they earned enough to pay their rent. The landlords became increasingly reliant on hiring and paying for labour, rather than simply demanding it. In about 1350, however, the scourge of the Black Death reached North Lincolnshire and derailed the developing economic system. More important, it killed half the populace. This disastrous plague is the most probable reason for the disappearance of Gainsthorpe.
Changes in land use may also have been a factor. If Gainsthorpe survived in some form till the late 15th Century, it might have been victim to a trend for landowners to enclose arable land and turn it over to more profitable sheep-farming. Wool as an industry does not support as many people as does the growing of crops. There is some evidence that the land to the west of Ermine Street, including Gainsthorpe, was converted to grazing at about this time. Wherever and whenever the village folk of Gainsthorpe departed, they left no record of where they went.
In 1965 Gainsthorpe was recommended for guardianship status to the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works by the Medieval Village Research Group, who considered it to be one of the six best-preserved medieval village sites in England. This status was conferred in 1974 and two subsequent surveys have been carried out, one in 1982 by the Humberside Archaeological Unit and the most recent in 2001 by the current stewards of the site, English Heritage. To date, no systematic excavations have been made and none are planned.
The most celebrated example in England of the archaeological excavation of a Deserted Medieval Village is Wharram Percy in North Yorkshire, which yielded many significant historical artefacts through a series of digs from the 1950s to the 1990s. There have also been important finds in digs elsewhere in Lincolnshire. There is little to suggest that excavating the Gainsthorpe site would yield very much, however, particularly since so much of the original settlement has been ploughed and planted for generations.
The site is open to the general public. Though there is little to see, Gainsthorpe has caught the imagination of visitors for hundreds of years, perhaps because the isolation of the place confers a timeless and tranquil quality. Gainsthorpe feels more forgotten than neglected, and memory seems tantalisingly close here. We share many places unknowingly with our ancestors, but we seldom sense their presence more strongly than this.
An Englishman's home is his castle. The saying is not just an observation about national character. The castle need not have been built in stone.