Maurice Beresford: Historian of England's lost villages dies

Historians in the News

In 1945, the young warden of an adult education centre in Rugby was making a plan of the visible traces of medieval fields at Bittesby, in Leicestershire. He came to an area of irregular grass-covered mounds and hollows and, after initial puzzlement, realised he was looking at the remains of streets and houses from the village of Bittesby, abandoned for 450 years. This discovery, followed by the recognition of hundreds of other deserted villages, began the academic career of Maurice Beresford, who has died at the age of 85.

Born on the northern fringes of Birmingham, he attended Bishop Vesey's grammar school, Sutton Coldfield, and Jesus College, Cambridge, gaining a first in history in 1941. He encountered the idea that history could be seen "on the ground" from John Saltmarsh, a lecturer who took students to look at fields in Cambridgeshire villages. Beresford was inspired by maps, and through them the historic landscape.

An early piece of research into Sutton Coldfield revealed unusual field patterns in the 16th and 17th centuries, and he went on to demonstrate - by comparing aerial photographs with early maps - that the narrow strips cultivated in the open fields throughout the Midlands were still visible as ridge and furrow. He combined the evidence of documents, maps and physical remains to find the sites of former villages in Warwickshire, then pursued the research over the whole of England.

Hundreds of villages which had flourished in the Middle Ages had ceased to exist by the 16th century. Beresford's book, The Lost Villages of England (1954), argued that they were depopulated because of the expansion of sheep farming, the enclosure of fields, and the eviction of villagers by acquisitive landlords. In 1948, he had been appointed to a lectureship in economic history at Leeds University, and while working on Lost Villages he visited Wharram Percy, a spectacular deserted village near Malton, on the Yorkshire Wolds. He dug some holes there in 1950 and 1951, mainly to show that the "bumps in fields" really marked the foundations of abandoned houses.

This attracted the attention of the young John Hurst, soon to be an inspector with the Ministry of Works (later English Heritage), and destined to become a key medieval archaeologist. Beresford and Hurst ran a summer season of excavations at Wharram for the next 40 years, and together wrote Wharram Percy (1990) about the site. They also coordinated research through the Deserted Medieval Village Research Group (founded in 1952), culminating in a book, Deserted Medieval Villages (1971). The sites continue to provide a route to understanding the material life of peasant England and exploring the origin and development of villages.

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