The Anglo-Saxons and the Normans: how hunting turned to poaching

If you read enough English history, you’ll start to wonder how life in England changed once the Normans conquered the place.

Or you will if you’re me, anyway. Which admittedly, you’re probably not.

Be grateful. It’s strange in here.

Let’s look at one change: hunting and access to the woods. I’m working in part from The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, an Englishman’s World, by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger. It’s a book–one of those odd things involving paper and ink. I just love them, but then I’m several hundred years old. To me, they’re still an exciting new technology.

Irrelevant photo: Camellia blossoms. They weren’t here when the Anglo-Saxons and Normans were running around–they were a much later import.

One important change involved hunting. Before the Normans invaded and seized the place, the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy hunted with expensive dogs and birds and horses but any free-born Anglo-Saxon had the right to hunt.

Notice the restriction there. Anglo-Saxon England  had slavery, and wars were fought in part to capture slaves. What percent of the population was enslaved? Dunno. But however many people were involved, you can take that group of people and set them outside the freedoms the rest of the inhabitants had.

Don’t forget they’re there. It’ll keep you from romanticizing things.

The forest was as important and productive a part of free people’s world as their fields were. They didn’t just use them for hunting, they gathered wood and turned their animals out to forage in them. How did that coexist with private ownership of woodlands? I’m not sure. My best guess–and I haven’t been able to verify this–is that we’re talking about local people’s access to local woodland. In other words, to woods owned by a lord they had some sort of relationship with.

As a whole, the population ate well. Lacey and Danziger argue that the people of that time were as tall as people living today. Where recent generations have grown taller than their ancestors, it’s because during the intervening generations their ancestors were overcrowded and underfed.

The Normans–somewhere between 4,000 and 8,000 of them–barged into this well-fed country, and William made himself the owner of the whole shebang. Under him were 180 chief tenants, who owed him military service. And under them? More tenants, who owed military service through the people above them. The top lords were all or almost all Normans, and they replaced the entire upper crust of Anglo-Saxon society.

And to make sure he’d have a matching set, William did the same with administrators and church officials: He replaced them with Norman versions.

William kept a fair bit of Anglo-Saxon administrative organization–it was efficient and, for its time, centralized–but (among many other things) dramatically changed people’s rights to use the forest. The right to hunt was now reserved for the top one percent of the one percent. Maybe I should add another “of the one percent” there, but forget the numbers: It was reserved for the aristocracy–the landowners, that thin (and Norman) top layer of the population. Anyone else was poaching–stealing the lord’s game.

This was codified into the forest law, which protected the animals so the king could hunt them and also protected everything the animals fed on. Common people not just lost their right to hunt, but to fish, to gather fruit and wood, to dig peat and clay, to pasture their animals. It was a disaster for a people whose living had depended in part on the forest.

What happened if they broke the law? The punishments ranged from fines to death, and in the early years after the conquest the law was enforced with a heavy hand. Hunting had gone from being something any free man might do to something reserved for the aristocracy.

But what was this about pasturing their animals in a forest?

Under Norman law, forest didn’t mean forest as in a place with lots of trees. It could mean woods, but it could also mean pastures and even villages. It meant a place the king might want to hunt and it meant anything that fell within that place he might want to hunt. If he designated it a forest, it was a forest, and you wouldn’t want to stand there arguing about its lack of trees. If you happened to live inside what he said was a forest, you not only couldn’t hunt or cut wood or do any of those other things, you couldn’t use a fence or a hedge to protect your crops because it might get in the way of the hunt.

At the time of the Domesday Book–William’s massive, nitpicking survey of the land he’d conquered–there were 25 royal forests, but forest law applied not just to royal forests but also to forests owned by major lords of various flavors.

Norman forest law led to a lot of confusion over land ownership. Since all land belonged to the king and was granted downward from there–and since it could, if the king got mad at you, be un-granted–ownership had some murky edges. The law was muddled enough that it was possible to own part of a forest but not have the right to hunt in it or cut trees.

All of this is what made the 1217 Charter of the Forest so important: It gave free men certain rights in royal forests–and by then there were 143 royal forests. Commoners could gather wood, honey, and fruit; dig clay; fish; cut peat; and pasture animals. The charter laid the groundwork for rights that held (and were fought over) throughout the medieval period and for the rights of commoners today on some 500 surviving commons.

On the other hand, only about 10 percent of the population was free. Serfs weren’t slaves but they weren’t in any realistic or legal way free. So although the charter was important, both in practical terms and in terms of the precedent it set, but it was also limited.