Sunday, May 6, 2007

Ye Foreste Law of Merrye Olde Englande

(The following, to be expanded in future posts, is intended as a sort of fill or bounce light on a major and bulky process of history. Hardly intended to be comprehensive, in fact, it cannot be guaranteed that no major error of fact has occurred, I still believe the reader may find it interesting. If they are so inclined.)

The course of the Norman victory in England is so simple that it should be known by
every halfway interested student. William conquered at Hastings, killing Harold, and in
the two subsequent years made two swings through the country, defeating resistance and
establishing blockhouses. About two years later a final campaign of genocide was made
in the north, drawing international condemnation for cruelty, and settling survivors in
strategic hamlets.

The elements of Norman victory were heavy cavalry and castles. Mobile cavalry units
were not new to England; Alfred had set up such a system. The castles, on the other hand
were aggressively built and used in a manner new to the English. However, there are
suspicions that the relative ease of the Norman takeover was possibly facilitated by cash
(or the feudal equivalent) as there is a noticeable lack of outraged complaint from the
Anglo-Saxon ruling class that was displaced. In short, while the Normans undoubtedly
were exceptionally competent gangsters, they very probably were assisted by a fairly large compradore class.

Aside from the castle building, and the complete replacement of the baronial class,
William introduced little real innovation to England. However, he shrewdly enlarged
upon the existing Forest Law, extending it in law and on the ground in ways not
previously seen. His rapacity was matched by his noble underlings to the extent that, at
one point, a third of England lay under Forest Law, this divided roughly half-and-half
among the Crown and the nobles.

Forest Law was essentially law that protected deer, extended over commons lands and
private lands from the original Crown lands it developed in. The private landowner, or
the commons, continued to own the land, but the deer could travel and feed at will upon
it, essentially acting as tax collectors who collected food deer eat and delivered
themselves as venison to the crown.

Of course, the sudden and widespread imposition of such a tax could only be expected to
inspire the bitterest opposition. Nor, in fact, was it an especially effective form of
taxation, although it did serve as an effective mechanism for William and his successors
to collect revenue where none had been collected before. For these and other reasons the
Forest Law in the 13th century and after receded almost as quickly as it had spread, and
soon even areas of forest owned by the Crown were being afforested, which does not
mean the actual forest was cut down, but that the Forest Law was withdrawn from the

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