Having just spent some time in the New Forest in southern England, I have been reminded of this ancient word for an officer of the Forest. It might sound like one of those ceremonial positions Britain is so fond of but the role of the agister in the New Forest is practical and essential.
In medieval times, the New Forest was a royal hunting park. As with the many other royal parks in England, people who didn’t have grazing rights on the common land could pasture their animals for a fee. The agister’s job was to collect the fees and oversee the pasturing.
Agister is from an Anglo-Norman word meaning to pasture livestock on land belonging to somebody else. It’s from Old French giste, lodging, which in its modern spelling has become gîte, a French holiday home. It and the noun agistment and verb agist continue in use in related senses to various degrees in Australia, New Zealand and North America. In the New Forest the process is called depasturage, from Latin depascere, to eat down or consume.
Today’s New Forest agisters work for the verderers, who run the Forest (their name is also from Anglo-Norman French, based on Latin viridis, green). The agisters patrol the forest on horseback to supervise livestock, including the famous ponies, and to deal with emergencies.
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