The current landscape, and many of the villages and cities located in it, have deep historical roots. Research by generations of historians, archaeologists and linguist points foremost to the importance of the Middle Ages (ca. AD 500-1500) as formative period. The traditional narrative on the development of the landscape posits that a system of small farms shifting through the landscape was gradually abandoned during the 7th-9th centuries, in favour of more stable settlement. The 10th-13th centuries, the period of the ‘Great Clearances’, saw the appearance of the villages we still know today. At the same time, the landscape underwent profound changes. Forests were cleared, and fields grew together to form large arable complexes, called ‘kouters’ (open fields). These developments were confirmed during following centuries. Important differences in population size, social organisation, technology, and the physical characteristics of the landscape led to the emergence of regionally-different landscapes, even in a small region such as the historic County of Flanders.
Although there is a good understanding of these main developments, multiple questions still remain unanswered. More precisely, a complete overview of the diversity in medieval settlement forms, and of the relationships and transformations between these forms, is lacking. A better understanding of medieval settlement not only leads to more insight into the historical roots of the current landscape, but will also contribute to future archaeological research and to the management and presentation of this often invisible heritage.
This project wants to further examine these questions and will do so by focusing on one particular region, that between the rivers Scheldt and Dender, located in the modern-day province of East-Flanders. This region is characterised by a dense system of small village cores, separated from one another by open field landscapes. Historical and place-name evidence suggest that this system might go back to the early middle ages, or even the Roman period. The increase of archaeological research over the last 15 years has created a new and extensive dataset, that will shed new light on the origins of the modern villages and landscapes. Via a number of case study’s, this archaeological evidence will be related to written evidence, historical maps, and place-name evidence, in order to shed more light on the development of and relation between farms, villages, and open fields.