Glossary of Medieval Land Holding Terms

Below is an exclusive excerpt from “Under Brilliant Stars”, a forthcoming biography of Boer War Col. John Y. F. Blake, by Brian P. T. Blake.

Glossary of Medieval Land Holding Terms

In feudal times, monarchs held superior title to all land in their kingdom. Kings granted territories to noblemen selected at their pleasure, charging them to cultivate a food surplus above subsistence to support the non-productive but essential central government. As tenants-in-chief, these high-aristocratic “lords of the land” divided their domains into holdings for sub-tenants, in return for fees and services. Feudal land sub-division gave rise to several legal terms, many particular to Britain. These terms include the following.

  • Burgage, a plot of land rented from a lord or king.
  • Carucate or Hide. A “carucate,” mentioned in the Doomsday Book, or a “hide,” was the area of land that one ploughman and two oxen could cultivate in a year. Carucates measured between 60 and 160 medieval “old acres,” approximately 30 modern acres per carucate, depending on the arability and fertility of the soil.
  • County. A provincial subdivision of a kingdom, originally measured by counting the days required to march across it from one selected boundary line to another at the Roman legions’ pace of 24-miles per day. Some counties were originally called “marches,” and a “count of the marches,” shortened to “count,” was the nobleman in charge of the territory so defined.
  • Domain. The territory ruled by a “lord” which supported him and his vassals feudalis and generated a surplus enabling him to “subsidize” the royal government according to the king’s assessments.
  • Demesne. That part of a domain which was retained by a lord for his own use, rather than leased to sub-tenants. Land shared by the lord and his tenants was the common, the village green. The village area allotted to a church for the parson’s support was the glebe.
  • Eyre. A geographical circuit traveled by a justiciar, an itinerant justice of the peace appointed by the king, or the court over which he presided in each venue that he visited.
  • Honour. A feudal domain, the total of all lands granted by the king to a nobleman to hold as a fief (Anglo-Norman French “honur,” meaning legally-held real property). To prevent consolidation of a base from which to challenge the king, each honour was made up of parcels of land distributed around an entire country. Assets held included buildings and castles, lands with­out manor houses, mills, river crossings, fishing and grazing rights, woodlands, salt pans, hunting pre­ser­ves, and other registered properties. Separate parcels often included several manorial estates, with attached towns or villages.
  • Hundred. A division of an English shire consisting of 100 hides. From the number one-hundred, the name may have referred to an area liable to provide for a hundred men under arms, or containing roughly a hundred homesteads. In early 11th Century England groups of ten families, called “tithings,” were organized into groups of 100 families supervised by a constable to help keep the peace. Groups of hundreds within a geographic area were combined to form shires. Divisions of Stoke Desborough and Burn­ham in Buckinghamshire are called the Chiltern Hundreds.
  • Knight’s Fee. A number of carucates, or hides, held by a knight for which he owed military service to the Crown for 40 days. The number of hides in a Knight’s Fee varied by land value, not by area. Paul Dalton’s Conquest, Anarchy and Lordship, Yorkshire, 1066-1154 reports that “about 114 carucates constituted fifteen Knight’s Fees,” so a Knight’s Fee was 7.6 carucates, about 230 modern acres, a bit over one-third of a square mile. Knight’s Fees could be divided into halves or quarters.

Holders of Knight’s Fees could substitute payment of “scutage,” a “shield-fee,” in lieu of personal military service. At one ox team per carucate, a Knight’s Fee employed eight   peasants and sixteen oxen. The average peasant family had seven members, two parents and five children (Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror), so eight plowmen per carucate indicates a population of 50 to 60 peasants. At an estimated six military draftees per Knight’s Fee – three men-at-arms, a hostler-teamster and an armorer or blacksmith, served by a cook and a female laundress and scullery maid – a tenth of the local population could march off to war.

  • Lathe. From Old English laeth, meaning “district.” County Kent was divided into five Lathes.
  • Manor. The basic feudal unit of land tenure, the smallest division of a march, county, hundred, parish, and township. A “manor” in English law was a hereditary estate whose noble holder had the right and duty to convene a manorial “court” to administer the law within the boundaries of his manorial jurisdiction. Manor lords were obligated for Knight’s Fees depending on the size and value of their holding. A manor house was the presiding lord’s residence or dwelling place. From Anglo-Norman French manor, maner, manoir.
  • Rape. Intermediate divisions of a county; a cluster of contiguous Hundreds. A Rape was to have its own river, forest, and castle. Sussex County was divided into six Rapes.
  • Riding. A division of land in Yorkshire equivalent to a third of the county. Danish Vikings having occupied Yorkshire in the 9th Century, “Riding” is derived from Old Norse thriding, meaning “one-third.”
  • Shire. Originally a county, headed by a shire-reeve, later the county sheriff. “Reeve” is derived from “relieve,” to rob or plunder, a reference to the arbitrary taxes collected by force by these officers of the king. Counties or shires were commonly ­divided into districts and subdivided into greater or lesser sections as hundreds, parishes, townships, and manors. Shires within a county or province could be consolidated into administrative juris­dic­tions while retaining their geographic identity.
  • Sulung. A “sulung” was about twice the size of the average “hide,” but not necessarily congruent with the boundaries of other county subdivisions. Land in County Kent was assessed in sulungs for tax purposes, without respect to the residents’ Lathe.