These remote and atmospheric traces of lost medieval communities, long ago abandoned by their inhabitants, have produced fascinating stories of the lives once lived there.
We care for three of the most outstanding of England's 3,000 or so deserted medieval villages, all places where evidence of buildings abandoned many centuries ago can still clearly be seen. All are remote: Hound Tor Deserted Medieval Village on the edge of Dartmoor, Gainsthorpe Medieval Village in North Lincolnshire and Wharram Percy Deserted Medieval Village on the Yorkshire Wolds, where the shell of the medieval church still stands.
Legend sometimes supplied explanations for why these now sometimes eerie sites were abandoned, in Wharram Percy's case after occupation from at least late Anglo-Saxon until early Tudor times. At Gainsthorpe, a tale told that the village was demolished by infuriated neighbours as a nest of thieves. In fact, there was probably no single reason for their desertion. Various factors played their part, including climate change which made farming at Hound Tor difficult, the ravishes of the Black Death in the 1340s or, as at Wharram Percy, the systematic eviction of the last inhabitants by landlords who found it more profitable to convert ploughed fields into pastures for sheep producing valuable wool.
Imagination may now be needed to conjure up life in these lonely places. But fortunately we don't have to rely on imagination alone. Because they remained largely undisturbed after abandonment, deserted villages have proved a treasure trove for archaeologists. At Wharram Percy, the most intensively studied deserted village in Europe, they have built up a vivid picture of villagers' daily lives over seven centuries.
Human remains from the church, for instance, showed that Wharram babies had a far better chance of survival than those in overcrowded medieval towns, but that poor diet afterwards slowed their growth: at fourteen, children were no bigger than a modern ten year old. Despite evidence of broken bones and deep cuts testifying to the hardships of farming life, nearly half of the village's adults lived to be over fifty, although by then most were crippled by arthritis. One man, after being clubbed over the head, even endured a delicate operation to relieve pressure on his brain by cutting away part of his skull, and survived for several years afterwards.