Earliest manuscript with the Tribal Hidage, British Library: Harley MS 3271, f 6v

Hides and the Tribal Hidage

The Tribal Hidage is an enigmatic list of thirty-four Anglo-Saxon tribes and the size of the land controlled by each as measured in ‘hides’ or ‘households’.

Map showing Tribal Hidage
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The hide was an English unit of land indicating the amount of land sufficient to support a large household. In later times it was taken to cover 120 acres or 49 ha, but this might have varied according to region and location and was in all probability a later development. It is conceivable that the ‘hide’ (aka skin or cover) in an early context should be understood as no more or no less as the central homestead. Where several such homesteads were clustered in a settlement or village, each homestead must for practical reasons have had a representative at the common meetings, where decisions concerning fencing and grazing as well as the common use of the outmark was reached. Hence a locality might be said to have x number of hides; later, in Anglo-Saxon charters this might lead to an understanding whereby the acquisition of a hide in a specific locality meant no more or no less than the acquisition of the land and resources, which traditionally were farmed from this particular homestead or farm. Part of this – the homestead itself – would be fenced, while other resources depended on the equal use according to which the peasant could exploit a full, a half or a quarter of a hide’s worth of for instance coppicing, pollarding or grazing-rights for pigs in the nearby wood. A hide was traditionally divided into two sulungs and four yardlands (virgates).

It is no wonder that the numbers of hides in specific localities came to interest mighty lords (from chieftains to kings) when they turned to build their power-base on the economics of taxation rather than raiding and robbing of their neighbours.

The term was used in this context in Ine’s Law (688 – 726), when the size of a man’s wergild was decided upon the number of hides of land, he farmed (32). 400 years later it was still used in the Doomsday Book (1086) and it is a fact the Norman kings continued to use it as a tax unit until the end of the 12th century. As such, a number of hides in a locality was used to indicate the size of the due food rents, public service – probably also inside the village or settlement – or the payment of gelds.

The Tribal Hidage

The Tribal Hidage is a contested list of thirty-four tribes, which was compiled in Anglo-Saxon England some time between the 7th and the 9th century. It lists a number of independent kingdoms and smaller territories from south of the Humber and indicates the number of hides, which they covered, consisted of or ruled over. The list has survived in three different versions: one from the 11th century, another from the 17th century and a third version, which can be found in six different medieval manuscripts.

Traditionally, historians have not been able to agree upon much – from the date of the compilation of the tribal hidage  to its origin and use.

Nevertheless, there may be a near-universal agreement that the text originates from Mercia, which heads the list and seems to have constituted the “centre of the world” as recorded in the hidage. Some historians, though, are of the opinion that the list was in fact compiled in Northhumbria as Anglo-Saxon kings did not at first impose the payment of tribute upon their own country. However, the tribal hidage is by others perceived as a list compiled at the exact period in time, when this practice seems to have shifted.

This conclusion rests upon the belief that the purpose of the list was to provide an overview of tributary units in the kingdoms and territories south of the northern frontier (the Humber). But also this  opinion has not been universally shared by all experts. Neither is there any agreement about the date of the compilation of the list, although most historians locate it in the 7th century. More specifically, Davis has argued for a date in the period between AD 670 – 690. It may even have been drawn up during the reign of Wulfhere († AD 675).

It might seem the only common agreement, which has been reached, is that the list provides some insight into a point in time when Anglo-Saxon England consisted of smaller and larger separate territories and kingdoms traditionally regarded as inhabited by specific ‘tribes’. Thus it illustrates a social situation where the formation of the large Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms had not yet come to full fruition. There were at this point in time an ideological shift in the understanding of what a chieftain, overlord or king might base his power upon – people or tribes versus tribute and taxes payed as a reflection of their land as it pertained to their homesteads, ‘hides’.

That the Tribal Hidage was not a unique document in an Anglo-Saxon contexts, has recently (2016) been argued convincingly by Richard Shaw, who seeks to demonstrate that Bede in all likelihood had a similar, but different text in front of him, when he was writing his major histories. In this context, it is curious that the tribal Hidage as it exists today, is unique when compared to the continent.

The best introduction to the Tribal Hidage as a text is still found in Davis’ and Vierck’s study from 1974.

(Updated 13.10.2016)

SOURCES:

The Contexts of the Tribal Hidage: Social Aggregates and Settlement Patterns
By W. Davis and H. Vierck
In: Frühmittelalterliche Studien (1974) vol 8, pp. 223 -93

Mercia: An Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in Europe
Ed. by Michelle P. Brown and Carol A. Farr
Bloomsbury Publishing 2005
ISBN 9781441153531

The Earls of Mercia: Lordship and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England
by Stephen Baxter (Author)
Series: Oxford Historical Monographs
Oxford University Press 2007

The Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of Southern Britain AD 450-650: Beneath the Tribal Hidage
By Sue Harrington and Martin Welch
Oxbow Books 2014
ISBN: ISBN: 9781782976127

FEATURED PHOTO:

Earliest manuscript with the Tribal Hidage, British Library: Harley MS 3271, f 6v

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