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No Trees in the Forest?

It’s not often that an author is prompted to make a statement in bold type to correct what he sees as a gross misunderstanding. I came across a rare example the other day in Oliver Rackham’s The History of the Countryside. He was speaking about the medieval English royal forests and said: “I re-emphasise that the word Forest does not imply woodland”. Since to us today the word does indeed mean “an area of land covered with trees” this seemed to merit a bit of linguistic exploration.

The origin of the word forest is usually explained as coming from the late Latin phrase forestis silva, which was apparently applied to areas of land used by the Emperor Charlemagne for hunting. Here, silva meant “woodland” (as in “sylvan” and “silviculture”) and forestis meant “outdoor, outside” (apparently related to the Latin fores, “door”), so that forestis silva meant something like “beyond the main or central area of administration; outside the common law”. In time, the phrase became shortened to forest, but retained a sense of separateness and exclusion. It was this sense that the Normans brought with them when they invaded England in 1066. A forest for them and their successors was an area of unenclosed countryside, consisting of a highly variable mixture of woodland, heathland, scrub and agricultural land. Its purpose was to raise deer, which needed a variety of land — woodland to rest and hide in during the day, and more open land in which to feed at night. By the time of Domesday Book in 1086 about twenty-five such royal forests had been established, and at various times there were as many as eighty (there were also about as many again established by barons and other magnates in imitation).

The common belief is that the royal forests were established as places for the king to hunt in. This seems wide of the mark. As Oliver Rackham remarks, even the most sporting king would have found difficulty in making use of eighty forests scattered around the country. It seems that few kings had much time for the thrills of the chase and, in most cases, the hunting was done by professionals to provide meat for feasts and as gifts. Medieval kings were actually quite poor, and the ability to give presents of venison as rewards to those who served them well meant much in terms of authority. In about half the forest areas, as in the Forest of Dean, they also owned the woodland within the royal forests, and to be able to make a present of the rare timbers large enough to build ships and houses gave them further influence.

The royal forests were highly unpopular with the people who lived there because the king imposed strict rules preventing people from enclosing land to keep the deer out. As modern farmers in many parts of Britain will attest, deer can be a terribly destructive force among crops. In effect, the imposition of a royal forest was a tax on its inhabitants, who paid through inconvenience and loss of crops for the king’s own crop, the deer.

The forests had an army of staff to look after them: seneschals, justiciars, regarders and verderers administered the forest laws (of these, only the verderers now survive as a titled office, and that only in one place — the New Forest, one of William the Conqueror’s original first forests). The courts that heard offences were either courts of eyre (travelling courts to hear serious offences, from the Latin iterare, “to travel”, which also gives us words like “iteration”), or of swainmote (a court held three times a year principally to control the pasturage of pigs in the forest; this word comes from Old English and literally means “a meeting of swineherds” — swain later became a poetical name for a low-born bucolic suitor and for a servant, as in coxswain; the second part turns up in a lot of early words for more-or-less formal assemblies, such as witenagemot, and is the same word as the legal moot, “a formal debate”, from which we also get the sense of something being “moot”, that is, debatable or open to question). The lardiners (sometimes important magnates) stored the carcasses of the deer; foresters cared for the animals and vegetation, as described by Sir John Manwood in his Lawes of the Forest, 1598

A Forester is an officier of a forest of the King (or of an other man) that is sworne to preserue the Vert and Venison of the same forest, and to attend vpon the wild beasts within his Bailiwick, and to attach offendors there .. and the same to present at the courts of the same forest.

(Manwood was a lawyer of the Inner Temple, writing after forest law had for all practical purposes died out; for reasons of his own he invented much of the law he apparently catalogued, thereby making generations of scholars think it had been much more draconian than it actually was.)

The vert was the medieval name for the growing things in the forest, especially the timber trees used for construction and the underbrush cut for firewood; venison here means the live animals of the chase, not necessarily deer. The foresters were assisted by under-officers called variously wardens, rangers, underkeepers, bow-bearers, and under-foresters (Chaucer was once one, as a sinecure, another way the medieval kings could use the mechanism of their royal forests to reward people). An example of the sort of petty bureaucracy forest-dwellers had to put up with was lawing, or expeditation, in which the claws of mastiffs and hounds belonging to local people were removed to prevent them from attacking the royal deer; the only excepted animals were those small enough to wriggle through a specially-sized iron stirrup.

The boundaries of the forests were set by the king’s surveyors and were periodically renewed in people’s memories by perambulations, that is, by actually walking the boundaries. The word puture was applied to the allowance of meat and drink given to foresters and their attendants; assarts were areas of forest grubbed up for arable use; agisters controlled the letting of cattle into the forest to feed and a drive was the process of collecting together these cattle to count them; a lodge was temporary housing in a forest during the hunting season and a standing was an observation point where the hunter stood; the official name for a forest controlled by a magnate other than the king was a chase. There was a panoply of rites for those involved in formal hunts, including the ceremony of presenting the fewmets (faeces) of the deer to the presiding magnate to show the quality of the stag pursued, and the ceremonial gralloching or evisceration of the deer after the kill.

The legal boundary of a royal forest was frequently much larger than that of the woodland contained in it, even in the case of those, such as Sherwood Forest, where the proportion of woodland was quite high. By a process of transference, the meaning of the word forest gradually shifted, as the force of the old forest law declined after about 1500, from the legal area to the woodland within the forest, so giving us our modern sense of the word. From 1919, when the Forestry Commission was established to replenish timber resources destroyed by centuries of neglect, the meaning has had a tendency in Britain to shift further towards large enclosed plantations of conifers, since these are the principal types of tree planted for commercial use.

However, the recent decision to establish a National Forest in the Midlands, which will — like its medieval predecessors — contain a mixture of land uses as well as plantations of native trees, may begin a process of turning the word back towards its first sense in English.

Page created 7 Mar. 1996
Last updated 9 Oct. 1996

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Last modified: 9 October 1996.