What are Anglo-Saxon boundary clauses?

They are descriptions in Old English (and sometimes Latin) of the boundaries of land-units recorded in charters dating from the seventh to the eleventh centuries. They perform a function similar to the coloured outline on modern Land Certificate plans which shows the precise limits of land under conveyance. The Anglo-Saxon versions, however, are in written form, and typically walk the reader clockwise around the perimeter of the estate citing features which the boundary passes, crosses or follows.

Example: þis sind þa land gemæro to eatune....These are the land-boundaries of Eaton - first from beetle's stream up along the streamlet till it comes to the coloured floor. Thence along the valley by the two little barrows till it comes to the spring at Wulfhun's plantation. Then diagonally over the furlong to the thorn bushes westward where the large thorn tree used to stand, and so to bird pool. Then along the ditch till it comes to the muddy spring, and so along the water course till it comes to the Cherwell which forms the boundary from then on.

Over a thousand of these descriptions survive, either in contemporary documents or (more commonly) in medieval or later copies.

Why are they important?

At the simplest level of public and educational interest, Anglo-Saxon boundary clauses afford a unique glimpse into the local landscape and its place-names as they appeared over a thousand years ago. At a historical research level, they are a rich source for exploring the social, economic and environmental conditions of Anglo-Saxon England - e.g. tracing the development of settlement and 'ownership', studying continuity and discontinuity within farming practices, assessing ecological change, or locating archaeological features no longer visible today. In literary studies an emerging focus of interest is the representation of landscape and the study of place, for which these perambulations provide early evidence. From a linguistic point of view, computer analysis of the clauses allows the development of the English language and its different dialects to be studied with exceptional precision since they provide evidence that is potentially datable and locatable.