hide

In England, 5th or 6th – 16th century, an Anglo-Saxon unit of land area, conceptually the amount of land needed to support a peasant family, “acres sufficient for one plow for a year1.”  Much of the 19th-century controversy concerning the size of the early hide arose from thinking of it as an areal unit, when in fact it was one by which taxes were assessed. In this role it was ultimately replaced by the knights fee. In later times the hide = 120 acres, often naively assumed to be = 100 acres, but in the original sources describing the hide as a hundred acres, it is the long, or great, hundred, 120, that is meant.

On the vexed question of the extent of the hide it is not necessary here to dilate; [John Mitchell] Kemble, Saxons [in England; a history of the English commonwealth till the period of the Norman Conquest], i., 88 sq., attempts to fix it at thirty-three acres or thereabouts, or 120 acres of a size one-fourth of the present acre. But though his argument obviates many difficulties, it opens the way for many more. Grimm, R. A. p. 535, gives several passages in which the German hoba is made to contain thirty or forty acres. The mansus, mansa, manens, cassatum, terra aratri, of the charters are all interpreted to mean the same thing, although they may have had local differences. See [Eben William] Robertson, Historical Essays [in connexion with the land, the church, etc], pp. 88-102: G[eorg] L[udwig] von Maurer, Einleit[ung zur Geschichte der Mark-, Hof-, Dorf- und Stadtverfassung und der �ffentlichen Gewalt]. p. 120. The later hide was no doubt 120 or 100 acres. It is possible that some of the greatest inconsistencies in the use of these words may arise from their being used to express the whole share of one man in all the fields of his village. A hide of thirty acres in a system of common cultivation would represent such an allotment in each of the cultivated areas, i.e., if there were four common fields, it would be 120 acres. But this will not explain all; and local and national peculiarities, as well as variations at different times, and differences in the quality of the land, must be taken for granted.2

As a unit based on the land’s productivity, the hide was not a geometrical unit of area, and its size varied. In case of war, five hides were to supply one fully armed soldier. The hide was translated into the Latin in which legal documents of the period were kept in a variety of ways, including “terra familiae,” “terra tributarii”, “familia”, “mansa,” “mansus,” and "cassata." 

C. Warren Hollister sums up the real nature of the hide very well, with perhaps a note of exasperation:

In the first place, the hide was normally regarded as a standard unit of assessment regardless of its size.  It was a fiscal and military unit rather than an areal unit.  Danegeld was customarily levied at the rate of 2s. [two shillings] per hide irrespective of the number of acres which the hide might contain. The same holds for the assessment of ship service in Anglo-Saxon England.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that in a.d. 1008 the king demanded that ships be built throughout the whole of England; every 300 hides should produce a large warship, every ten hides should produce a cutter, and every eight hides should produce a helmet and a coat of mail. No allowance is made for variation in the acreage of hides; the assessment is standard throughout England.  The hide serves also as a standard assessment unit for Anglo-Norman aids. Indeed, whenever we find the hide used as a unit of assessment, we find also that the assessment is consistent.  Nowhere are large hides assessed more heavily than small hides. Nowhere does the acre replace the hide as the assessment unit.3

Ranulf Flambard, justicar during the reign of William Rufus (1087 – 1100), tried to reduce the number of acres in the hide from English to Norman computation, an action described by Ordericus Vitalis: 

Hic juvenem fraudulentis stimulationibus inquietavit regem, incitans ut totius Angliae reviseret descriptionem, Anglicaeque telluris comprobans iteraret partitionem, subditisque recideret tam advenis quam indigenis quicquid inveniretur ultra certam dimensionem. Annuente rege omnes carrucatas, quas Angli hidas vocant, funiculo mensus est et descripsit: postpositisque mensuris quas liberales Angli jussu Edwardi regis largiter distribuerant, imminuit, et regales fiscos accumulans colonis arva retruncavit.  Ruris itaque olim diutius nacti diminutione et insoliti vectigalis gravi exaggeratione, supplices regiae fidelitati plebes indecenter oppressit, ablatis rebus attenuavit, et in nimiam egestatem de ingenti copia redegit.

This man stirred the king with his untruthful importunings; he urged him to revise the description of the whole of England, to repartition the land of England to his own liking, and to confiscate from his subjects, newcomers as well as the native English, whatever was found to be more than a certain measure. With the king’s agreement he measured and recorded all carrucates, which the English call hides; he reduced the size of the units, setting aside those generous units with which the English had liberally distributed land on the orders of King Edward, and cut back the land holdings of farmers to increase the king’s treasury. And so by shrinking farmers’ lands, even though held for a long time, and by imposing heavy new taxes, he dishonorably oppressed the common people, who relied upon the monarch to show restraint in return for their loyalty. He impoverished them by stealing their goods, and reduced them from great abundance to extraordinary poverty. [translated for SIZES by Tom Holland]

1. Henry of Huntingdon.
Historia anglorum. (1135)
Edited and translated by Diana Greenway.
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Book vi, year 1008: “Hida autem Anglice vocatur terra unius aratri cultura sufficiens per annum.”

2. William Stubbs.
The Constitutional History of England in its Origin and Development.
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1880.

 Page 83, footnote 2.

3. C. Warren Hollister.
Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions on the Eve of the Norman Conquest.
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.

Pages 40-41. Quoted by permission of the Oxford University Press (www.oup.com). Permission expires 1 January 2009.

Sources

1

Si rex mittebat alicubui exercitum, de quinque hidis tantum unus miles ibat, et ad ejus victum vel stipendium de unaquaque hida debantur ei iiii. solidi ad duos menses.

Domesday, Customs of Berkshire, Stubbs Select Charters p 87.

2

Hida Terr�. In an manuscript law book, written by Ambrose Couper, Esq. a student in one of the Inns of Court, in the year 1579, now belonging to Francis Ferrand Foljambe, Esq. of Alwarke, near Rotherham, Yorkshire, it is laid down as a rule, that a hide of land consisted of 160 acres, and was made up of the following parts, viz., ten acres make a ferundel, or fardingdeal, four ferundels make a yard-land, and four yard-lands a hide. So four hides, it is said, or 640 acres, made a knight's fee. And that when a knight's fee was taxed at, or paid 40s. then a yard-land of forty acres paid 2s. 6d., half a yard-land 15d., a ferundel 7½ d. and an acre ¾. And so 640 acres of land made on great knight's fee, which paid for a relief 100s.

Yet, not with standing the positive assertion in Mr. Couper's MS. of the quantity of land contained in a hide, the learned Selden as positively asserts that the quantity was doubtless uncertain. He says it regularly was, and is, as he thinks, as much land as might be well manured with one plough, together with pasture, meadow and wood, competent for the maintenance of that plough and the servants of the family; and his observation is certainly very just that it must of necessity be various, according to the nature of the soil, and custom of husbandry in every country. He also cites a record, which shows that it had been uncertain for ages before he wrote, which is from an old court book of the manor of Cranfield, parcel of the possessions of the Abbey of Ramsay, where the homage at a court of survey held there in the time of Henry II. said they did not know how many acres were in a yard-land, because sometimes forty-eight acres, and sometimes fewer made a yard-land, and that four yard-lands made a hide.*

*Selden's Titles of Honour, 622. 

Thomas Blount. Rev. and corrected by Josiah Beckwith. Additions by Hercules Malebysse Beckwith.
Fragmenta Antiquitatis: or, Ancient Tenures of Land
London: Printed by S. Brooke, Paternoster-Row, for Messrs Butterworth and Son, etc., 1815.
Pages 143-144.

For Further Information

T. M. Charles-Edwards.
Kinship, status, and the origins of the hide.
Past and Present, 1972, pages 3-33.

Marjory Hollings.
The survival of the five-hide unit in the Western Midlands.
English Historical Review, volume 63, pages 453-487 (1948).

C. W. Hollister.
The five-hide unit and the old English military obligation.
Speculum, volume 36, pages 61-74 (1961).

Frederic William Maitland.
The Hide. Essay 3 in:
Domesday Book and Beyond. Three Essays in the Early History of England.
Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press, 1907.

James Tait.
Large hides and small hides.
English Historical Review, volume 17, pages 280-282 (1902).

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