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Portrait of Britain: AD 1200

Emma Mason argues that rising population brought a surprising degree of movement, politically, geographically and socially.

In the year 1200 Britain was in the middle of a spell of warm weather that had begun c.AD 900 and lasted to c.1300. This made possible the cultivation of land on higher ground, beyond the margins of previous habitation. Mixed farming was usual in lower-lying lands, though in much of Scotland, Wales and the north of England a pastoral economy predominated. Large areas of Britain were still covered by forest, and summer pollen counts were higher than they are today. Air quality was good, since industrial processes were minimal.

Throughout Britain, as over much of the European mainland, the population was steadily rising. This rise had been evident from the early eleventh century, and was to continue until around 1300, so that England's population doubled between c.1086 and c.1300, after which a decline set in. In AD 1200, the population was still below the peak of 3 million (or more) which historians have suggested for c.1300. The populations of Wales and Scotland in 1200 were sparse, probably well under half-a-million in each case.

Increased demand for corn – bread was a major part of the diet even for the better-off – led to the ever-greater urgency for land clearances to bring new land under the plough. In eastern England, extensive drainage projects were undertaken in the Fenlands, and land along the Lincolnshire coast was slowly but steadily reclaimed. Such activity can be approximately dated by the first mention of new place names in charters or other records, which indicates that drainage and reclamation were well under way in these areas by AD 1200. Drainage was also in progress in the Romney Marsh, and in the marshes of the south-west around Glastonbury.

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