Medieval Woods

This is a bit by way of being a companion piece to the post I wrote about forests a couple of weeks ago. Those of you who read it will already know that a wood was not a small forest. Unlike a forest, it did have to have trees and lots of them.

I was surprised to read in my sources that England was not as wooded as I had always been told as a teenager that it was in the Middle Ages. There was a picture in my head of a country so densely wooded that it was difficult to travel from one place to another for all the trees in the way. Not only had woods been supplying fuel and timber for centuries, but they had also been cut down to provide more farming land. It could almost be said that there was a shortage of trees by the fourteenth century.

Like everything else, woods were technically the property of the king. In practice they belonged to the lords of the manor, who used them for their own benefit. Wood was a precious resource, used for timber and fuel: for cooking, heat and smithies. In the fourteenth century, coal wasn’t a widespread source of fuel, although it was used in those places where it was easily accessible. In some parts of the country peat was used.

Woods had to be managed carefully to ensure that the lord of the manor and his heirs received the maximum benefit from them. Only they had the right to fell trees and sell them. Tenants, villeins and serfs on the manor might have other rights in a wood, though.

Oak, ash and beech were the most common trees. All were useful, but the oak and the beech also provided acorns and beechmast in the autumn and these were eaten by pigs. Almost everyone owned at least one pig and they would usually have the right of pannage, which meant that their pigs could forage in the wood during the autumn. On some manors this was a right that was enshrined in the by-laws of the manor, on others the tenants, villeins and serfs had to pay for the right.

Other rights included cablish, which was the right to collect branches that had been blown down for firewood. Housebote and haybote were the rights that allowed tenants to take timber to keep their houses and fencing in good order. As you might imagine, all these rights were open to abuse.

Given the value of a wood, they were not allowed to go wild. They were managed by woodwards. One way of managing a wood was to coppice it. This meant cutting a wood on rotation so that new growth in one place was cut every few years. This new growth was used for fuel and fencing. Larger trees were allowed to grow to be harvested as timber. Woodlands tended to be quite open, as the pigs’ foraging prevented new growth. As well as looking after the coppicing, another of the woodward’s duties was to ensure that no one took something from the wood to which they were not entitled. That must have been a difficult task.

Wood was a very precious resource and London needed a lot of woods around it to provide timber for building. There were probably the most intensively managed in the country.

Medieval society used a lot of wood. Timber was used for houses and boats and ships. It was used to make tools and weapons. Tables, stools, carts, ploughs, bowls, cups, chests and pattens were all made from wood. Some wood was used to make charcoal or potash, both of which were used in medieval industries. Charcoal was used wherever a lot of heat was required, such as a forge. Potash was used to bleach fabric and to make soap. Everyone used wood one way or another.

Sources:
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Making a Living in the Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer
The English Manor by Mark Bailey
A Social History of England 1200 to 1500 ed Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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22 Comments

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22 responses to “Medieval Woods

  1. Up until England had her colonies ship building wood was sourced from Scandanavia, if home wood was no longer available. Access to the America’s abundant virgin woodlands heralded great changes to England’s power.

    It is amusing to visit the reconstructed Plymouth Plantation, where houses were built using the same wood-conservative measures employed by English people in the homeland.
    All that wood, yet such care!

    Didn’t take long before they became wasteful. But that’s another story.

    Another great lesson! Thank you!🌹

    Liked by 3 people

    • I, too, remember from various documentaries over the years, of the shortage of wood in England and some other European countries, that was highly prized in ‘colonial’ lands – – I think of this, too, when I read modern stories of ‘resources mined’ in less developed areas – the raw resources shipped out with little to no improvement (and often, detrimental!) to locals, that make large returns for the ones taking it – who, for whatever reason, either already used theirs up, or are in danger of doing so – sigh – we sure don’t learn very well, even over aeons of time….

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      • I’ve always assumed that the ships that were built near where I live were built from English oak, but that might be wrong. There are so many things to research.

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        • So long ago, I simply don’t remember which book I read it in, but sure it had to do with North/South divide, colonialism and/or monetary systems history, etc – – (I link it in my brain with my deep dive into those topics ‘era’ of rabbit holes – LOL) Specifically, the author mentioned that while gold/silver were driving forces for European explorer’s to the “New World” (the American continents) most prized were the bountiful forests – Also, and I forget which mineral resource, but once the full bounty to be had was discovered in New England area colonies, there was passed a law that made home forges/colonial forges illegal – i.e. mine the resources, sell them to us (England) at a pittance, ship it ‘home’, where we will manufacture it, and ship back to you the finished products you need for daily life) – that little tidbit isn’t mentioned in a lot of the “Road to Revolution’ history things I read, but think that took place some good 10-20 years before the Tea Tax/Stamp Tax, Indian Wars, etc. 😀

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          • There was iron, copper, mined salt, potassium nitrate (for gunpowder) and galena (lead), to my memory. There were more, but these were critical for warfare.

            Liked by 2 people

            • iron was the one I was thinking of – now I have to go look up the history of cast-iron ware, simply because, in my brain, I thought, “How silly you weren’t allowed to mine & make your own cast iron skillet, locally – but had to wait for a new one to ship all the way from England” – – 😀 Or perhaps, tin was in there somewhere too – – for the tin peddlers that moved up and down the colonies, selling their wares –

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              • I’m sure tin was somewhere, but it was still being mined in Cornwall, and there were some rules in place to protect the rights to mining it in England, for a time at least. Not sure if tin mining was discouraged during colonial times. Something to research! ☺

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      • Sending raw materials to be worked in England was a determining factor in the American Revolution. We sent them to England, whose artisans and factories turned out finished products, and sent them back to the colonies to sell. (This was done by colonial powers to many colonies.) Many colonies were forbidden to manufacture certain items, though all the raw materials and means to work them were rear at hand.

        It doesn’t take a Wall Street maven to see how lopsided the system became. Still, it wasn’t the main reason colonists wanted independence. Nor was the system really beneficial to the general English population, as it artificially drove up prices.

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        • Near at hand – not rear. :-{

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        • Thanks! 1. for me not totally misremembering or losing my mind – as that fact stuck in my brain, but lord if I can remember where to find it again/which work I read it in!! But yes, doesn’t take much time, in any new ‘frontier’ in order the early mavens who dive in, seeking a better life (often, those with few options where/with what, they currently possess, to better their life, and yet, once a certain bit of the ‘wilderness’ has been tamed – made useful, survived in, improved – well, then the big boys come in to consolidate it, profit from it, and close it out to meritocratic entry – – I still (more recently read!) think often of the examples given in “The Master Switch” by Tim Wu – while he was talking about information technology, I think generically, it applies to all resources, and human endeavors that invent ‘more, faster, better’ – ways of living – 😀 P.S. – re: rear vs. near – – I knew what you meant, the moment you meant it! 😀

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        • True – but freedom to use your own land, and the resources contained within it, land hacked out of the wilderness with your own too hands, did lend a feeling of independence and freedom that later changes by charters/the crown far away took away, that was hard to let go of – or not chafe against the chains one thought they had left behind – 😀

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          • Indeed it did! One’s OWN land, to do with as one pleased! Every man his own landlord! That’s pretty powerful. ♥

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            • Especially in wake of the American ‘big oops!’ in 2006-08, I have watched many experts and speakers, in many other countries around Europe, talk about our waste, and our ‘obsession’ with home ownership/land ownership – and I get it! sprawling huge houses for a family of 1-2 seems inordinately wasteful – and yet, through out our entire history of first colonialism, then nationhood – so much of the ‘draw’ or ‘promise’ to get folks to risk THEIR necks making a life in the wilderness, was done with just that promise “your own land, your own place, no lord of the manor or owner to answer to” – so, in the end, those who wanted the land tamed, mined reaped, but didn’t want to do the hard work themselves, well – their early marketing rather shot themselves in their own feet – later – centuries later – STILL! here and abroad! Abundance falls to greed quickly, until the time comes to ‘pay the piper’ then everyone has the temerity to splutter, “but, but, how did that happen??” LOL

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        • It doesn’t seem like a viable system at all. No wonder it didn’t work.

          Liked by 2 people

          • To my mind, it’s NEVER been a viable system, not really – and yet, against the back drop of the invention of currencies, for trade, for our modern ways of economics, and the deep DNA that must survive and thrive in ever so many, to push further, explore – improve – innovate – invent – well – I guess, overall, it’s inevitable some of the fall out from it – the deep parts of us, I suppose, doesn’t evolve very quickly – if at all – and yet, over and over, somehow, we manage to drag ourselves back the precipice of doom, the doom of our own making – – time will tell if we will, collectively, manage to see the various dangers and move from edge of various cliffs, once more – 😀

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  2. Such a versatile material. Interesting post April.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I didn’t know wood was such a valuable, scarce resource in medieval society. Thanks, April!

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