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Mediaeval

1066 to 1540

By 1066 the typical medieval hamlet, consisting of rectangular farmhouses arranged around a shared farmyard, had developed.

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Medieval farms were surrounding by extensive fields which were divided into long narrow strips. Over much of Cornwall many farms have remained in use and the farmhouses we see today are on the site of medieval hamlets. At a later date the characteristic strip fields were enclosed by hedges but their imprint can still be seen in today's field pattern. Cultivation ridges, known as ridge and furrow, can be seen in many of the fields. The ridges, which are usually sinuous and irregular, provided raised seed beds in the thin soil and enhanced drainage.

Some settlements are single farmsteads but most are hamlets containing two to six farmsteads clustered together around a small open area or 'townplace' - a shared farmyard. Each farmstead comprises a main farmhouse and one or two smaller outbuildings serving as barns and animal houses. The buildings are usually laid out with their long axis running downslope to help drainage.

The longhouse is a standard house type in Cornwall and the South West and is part of a wider tradition throughout Britain. The houses are stone built and most in Cornwall date from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, although some are earlier than this.

The main characteristic of the longhouse is that it provided under one roof both the living quarters for the household and a byre for the wintering of cattle. A cross-passage running across the house provided access to both rooms. The byres or 'shippons' had mangers of wood or stone slabs built against the walls and a drain running down the centre of the floor. The living room acted as a kitchen, dining room and bedroom. It was open to the rafters and contained a central hearth and fittings for benches and beds against the walls. Narrow slits served as windows.

Longhouse hamlets were the characteristic settlement type throughout medieval Cornwall. How these hamlets were organised can best be seen on Bodmin Moor where they survive in their entirety. As the population expanded between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries so the pressure on available land increased. Settlements were established in parts of the moor  which had been uninhabited since the Bronze Age. More than thirty of these settlements are now deserted; the process of desertion began in the fourteenth century as a result of outbreaks of plague - the Black Death. With the drastic reduction in population, holdings on better farming land in the nearby lowlands became available at the expense of these moorland settlements.

The extent of the lowland farming landscape in the medieval period is shown by the widespread occurrence of former strip fields which were enclosed at a later date. Documents show that strip-fields begain to be enclosed from the thirteenth century onwards. The enclosure of these strips often leaves distinctive 'markers' behind in surviving field boundaries and field patterns.

The medieval settlements on the fringes of Bodmin Moor were not abandoned and their field systems have remained in use. The form of the boundaries may have changed through time, with some added or removed, but today's hedges very often fossilise the layout of the former strip fields.

 As the population and the economy grew so larger settlements developed and by the fourteenth century Cornwall was served by a network of small towns. Some grew up around early Christian centres, some developed as coastal or riverside trading ports, and others were established along major roads or at the crossing points of rivers.

The Cornish landscape of the medieval tin industry represents the most extensive remains of pre-1700 mining in Britain During this period a substantial amount of tin produced in Cornwall came from tin streaming, a technique which involved washing away lighter sands and wastes from tin-rich gravels to leave the heavier tin ores which were then collected and smelted. Streaming was carried out on a massive scale and countless valleys were turned over for tin. To reach the tin stream the tinners first had to remove the overburden. This was done by hand and dumps of overburden were produced alongside or downstream of the working areas.

Where large amounts of overburden covered the tin stream the wastes were removed by wheelbarrow, producing a characteristic pattern of overlapping rectangular mounds.

Streams had to be temporarily diverted from the working areas to allow access to the tin gravels. As the whole width of a tin stream was worked numerous diversion channels were dug, sending the stream first one way, then another. As a result many streamworks have left deep cuttings gouged into the surrounding landscape.

In situations where the overburden was shallow or comprised fine material, most of it could be simply washed away. In this type of streamworks water was brought through a channel into the working area and the overburden was washed into the river or a drain where it flowed downstream in suspension. The heavy stones and gravel left behind were piled up to form steep linear banks just downstream from the working area. Working upstream in a systematic way the streamers produced a regular pattern of parallel banks of spoil.

Eluvial tin streams are those where tin-rich rocks eroded from the parent lode are deposited in dry valleys or on hill slopes rather than washed into valleys. 

The great disadvantage was that water for washing away the waste had to brought to the site from available streams, often over long distances. This was done through a system of leats. Water brought via the leats was stored in purpose-made reservoirs until needed.

The removal of millions of tonnes of overburden resulted in rivers and estuaries such as the Fal, Fowey and Carnon, becoming heavily silted. Tidal limits were progressively pushed downriver so that former ports became marooned amidst salt marsh.

In some places streamworking was not feasible and the tin ore had to be dug from dry ground. One widespread feature of the early mining industry are the lode-back workings. These are lines of shallow shafts strung out along lodes and interconnected by underground tunnels. Alongside some are the remains of platforms for the machinery used for lifting spoil and ore out of the pits.

In some cliff-side locations veins of tin were exposed and these were quarried out, leaving linear cuttings in the cliff face. Open works were also used to quarry tin from inland lodes.

Some works exploited material known as 'shode'; tin-rich stones lying on the ground surface after being eroded from an exposed outcrop. If streamworking was not practical, the areas of shode were dug over by pick and shovel, leaving a pock-marked landscape made up of hundreds of small pits and spoil dumps. At some sites the pits clearly follow the lines of lodes, but at others there is no obvious pattern.

A variety of machines were used to raise the mined ore from the pits. Horse power was also used in the form of horse whims. The circular platforms of these horse engines survive in large numbers at early mining sites.

Slate quarrying between Tintagel and Trebarwith is recorded at least as far back as the fourteenth century. Coastal slate quarries are a spectacular feature of this industry. These are confined to a small area of about 5 miles either side of Tintagel and little is known about their history. In order to work the vertical cliff face strong points were built of stone at the heads of the working areas. From these rocks, ropes were dropped down the working faces. The slate was hauled up the cliff face on these cables which were wound using horse whims.

Waste was dumped into the sea or at the foot of the cliffs and the stone was shaped and split on dressing floors on the cliff top. These were originally housed in sheds but now survive as level terraces and are marked by screes of waste rock on the cliff slope.

From the Medieval period or earlier loose stone and rab (a form of subsoil granite commonly found in Cornwall) were quarried for infilling tracks and making roads. Alongside every old road shallow pits where material was dug to fill potholes can be found.

The first medieval castles were fortified strongholds built by Norman Lords in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. These castles were powerful symbols of the feudal system and could be used as bases for troops to keep order in the surrounding countryside. Some castles underwent several phases of later modification, including the building of stone structures to replace eariler wooden ones.

The two main types of early castle were 'motte and bailey' castles and ringworks. 'Motte' is the name given to a small hill or artificial mound on which a tower or keep was built. 'Bailey' is the term given to an enclosed courtyard sited below the motte, containing accommodation and workshops.

Ringworks also had baileys, but in this case the stronghold was defended by a circular bank and ditch rather than a mound.

During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, some castles were little more than fortified houses, often surrounded by ornamental moats. These castles can be seen primarily as status symbols of their owners rather than strategic strongholds.

From the Tudor period onwards, continual programmes of defence building along the Cornish coasts were undertaken. During the first half of the sixteenth century Henry built a string of small artillery forts, known as blockhouses, stretching from Scilly in the west to Mount Edgcumbe in the east. The deep water harbour at Falmouth was protected with two larger fortresses at Pendennis and St. Mawes.

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