Book Review: Man Made The Land

Man Made The Land:  Essays In English Historical Geography, edited by Alan R.H. Baker and J.B. Harley

There is a great deal of tension between the risible claim of the title of this book in all of its hubris and in the plaintive and cautious language of the essays within.  As someone who is a fan of historical and regional geography [1], I went into this book with the expectation of finding something funny to read given the fact that one could not read a title like that without laughing.  Had the book been titled:  Man Made The Land:  Essays In Dutch Historical Geography, it would have been slightly less ridiculous given the way that the Dutch have labored long and hard to reclaim land from the Zulder Zee, but for English historical geographers to claim that they made land even as the sea chips away at the white cliffs of Dover and other areas is an idea worthy only of derision.  The essays in this volume combine the inveterate human desire to extrapolate conclusions from evidence along with endless special pleading about the paucity of evidence to support the audacious claims being advanced by the writers, who include climatologists and historians as well as geographers.  The authors occasionally show a lack of awareness that they are advancing contradictory claims simultaneously, as when the author of the first essay comments on the threat of global warming and global cooling at the same time, a reminder that in our age of claims that climate change is a scientific fact that all too many scientists start with the “fact” and then try to marshal evidence in support of it, however unsuccessfully.  If this book is no masterpiece, it is entertaining and instructive in the combination of rank ignorance and arrogance among many who seek to live by their understanding and interpretation of historical and archaeological data.

The contents of this book consist of sixteen chronologically organized essays on the state of English historical geography.  The essays included deal with such subjects as the climate of Britain over the last 10,000 years, the earliest settlers in Britain, the Domesday Book, planned villages in medieval England, field systems in medieval England, English market towns in the thirteenth century , founded towns and deserted villages of the Middle Ages in England, the early roots of Industrial England, the distribution of wealth and population in Tudor England, the great age of the Yeoman farmers, English urban life before the industrial revolution, agricultural improvement and changing regional economies in the eighteenth century, Georgian landscapes, changes in the early industrial revolution from manpower to steam power, farming in an industrial age, and living in Victorian towns.  If these subjects sound of interest, this book will likely at least entertain the reader, although over and over again the writers of essays try to draw insights from what they know to be partial evidence.  Often one can almost hear an audible sigh coming off from the pages and catch the tone of complaint that records are so scanty and that so much remains to be dug and analyzed and understood.  The authors appear to be in a difficult spot as they seek to show the insights they have from the past while also trying to point out how much remains to be understood and how fragmentary and difficult to interpret the available evidence is, which gives a contradictory flavor to the entire enterprise.

It is hard to understand the market for this particular book, which was printed in 1973 in a rather large size of paper in hardcover.  The authors are not particularly famous, their writing is focused on England and there would appear to be a small market for books on historical geography in the United States for such an area of study.  I don’t even know of any university courses that would be looking for textbooks on English historical geography.  This is clearly a niche market product for scholars and intellectuals of a certain kind and I happen to be in that niche, since I picked it up at a used book store myself in Estacada.  That said, this book has value even if it does not appear to be one that would be appreciated by many people.  The authors demonstrate that human behavior shapes the land, even as environmental and cultural and social factors shape human behavior.  Our attempts to know the past are hindered by poor recordkeeping and the way many people like to focus on elites, but it is important to know how common people lived and how people coped with their times.  For those reasons alone, this book is worth a read for those who have an interest in seeing a different side of medieval life than is often presented in print.

[1] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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5 Responses to Book Review: Man Made The Land

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