West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village

A Lost Tribal Hidage?

Bede used charters and other written documents while writing his histories. Careful sifting of the evidence reveals that he probably also used a now lost “Tribal Hidage”.

At that time Æthelberht, king of Kent, was a very powerful monarch. The lands over which he exercised his suzerainty stretched as far as the great river Humber, which divides the Northern from the Southern Angles. Over against the eastern districts of Kent there is a large island called the Thanet which, in English reckoning is 600 hides in extent. It is divided from the mainland by the river Wantsum….
(Bede: The Ecclesiastical History chapter 25, pp 39. Oxford World’s Classics 1994)

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

Bede (672 – 735) was consistent when he translated the Anglo-Saxon word hide to Familia. There is no doubt that he considered a ‘hide’ to be the equivalent of a homestead or a farm large enough to provide a livelihood for one family or kindred-group aka a household.

However, in a new study (2016) Richard Shaw have taken upon himself to explore the sources, which Bede used when writing about such hides. The aim has been to uncover more information of the wider connotations of the word in terms of the life-world, in which he lived as well as the role of the written sources, which Bede used when compiling and writing his histories.

All in all, Richard Shaw tells us, there are 27 paragraphs in which Bede uses the word hied. These references clearly fall into two distinct groups, indicating Bede’s use of two different sources.

The first group describes chartered information concerning land gifted or donated to individuals or monasteries. As such they seem to refer to the existence of written evidence of these transactions; indeed, a careful analysis of the texts indicate that Bede to a large extent reused phrases picked directly from such contemporary charters as have been preserved from archives further south. The argument is dense, but worth reading carefully as it presents us with fascinating details of a burgeoning administrative practice connected with governing in 7th century Northumbria.

The second group, however, is perhaps infinitely more interesting. These references seem to refer to information about larger areas – kingdoms or territorial units – such as we meet them in the Tribal Hidage, a contested list of tribal kingdoms and territories from (in all likelihood) the 7th century.

The argument is that given Bede’s use of charters it is highly likely that his knowledge about the tribal hidage also came from a written source; this time, however, the source must have looked different; perhaps much more like the tribal hidage from south of the Humber?

One look at the references to specific hidages also shows that these do not read as natural parts of the account. One glance at the introduction to the arrival or Augustine at the isle of Thanet – as described in the quotation above – illustrates this perfectly. It seems Bede took pains to describe a number of locations by reference to their hidage rather than to their general geographical layout, of which he obviously knew less.

On the basis of this – and a number of other well-argued points – Richard Shaw makes his case that Bede had in front of him while writing his Histories, a document much like the extant “Tribal Hidage”. Might it be an identical list? Not so, answers Richard Shaw, who proceeds to demonstrate that figures given for specific territories or regions in both “lists” do not always correspond. For instance, the Tribal Hidage assesses the Isle of Wight at 600 hides, while Bede tells us it held double that. Bede also provides the hidage for territories like Ely, Iona, Anglesey and the Isle of Man, which are absent from the Tribal Hidage.

All in all, it is hypothesized and convincingly argued that Bede had a text in front him not much different from the tribal Hidage, but nevertheless a different list altogether. Less secure is the date of the presumed – now lost – hidage, which is tentatively suggested belonged in the reign of Edwin (c. 586 – 632/33). On the other hand, the now lost document may as well have been a compilation of this plus other such (later?) lists used in the royal administration in Northumbria and then copied at Wearmouth-Yarrow.

“It is difficult to go beyond such cautious suggestions; nor is it necessary”, writes Richard Shaw. It is enough just to posit the existence of such a document and demonstrate that it represents the best explanation for the existence of the listed hidages in Bede’s Historia.


Bede’s sources for his references to ‘hides’ in the Ecclesiastical History and the History of the Abbots
By Richard Shaw
In: Historical Research (2016) vol. 89, no.245, pp. 412 – 434