I have long been a fan of the late Harold Fox's writings, so I should have known that any fears that a book by him on `Transhumance and Pastoral Management in the Middle Ages' on Dartmoor was going to stretch my boredom threshold were bound to be misplaced. This is no dry academic text: Fox's work is written in that wonderful direct and richly descriptive style of his, in the tradition of his academic forebears such as Hoskins, Finberg, and Beresford.
In the light of Professor Fox's sudden death, the book's introduction and conclusion have been written by Matthew Tompkins and Christopher Dyer. The book comes with twenty-two colour plates, forty-five maps and figures, and seven tables. Unfortunately, and inexcusably, the book uses imperial measurements.
In their introduction, the editors highlight the book's three main themes: 1. "the importance of pastoral agriculture in the medieval economy", noting a shift in emphasis in recent academic thinking away from arable; 2. Dartmoor's place as a distinctive `pays'; and 3. property ownership, namely "when did private land develop on a waste shared by many communities?"
From this one can discern that the book may ostensibly be about transhumance, but is actually about so much more. Perforce it must touch upon agriculture generally, boundaries, trackways, climate, vegetation, settlement, place-names, landownership, even tin-working and religion. For example, his opening chapter on `Definitions and Limitations' strays like a curious sheep into the meanings of `countrymen' and `strange men'; we read of medieval hunt protestors; and learn of the reason for why parish boundaries around the moor are shaped the way that they are and (later) why the burgesses of Barnstaple and Totnes were specifically excluded from common rights on the moor. (This chapter also dramatically expands the reader's temporal and topographical horizons with examples of transhumance drawn from other parts of Britain and Europe.) But Fox warns us that his book "is not intended to be a total history of medieval Dartmoor."
I thought I knew much about medieval Dartmoor - not least from Fox's other writings on this place and period - but there is much that is new here. He suggests that earlier transhumance was personal, female-led, and concerned with the processing of dairy products. Only later did it become predominantly a male-preserve, impersonal, and concerned with fattening cattle. Fox seeks to date that transition and his conclusions are expertly-drawn. The evidence itself is skilfully-sifted and presented to us with wonderful clarity. Some assertions, such as his cogent reasons for rejecting the first appearance of place-names as a `terminus post quem', are so obvious that one wonders why no one had expressed them before!
Yet Fox is also clear where the evidence does not warrant direct deductions. I cannot comment on his case with regard to tithing and hundred boundaries, but there is copious food for thought here. But there are errors too. The boundary of Bickleigh parish in figure 4.9 is in error as it includes that part of Tamerton Foliot parish not incorporated into Plymouth in 1967. Bickleigh parish, therefore, did not extend to the banks of the River Tavy in medieval times, as Fox alleges in the text. In addition, Torre Abbey has been misplaced in figure 4.11.
Fox also asserts that an element of an eleventh-century Meavy boundary charter that the drove-way to the moor from Buckland Monachorum is the modern Yelverton to Princetown Road. Fox references the work by Della Hooke for this assertion, but my check of Hooke shows her actually pointing to a lower (and easier) road to the south of Peek Hill that leads up Newleycombe. All of these errors relate to my own neck of the Dartmoor woods, namely the southwest quadrant: others may have spotted others elsewhere. But they would probably have been rectified by Fox upon review prior to publication.
Fox is no doubt right in much of what he has to say about drove-ways, although geography - and, specifically, relief - needs to be considered more. The southern A38 route around Dartmoor is unlikely to be as ancient as he claims, for there are too many rivers to cross compared to the northern A30. meanwhile routes direct from the coast to the moor are in south Devon by definition bound to be ridgeways and therefore bound to be the chosen method of driving cattle.
Tompkins and Dyer end the book with a conclusion that summarises Fox's arguments and laments that his death has deprived us all of so much that he had planned to incorporate and upon which he had planned to expand. Suggestions for future areas of research are made in which others may be able to take Fox's researched further.
My own conclusion was surprising. Given the potential for the book's subtitle to either repulse the general reader or instil boredom and fatigue, instead I found fox's book - dare I say it? - a riveting read: at the end of one chapter, I looked forward to the time when I would be able to begin the next. Whether this makes me `sad' is moot, but I am all the richer in understanding a significant element in my local landscape by reading this marvellous, well-researched, and well-written and produced book.