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Forests as Exercises in Medieval Power
By Adam Schafer
CIEL Voices and Vision (2008)
Introduction: It has been estimated by historian and professor Charles R. Young that during the thirteenth century one quarter of the land in England was designated as royal forest. Under the rule of the Normans (and later, the Angevins), the wilderness of England went from simple hunting tracts to a powerful medieval institution where rulers exercised their control through a political and judicial dominance of nature.
It is important to note that the medieval concept of the forest encompassed more than just wooded areas to include fens, bogs, marshes and at one point during Norman rule, the entire county of Essex with its “villages, towns, people, farms, and whatever else was going on in this part of England.” These blurred boundaries proved to be sites of tension and conflict between Anglo-Saxon inhabitants and their Norman neighbors as was exemplified by the popularity and persistence of the outlaw legend.
The English forest as a political space had its roots before the Norman Conquest with the “Laws of Cnut,” which were compiled around the time of the Viking king Cnut (r. 1016-35). These explain that “every man is to be entitled to his hunting in wood and field on his own land. And everyone is to avoid trespassing on my [i.e. the king’s] hunting…” Although the importance of the king’s hunt was retained after the Norman Conquest, it was under the Normans that the forest became incorporated into a political institution where rulers carved out spaces, created complex administrations to govern them and used forests as political leverage to meet their goals.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to the land grab of the Normans in a section known as the “Rime of King William.” When William the Conqueror established the “New Forest” out of a corner of southwest Hampshire,
“His magnates complained of it; his poor men lamented it.
But he was so firm in his mind that he did not acknowledge their needs.
But they had to follow above all the king’s will,
If they wanted to live, or retain their land,
[Property] or possessions, or enjoy his favor.”