King Ina’s Food Rents and the Tribal Hidage

I’ve been reading Kathy Pearson’s “Nutrition and the Early-Medieval Diet”, which is just full of interesting information. Assessing the livestock available in early medieval northern Europe, Pearson quotes  from King Ine’s law code on hide (land) rents. From every 10 hides of land, King Ine demanded “2 full-grown cows or 10 wethers, 10 geese, 20 hens”.  A wether is a male castrated goat (I had to look it up). That is a lot of goats. Makes me wonder if  a wether couldn’t have referred to castrated male sheep as well. At first I had to wonder what the king would do with all these livestock, especially if the male goats/sheep, and poultry were substituted for cows. He can only eat so much and host so many feasts. It’s true that some of these livestock will be redistributed within the kingdom, including to monasteries and standing armies.

The Tribal Hidage from Henry Spelman, ‘Glossarium archiaologicum’, p. 292 (via Wikipedia)

Trying to put this into perspective. one of the only contexts we have is the tribal hidage, listed to the right, that dates to about the same century as King Ine who ruled from 688-726. Its function has been argued over for at least a century. Is is a tax sheet, a tribute list, a military roster, or an even more general use? Most scholars seem to believe that its written from the point of view of Mercia (though there isn’t consensus on this either). Regardless it is an assessment of the English lands south of the River Humber.

Some believe that the Wessex assessment is either exaggerated or punitive. At 100,000 hides King Ine would have been collecting 20,000 cows a year (or 100,000 wethers, 100,000 geese, and 200,000 hens!). Ok, so lets assume that the Wessex assessment does not reflect reality.

Lets consider this rental fee applied to a smaller area like Lindsey (Lindes-ferona), assessed at 7000 hides  it would owe 1400 cows. Even with redistribution including to monasteries, that is a lot of cows to cope with and come up with from watery Lindsey. With these kinds of numbers, it’s not too hard to see where the hides came for manuscripts. It’s also hard to imagine the industry needed to butcher and process this many animals for meat, leather, bones and sinews, and what would he do with the birds? Of course, the king can export some of the leather and some of the livestock may have been paid to a greater king than himself. Some may have been sold back to the people for other goods. He still has to cope with a lot of meat.

How would this rental fee have been applied. Did it only apply to estates of more than 10 hides? In that case, smaller land holders would be exempt, or charged lesser fees per hide. These also were not all of the rental fee. Pearson notes that King Ina also demanded one cheese per hide (of unmentioned size) and collected butter as a form of rent has well. Cheese and to a lesser extent butter would have been important nutrients and long-term storage for dairy products.  Most European rentals were also included eggs, but as these are perishable and delicate, it seems likely that these were paid to the most local officials or monasteries. Pearson notes that cheese and eggs are written about as though they were a primary means of currency for the peasants rather than a regular food stuff. As a side note, cheese and eggs would probably have been women’s products and the types of goods that women would barter for household needs or services.

Pearson suggests that these high rental demands may have allowed the king to store foodstuffs away for times of famine. While this is true for some things like cheese and some crops, I’m not sure that livestock would have been much of a bulwark against famine. The cost of maintaining this much livestock would have been a considerable expense.  In times of famine, fodder for cattle would have also been lean. It might have been some insurance for the elites and monasteries who could maintain as much livestock as their estates could hold. I just really can’t see the king sending beef out to hungry peasants. How early medieval communities would have survived famines is still an open question, still food for thought.

Reference: Kathy Pearson (1997) “Nutrition and the Early Medieval Diet” Speculum, 72, 1-32.


11 thoughts on “King Ina’s Food Rents and the Tribal Hidage

  1. A minor point, but, hereabouts (SW Scotland, early 21st century!), a wether is a castrated male sheep (normally castrated while still a lamb). As an early translation of a passage in Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ has it, “From the he-goats separate me, With thy sheep, Lord, deign to mate me.” Ina was perhaps also more interested in sheep than in goats?

    1. Probably more value in wool production for export. Castrated males is interesting. Suggests that he isn’t interested in multiplying his holdings. I guess with a contact in-flow of animals, rearing young animals is more trouble than its worth.

      I suspect that there were more goats around than we think though. They get by on marginal land and could be a poor-man’s cow. Doesn’t yeavering bell mean goat hill?

      1. Ad gefrin – yes indeed. And goats occur often in toponymics. We used to keep goats and castrated most of the billys – less troublesome, and the meat didn’t taste so goaty. Same with ram lambs: and, after a short set-back, they grow quicker. If you’re looking for bulk food-renders, that’s the way to go, and you wouldn’t be keeping non-breeding stock over the winter. BTW, what does the original text have for ‘wether’?

  2. Great stuff Michelle. I agree with you re livestock and famine. Now if pasturage was on land unsuitable for other crops this might help a little but generally, unless the hay crop was good while wheat and barley was poor (possible depending on the situation) livestock will generally compete with humans for limited consumables.

    Impressive numbers and I wonder if there are some implications for population levels?

  3. I agree that this is a wonderful source, and I must read this article, but I’d be very wary of trusting the numbers. Firstly, as Michelle says, “Did it only apply to estates of more than 10 hides? In that case, smaller land holders would be exempt, or charged lesser fees per hide.” Without knowing much about landed property in the early eighth century in Wessex – which we really don’t – it’s very hard to guess how many estates at all were to provide these good. I wouldn’t want to rule out that what we have here is something like the Capitulare de villis and that it was really only the royal estates it was meant to apply to. And then there’s all the Patrick Wormald stuff about what early medieval law is actually meant to do. This may just be presenting an ideal; the fact that Ine legislated it not only doesn’t mean he had any ability to enforce it, it also doesn’t mean he had any real expectation of getting it as stated, any more than every royal vill in the Carolingian Empire could really have mustered up all the goods and plants Charlemagne laid out in the CdV. I think a profitable comparison could be made between this law and the CdV in fact, and I’m kind of surprised that Speculum didn’t demand it.

    1. Oh most of her paper is on continental sources, I just plucked out the Anglo-Saxon sources. I don’t know much about continental sources so I can’t really talk about them. I’m sure you could do a much better job of looking this article over. 🙂

    2. The numbers do seem high, so I agree with Jonathan on the various ways of reading the evidence. Another possibility is that small holdings paid small rents (as you mention, of less durable goods) to larger estate centers who “owed” Ine this rent. Robin Fleming in Britain After Rome (pp. 74-75) applies Ine’s food rents to social stratification between small hamlets and wealthier centers.

  4. On the accuracy of the tribal hidage, I just noticed that it matches the hidage given for the South Saxons in Bede’s History (IV:13) at 7000 hides. Interesting. I wonder if this hidage was stable given the changing politics of Sussex?

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