The French historian of the early medieval forest, Charles Higounet, produced a map in the 1960s, which has been much reproduced since, that purports to show the distribution of the forest cover in Europe on the eve of the so-called “great clearances” (les grands défrichements) between 1000 and 1300. Based upon references to some 142 separate woodlands during the high Middle Ages, the map shows great swaths of nearly unbroken forest from southern France eastwards across nearly the whole of the German Empire and central Europe, with more isolated islands of woodland in northern France, Italy, Spain, and England. The neat and tidy appearance of the map, however, is deceptive, for even Higounet himself admitted that his map was only a bare “outline” and that his article was merely a “starting point” for future research that was “constrained by the mediocrity of the documentation” available for what happened to the European forest cover between the fifth and eleventh centuries.30 A main criticism in recent years of such overly pat generalizations about the early medieval forest concerns the very definition of the contemporary term, forestum, or of its many equivalents (i.e., silva, wald, bosch, gualdus, etc.). A “forest” in the Middle Ages meant something quite different from how we think of it today: It mainly existed for our medieval forbears as a legal entity, rather than as an economic or ecological one. Therefore, a forest could actually include treeless fields of arable or pasture if these came within the purview of property rights and laws that defined it as such, according to the customs and traditions of the locality. More often, however, a medieval forest reflected the complex intersection between the wild, untamed woods and the cultivated open space of the village: A place where man left his mark on nature and was an integral part of it, actively managing the forest for his own benefit and, perhaps incidentally, for the benefit of woodland creatures and even of the trees themselves.31 This is a practice that, of course, continues down to the present day (where the currently favored term is “sustainable forestry”), but one could argue that it had its most formative experience during the Middle Ages. A good example of the above argument is the fact that in much of Europe,

including lands ruled by the Lombards, Franks, and Anglo-Saxons, contemporary laws make it clear that forest was mainly understood to be land set aside by royalty as a hunting reserve, where the woods served as browse and habitat for game, rather than for the sake of the trees themselves.32 As any experienced forester knows, managing a woodlot for the sake of wildlife habitat is quite different from managing it for timber or other wood product resources. Modern forest management plans often call for small clear-cuts in order to create the woody underbrush that is favored as browse for deer or as

cover for game birds and other woodland species.33 In this case, a forest that contains open land is actually a good thing, provided that it is being allowed to grow back into forest, or at least woody undergrowth. A forest’s definition at the time of the Middle Ages was therefore extremely fluid, highly dependent on the specific temporal or geographical circumstances: While the term occurs in plenty of surviving documents from the early medieval period that became the basis for maps like Higounet’s, only a close examination of the legal context for each occurrence (something that apparently has yet to be done) can establish how much tree cover in Europe there really was. Many areas shaded as forest on Higounet’s map may have contained no trees at all, while those that are blank may hide unknown tracts of woods.34 We probably will never know the true nature and extent of the forest in the early Middle Ages absent the detailed surveys and information on woodland management that had to wait to emerge until later centuries. Where we are able to examine forests in some detail from the early Middle

Ages, as has been done for the Weald in south-east England, the Ardennes in north-east France, and the Odenwald in south-west Germany, we find great regional variation in terms of how each forest was exploited by man and how far it was allowed to remain in its natural state. The Weald, one of the largest blocks of uncleared woodland in Anglo-Saxon England, was nonetheless from the eighth century heavily exploited as woodland pasture, mainly for pigs, a fact that is known from royal charters granted to ecclesiastical institutions for the right of pannage. The dens and pasture that pigs carved out of the Weald were then probably the launching point for human settlements, which begin to emerge by the tenth century. In the Ardennes, the woods were managed much less intensively than the

Weald during the early Middle Ages, but there was also far less unbroken forest, the area being more like a patchwork of dense woodland interspersed with open land: The former was kept mainly as a hunting reserve for royalty, while the latter was managed much like any other farming settlement, perhaps using slash and burn cultivation techniques. The two seemed to coexist side-by-side quite harmoniously, according to Carolingian records of twentyfive royal fiscal estates in the Ardennes. The Odenwald, a largely unexploited forest granted out piecemeal by the Carolingians to various monasteries, is perhaps the most typical example of pristine woods assaulted by systematic human colonization and large-scale clearing in order to make way for village settlements, which seem to emerge by the ninth or tenth centuries. In each of these woods there was a different starting point of conditions on the ground and a different pattern of ensuing development. If a generalization has to be made, it is that there was probably more continuity than previously thought between Roman settlement and exploitation of the European forest and that under the Anglo-Saxons and Carolingians. In northern France, for example, it is estimated based on archaeological excavations that 50 percent of Roman villa sites continued to be occupied down into the early Middle Ages, precluding any notion of widespread rural desertion. In England, archaeological

history of the Middle Ages

evidence likewise indicates that the country was densely settled in Roman times and that these sites were continuously occupied down into the Anglo-Saxon period, with new villages formed on marginal lands only when older settlements ran out of room. At the same time, theories of a demographic collapse in the wake of the fall of the Roman Empire, particularly after the advent of the First Pandemic of plague beginning in Constantinople in 542, seem to be

Figure 2.2 HARVESTING ACORNS FOR THE PIGS in the month of November, from the “Breviarium Grimani”, c.1515, Flemish School, Biblioteca Marciana, Venice, Italy. Giraudon / The Bridgeman Art Library

overblown. All this then implies that there was less recovery of the forest during the supposed interruption to civilization created by the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century and that there was less overall woodland throughout Europe during the early medieval period to bequeath to the high Middle Ages.35