For many, many years I was content to think of the Anglo-Saxon Hide as a sort-of unit of measure, equivalent to the amount of land required to feed a peasant family. Good soil, smaller hide, I assumed. Rocky, mountainous soil, a larger hide. And perhaps it started this way, as Wikipedia tells us; the acre, as we know it today, did not exist. Imagine my surprise, when digging even farther into Anglo-Saxon studies, to discover that at least in the late Anglo-Saxon period, the Hide had an altogether different purpose. It was used to determine the amount of service owed to the king.
Now, let me start by saying I am not an expert on this subject! I am a student of history, and this article is intended to pass on my new discovery the best way I can; it’s is a very difficult topic, considering what little source material we have to go on. Nothing in the country was universal. Much has been pieced together by C.Warren Hollister, and he was as dry as they come (ANGLO-SAXON MILITARY INSTITUTIONS On the Eve of the Norman Conquest, 1962). But my copy of his little book is full of place-marks and I have to reorganize my mental file cabinet to absorb it all!
The Hide was not a geographic unit of measure, nor was it necessarily static. I would guess it had more to do with a density of population rather than a physical land mass, considering the above chart. The bigger towns had more hides. You will note that they are all measured in increments of 5; this seems to be the closest to universal that we will find. What was the responsibility of the five-hide unit? There was a three-fold obligation: military service, fortress work, and bridge repair. Each five-hide unit was required to produce one soldier and pay him for two months’ service (20 shillings) if called up by the king. This soldier was usually the same person whenever called up, so he would probably be better trained and equipped than the ordinary fyrdman. The five-hide unit would be contributing to the select fyrd, as Hollister puts it, rather than the great fyrd (I think these are his terms, used for convenience sake. More on that in another post). So Cambridge, for instance, would be obliged to product 20 warriors; where exactly they came from did not matter, as long as there were 20. If a great lord had the necessary number of retainers in his household, that could serve. But again, he was also obliged to pay their subsistence, not the king.
A five-hide unit could be a portion of one man’s estate, or several small estates could be stitched together to compose one five-hide unit (they would probably be contiguous). If the warrior-representative owned all 5 hides, he would be responsible for collecting his own pay from his tenants or his own income (or he could send someone in his stead). If the five-hide unit was made up of smaller landholders, they would be responsible for paying the soldier proportionally. Say, for example, five one-hide farms made up the unit. One hide would produce the warrior who paid himself 4 shillings; the the other four hides would have to contribute 4 shillings each to make up the 20 shillings for his subsistence. I believe the warrior would not be responsible for the bridge repairs and fortress work; the other representatives would contribute the manpower on that end. (In the Danelaw, the land was assessed in carucates rather than hides, and Hollister thinks they practiced a similar custom of military service.)
The hide was also a fiscal unit as well as military. When Danegeld was raised, the assessment was customarily 2 shillings per hide regardless of its size. Also, there might be additional requirements. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 1008 “Every 300 hides should provide a large warship, every ten hides should produce a cutter, and every eight hides should produce a helmet and a coat of mail”. Can you imagine the distress when Aethelred’s fleet met with disaster later that year? “The vast toil of the whole nation was thus thrown away,” according of Florence of Worcester.
Interestingly enough, when the King wanted to show favor, he could reduce the hidage of certain estates, hence reducing the military obligation. In one recorded instance, “The manor of Chilcomb, belonging to the bishop of Worcester, was reduced prior to the Conquest from 100 hides to one hide” (Hollister, p.55). Thus, the size of the estate was not reduced, only its assessment.
When taken as a whole, this system seems to have been very well organized and helps explain why the continentals thought England to be such a wealthy country. I have made a few other discoveries reading this book, and will put them together in a future post.