Hide (unit)

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The hide was originally an amount of land sufficient to support a household, but later in Anglo-Saxon England became a unit used in assessing land for liability to "geld", or land tax. The geld would be collected at a stated rate per hide. After the Norman Conquest of England hidage assessments were recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086 and the Norman kings continued to use them (with amendments) for tax assessments until the end of the 12th century.

During the Anglo-Saxon period the hide was not a fixed area of land, however after the Norman Conquest there were some attempts at standardisation.

Original meaning[edit]

The Anglo-Saxon word for a hide was hid (or its synonym hiwisc). Both words are believed to be derived from the same root hiwan, which meant "family".

Bede in his Ecclesiastical History (c.731) describes the extent of a territory by the number of families which it supported, as (for instance), in Latin, terra x familiarum meaning 'a territory of ten families'. In the Anglo-Saxon version of the same work hid or hiwan is used in place of terra ... familiarum. Other documents of the period show the same equivalence and it is clear that the word hide originally signified land sufficient for the support of a peasant and his household.[1]

Development as a unit of taxation[edit]

In early Anglo-Saxon England the hide was used as the basis for assessing the amount of food rent (known as feorm) due from an area. Initially the size of the hide varied according to value and resources of the land itself.[2] Over time the hide became the unit on what all public obligation was assessed. So as well as food rent the manning and maintenance of the walls of a burh and the amount of geld payable was based on the hide. Tenants had a threefold obligation related to their landholding; the so-called ‘common burdens' of military service, fortress work, and bridge repair.[2][3] In wartime, five hides were expected to provide one fully armed soldier in the kings service,[4] and one man from every hide was to provide garrison duty for the burhs and to help in their initial construction and upkeep.[4] The continued maintenance of the burhs, as well as ongoing garrison duty, was also probably supplied by those inhabitants of the new burhs which were planned by the king as new towns. In this way the economic and military functions of the larger burhs were closely interlinked.[5]

Eventually the hide was given a set acreage, in the Domesday book the most common size in use was 120 acres (48.56 ha; 0.19 sq mi).[2][6] However some areas such as Dorset and Wiltshire used units based on 40 acres (16.19 ha; 0.06 sq mi) to 48 acres (19.42 ha; 0.08 sq mi).[7] Thus the hide lost its original meaning and became the basis of an artificial system of assessment of land for purposes of taxation. Many details of the development of the system during the 350 years which elapsed between the time of Bede and the Domesday Book remain obscure. According to Sir Frank Stenton, "Despite the work of many great scholars the hide of early English texts remains a term of elusive meaning."[8]

A number of early documents referring to hides have survived, but these can only be seen as steps in the development of the concept of the hide and do not enable us to see the full story.

The document known as the Tribal Hidage is a very early list thought to date possibly from the 7th century, but known only from a later and unreliable manuscript. It is a list of tribes and small kingdoms owing tribute to an overlord and of the proportionate liability or quota imposed on each of them. This is expressed in terms of hides, though we have no details as to how these were arrived at nor how they were converted into a cash liability.[9]

Hide assessments could also be used for the apportionment of other obligations to which a community was liable, not only a pecuniary liability. The Burghal Hidage (early 10th century) is a list of boroughs giving the hide assessments of neighbouring districts which were liable to contribute to the defence of the borough, each contributing to the maintenance and manning of the fortifications in proportion to the number of hides for which they answered.[10]

The County Hidage (early 11th century) lists the total number of hides to be assessed on each county and it seems that by this time at least the total number of hides in a given area was imposed from above. Each county was assigned a round number of hides, for which it would be required to answer. For instance, at an early date in the 11th century, Northamptonshire was assigned 3,200 hides, while Staffordshire was assigned only 500.[11] This number was then divided up between the hundreds in the county. Theoretically there were 100 hides in each hundred, but this proportion was often not maintained, for example because of changes in the hundreds or in the estates comprising them or because assessments were altered when the actual cash liability was perceived as being too high or too low or for other reasons now unknown.

The hides within each hundred were then divided between villages, estates or manors, usually in blocks or multiples of 5 hides, though this was not always maintained. Differences from the norm could result from estates being moved from one hundred to another, or from adjustments to the size of an estate or alterations in the number of hides for which an estate should answer.[12]

As each local community had the task of deciding how its quota of hides should be divided between the lands held by that community, different communities used different criteria, depending on the type of land held and on the way in which an individual's wealth was reckoned within that community, it is self-evident that no single comprehensive definition is possible.

After the Norman conquest[edit]

Domesday Book, recording the results of the survey made on the orders of King William I in 1086, states in hides (or carucates or sulungs as the case might be) the assessed values of estates throughout the area covered by the survey. Usually it gives this information for 1086 and also for the time of Edward the Confessor (i.e. shortly before the Conquest), but some counties were different and only showed this information for one of those dates. By that time the assessments showed many anomalies.[13]

Sometimes the assessment in hides is given both for the whole manor and for the demesne land (i.e.the lord's own demesne) included in it.

The Norman kings continued after the Conquest to use the system which they found in place. Geld was levied at intervals on the existing hidage assessments. Dr Sally Harvey has suggested that the ploughland data in Domesday Book was intended to be used for a complete re-assessment but, if so, it was never actually made.[14] The Pipe Rolls, where they are available, show that levies were based largely on the old assessments, though with some amendments and exemptions.

The last recorded levy was for 1162-3 during the reign of Henry II, but the tax was not formally abolished and Henry II thought of using it again between 1173 and 1175. The old assessments were used for a tax on land in 1193-4 to raise money for King Richard's ransom.[15]

Relationship to other similar terms[edit]

A hide was usually made up of four virgates although exceptionally Sussex had eight virgates to the hide.[16] A similar measure was used in the northern Danelaw, known as a carucate, consisting of eight bovates, and Kent used a system based on a "sulung", consisting of four yokes, which was larger than the hide and on occasion treated as equivalent to two hides.[17] These measures had a different origin, signifying the amount of land which could be cultivated by one plough team as opposed to a family holding, but all later became artificial fiscal assessments.



  1. ^ Lennard pp.58-60
  2. ^ a b c Rosamond Faith. Hide in Lapidge's. Anglo-Saxon England. pp. 238-239
  3. ^ Hollister. Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions. pp. 59-60
  4. ^ a b Powicke. Military Obligation in Medieval England. pp.18-21
  5. ^ Maitland. Essay III. The Hide in Domesday Book and Beyond.
  6. ^ Maitland. Essay III. The Hide in Domesday Book and Beyond. pp. 490-520
  7. ^ Dennis Haselgrove. The Domesday Record of Sussex in Brandons South Saxons pp. 194-195
  8. ^ Stenton, p. 279
  9. ^ Stenton p.295. See also Cyril Hart: The Tribal Hidage in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th series Vol.21 (1971)
  10. ^ Stenton p.265. See also David Hill & A.R.Rumble (edd): The Defence of Wessex - The Burghal Hidage (1996)
  11. ^ Stenton, p. 646.
  12. ^ Stenton, pp.644-6; Darby, pp.1-12.
  13. ^ See for example Darby, pp. 106-8, and Bailey.
  14. ^ Harvey pp.186-189
  15. ^ See J.A.Green
  16. ^ Dennis Haselgrove. The domesday record of Sussex in Brandon's. South Saxons. pp. 198-199
  17. ^ Stenton, pp. 281-2, 647

Books mentioned in the notes[edit]

  • Bailey, Keith, The Hidation of Buckinghamshire, in Records of Buckinghamshire, Vol.32, 1990 (pp. 1–22)
  • Brandon, Peter, ed. (1978). The South Saxons. Chichester: Phillimore. ISBN 0-85033-240-0. 
  • Darby, Henry C., Domesday England, Cambridge University Press, 1977
  • Green, J.A.: The Last Century of Danegeld in The English Historical Review Vol.96, no.379 (April 1981) pp. 241–258
  • Harvey, Dr Sally P.J: Domesday Book and Anglo-Norman Governance in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th series, Vol.25 (1975) pp. 175–193
  • Hollister, C. Warren (1962). Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions on the Eve of the Norman Conquest. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 
  • Lapidge, Michael Ed.; John Blair, Simon Keynes, Donald Scragg (2001). The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. London: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-22492-0. 
  • Lennard, Reginald: The origin of the Fiscal Carucate in The Economic History Review Vol.14, No.1 (1944) pp. 51–63
  • Maitland, Frederic William (1897). Domesday Book and Beyond. Three essays in the early history of England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 4 March 2014. 
  • Powicke, Michael (1962). Military Obligation in Medieval England. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  • Stenton, Frank M., Anglo-Saxon England (3rd edn.), Oxford University Press, 1971

Further reading[edit]

Much work has been done investigating the hidation of various counties and also in attempts to discover more about the origin and development of the hide and the purposes for which it was used, but without producing many clear conclusions which would help the general reader. Those requiring more information may wish to consult the following works in addition to those quoted in the Notes:

  • Darby, Henry C. & Campbell, Eila M. J. (1961) The Domesday Geography of South Eastern England
  • Darby, Henry C. & Maxwell, I. S. (1962) The Domesday Geography of Northern England
  • Darby, Henry C. & Finn, R. Welldon (1967) The Domesday Geography of South West England
  • Darby, Henry C. (1971) The Domesday Geography of Eastern England, 3rd ed.
  • Darby, Henry C. & Terrett, I. B. (1971) The Domesday Geography of Midland England, 2nd ed.
  • McDonald, John & Snooks, Graeme D. (1985) "Were the Tax Assessments of Domesday England Artificial?: the Case of Essex", in: The Economic History Review, New series, Vol. 38, No. 3, [Aug. 1985], pp. 352–72
  • Snooks, Graeme D. and McDonald, John. Domesday Economy: a New Approach to Anglo-Norman History. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986 ISBN 0-19-828524-8
  • Hamshere, J. D. (1987) "Regressing Domesday Book: Tax Assessments of Domesday England, in: The Economic History Review, New series, Vol. 40, No. 2. [May 1987], pp. 247-51
  • Leaver, R. A. (1988) "Five Hides in Ten Counties: a Contribution to the Domesday Regression Debate", in: The Economic History Review, New series, Vol. 41, No. 4, [Nov. 1988], pp. 525–42
  • Bridbury, A. R. (1990) "Domesday Book: a Re-interpretation", in: English Historical Review, Vol. 105, No. 415. [Apr. 1990], pp. 284–309