For the portion of the world to whom April is tax season, it may seem abundantly clear that taxation requires, at the very least, some type of codified system of obligations. At the Parker Library, home to some of the earliest written English laws, we can dig up illustrative examples of early medieval styles of taxation.
The famous Parker Chronicle contains not only the earliest copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but also important early texts of the laws of the kings Ine and Alfred of Wessex, and beginning in the 8th century, Anglo-Saxon laws mention some of the responsibilities that a landowner would owe to his lord or could expect to collect from his tenants.
In these cases, the oft-overlapping relationship between ‘rent’ and ‘tax’ in a feudal society is evident in the way the Old English term gafol is used variably to describe legal requirements that would fall into either camp in modern usage. The term gafolgelden, used in these texts to describe one who is part of the exchange system, is best translated as ‘taxpayer’. There were several types of gafol, including blanket-rent (a tax of cloth), barley-rent (a tax of grain) and food-rent (feorm). For example, in Ine’s (688-726) laws for Wessex, it is written that: ‘For every labourer a man has he shall always pay six weys [of barley] as barley-rent [gafol],’ and ‘The blanket held as rent [gafol] from each household shall be worth sixpence’.
Man beating an oak tree for acorns to fatten up his pig- from the November calendar page of the Peterborough Psalter. MS 53, p. 6
A hide was a measurement of land in Anglo-Saxon England that was first used to indicate the amount of a land to support one household- not necessarily any specific acreage. In the laws of Ine, the food-rent (feorm) for 10 hides was ’10 vats of honey, 300 loaves, 12 ambers of Welsh ale, 30 ambers of clear ale, 2 full-grown cows or 10 wethers, 10 geese, 20 hens, 10 cheeses, a full amber of butter, 5 salmon, 20 pounds of fodder, and 100 eels’. Due to the agrarian nature of the exchange, it made sense for it to be made after the harvest, not, as in many countries today, the lean early spring. Typically, Martinmas (November 11) was the expected deadline.
Ine also created a ‘tax’ on wergeld, the fees which would be paid to a man’s family by his slayer, or to the man himself if he were to be maimed (on a sliding scale commensurate with the wounds). Manslaughter was a crime that could generally be rectified with a fee. However, a lord would also be part of any casualty-based transaction, as the law stated that ‘When a wergeld of 200 shillings has to be paid, a compensation of 30 shillings shall be paid to the man’s lord; when a wergeld of 600 shillings has to be paid, the compensation shall be 80 shillings; when a wergeld of 1200 shillings has the be paid, the compensation shall be 120 shillings’.
Ine’s laws discussing both the ‘tax’ on wergeld and the food-rent for a property of 10 hides. MS 173, f. 52r
The beginning of ‘Sermo Lupi ad Anglos’ in MS 419, p. 95
Later in the Anglo-Saxon period, taxes were raised to pay off Scandinavian invaders, sent in huge payments which eventually became known as Danegeld. Wulfstan, archbishop of York (d. 1023), railed against this practice and its attendant excessive taxes (ungylda) in his Sermo lupi ad Anglos, which is witnessed in CCCC MSS 419 and 201, both from the 11th century.
Another requirement of the medieval landholder, both pre and post-Norman conquest, was to pay tithes to the church. Tithes would be incurred if he resided on church property, held cultivated land on church property, or was otherwise at all associated with a particular diocese. This relationship was codified in Canon Law.
Paying tithes to two dioceses. MS 10, f. 181r
CCCC MS 10 is an illuminated 12th century manuscript which contains various causae or legal cases, and how they were ruled based on canon law. In the miniature shown here, The two men in the centre, holding a lamb and a sheaf, have been driven from their old diocese and moved to another, but still cultivate their old lands. They are now required to pay tithes to both dioceses, as depicted by the two groups of monks. By the inclusion of this causae in the manuscript, it’s clear that this was an important detail which warranted further explanation.
So, while it may have only become necessary to register your charitable donations for tax purposes in the modern era, it comes from a long and storied tradition of being confused about the finer points of taxation.
All translations of Anglo-Saxon laws are from The Laws of the Earliest English Kings, edited and Translated by F.L. Attenborough (Cambridge, 1922).
All images are reproduced with permission of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.