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.
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.