Classic review: The History of the Countryside

Of course I had consulted it. Of course I’d cited it. But it’s taken a while to sit down and read it – properly, finally – from cover to cover. And it feels like a literary pilgrimage.

What am I taking about? None other than “Rackham’s Countryside”, or more formally:

Rackham, O. 1986. The History of the Countryside (J.M. Dent originally – but I’m reading the 2000 edition by Phoenix).

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Rackham’s Countryside, in chunky paperback

The late Dr Rackham was a prolific writer, but this is probably his best-known, most widely-cited masterpiece. Although not an archaeological study as such, it feels like a foundation for modern agricultural archaeology and landscape history in Britain. It marks a turning point in modern approaches to British landscape history (a particularly auspicious milestone for me, as I was born the year it was first published).

More than that, some of it practically reads like a call-to-arms for Farming Unearthed:

“The landscape is a record of our roots and the growth of civilization. Each individual historic wood, heath, etc. is uniquely different from every other, and each has something to tell us… The landscape is like a historic library of 50,000 books. Many were written in remote antiquity in languages which have only lately been deciphered; some of the languages are still unknown.” (pp.26-9)

(Environmental archaeology has blossomed most fruitfully since 1986, adding a few more thousand volumes to that notional ecological library.)

That passage comes from a brief chapter on conservation, which is lively, stirring and would be pretty depressing too, were it not for a note added in the 1997 edition which reports an improving situation eleven years later. Conservation is not a central theme of the book, however, as Rackham marshals very many and varied sources to elucidate the history of the British countryside in spite of its vanishing antiquities. Some sources are ancient, others are relatively recent, such as Luftwaffe reconnaissance photos, one of which is glossed as a “Hitler’s eye view ” (Plate VIc). Such is the style of our mordantly witty, thoroughly incisive, academic but down-to-earth narrator.

This doesn’t read like a scientific paper. It’s more like a guided tour of the British countryside at breakneck speed, delivered by an expert so deeply steeped in his subject that maybe half the citations could simply be to Rackham’s brain. Indeed, several intriguing points are raised with no reference given, presumably because there is no citation due – Rackham simply knew what he was writing about from firsthand experience. We rattle through animals and plants – past, present, introduced, extinct – heathland and moorland, fields, fens, trees… He is particularly strong on all things arboreal: woods, woodmanship and woodland ecology. Maybe one third of the book is in some sense ‘woody’, a reflection of the fundamental importance of woods in the story of the countryside as whole, and also of Rackham’s own particular interests. Other scholars pop up too, of course. On page 80, he alludes to a study on medieval woodland near Taunton by a certain “Mr Michael Aston” – surely the late Professor Mick Aston, latterly of Time Team fame?

The illustrations are not perhaps what you’d call lavish, although they are plentiful. There are lots of hand-drawn maps which are mostly very pleasing to the eye (well, to my eye), the exception being the general maps right at the start, which are so densely packed with place-names that it makes your head spin.

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Tiny notes on a small island

To be honest, the density of facts and observations in the text itself can be a bit like that. Map upon map, charter after charter… the erudition would be overwhelming were it not stitched into such a well-written narrative. It’s fairly brisk and ‘no-nonsense’, all the same. You might expect a book about the countryside to have some kind of slightly sentimental, reflective or poetic epilogue. This one signs off with a factual remark about fish-weirs.

Ultimately, I can’t really review this book. Some of its arguments will stand the test of time, other may not, but that hardly matters. It’s a cornerstone of the modern canon, so all I can do is encourage you – if you haven’t already done so – to read it. Probably more than once.

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One thought on “Classic review: The History of the Countryside

  1. You are spot on, young man. It’s a wonderful work.

    If you don’t know it, it’s also worth looking at what is approximately a second edition, his Illustrated History of the Countryside. For anyone unfamiliar with the lie of the land in Britain it might be a useful guide.
    And it contains one of my favourite scholarly descriptions of all time. Have a look at his definition of a ‘factoid’.

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