The Welsh Units of Tribute and Food Rent


Pre Norman

Guest Contribution: Introduction

Frederic Seebohm was born in Bradford in 1833; he became a barrister and a distinguished economic historian. One of his several books was The Tribal System in Wales (1895). The item below was an unfinished essay written just before his death in 1912. It appears as the first chapter in his book Customary Acres and their Historical Importance, published by Longmans in 1914.


It is included here since it gives some indication of the structure of the Welsh society which existed in our area before the coming of the Normans.





Frederic Seebohm


The question to be considered in this section is the character ol the economic or areal units paying the chieftain's food-rent in kind known as the gwestva, or the tunc pound in lieu of it, under early Cymric custom.


'What were the 'maenols' and ’trefs, responsible for the gwestva?


Following no doubt prevalent but more or less vague tradition, the Venedotian Code of North Wales points them back to the time of the mythical Dunwal, ‘ the great measurer, ' who,' before the crown of London and the supremacy of the island were seized by the Saxons, established good  laws in the island, which continued in force till Howell's time. It goes on to say ‘The cause of his measuring the island was that he might know the tribute (mal) of the island, the number of " milltyrs " and its journeys in days’. And then follows the measurement of the erw or local acre and the number of erws in the trev and the maenol and the cantref.


The cantref is said to consist of two cymwds each of 12 maenols .. 'And of the twelve maenols four are assigned to aillts to support dogs and horses and for progress and dovraeth and one for canghellorship and one other for maer-ship, and the rest for free uchelwyrs .'


'And from those eight [maenols] of free unhelwgrs the brenhin [or head chieftain] is to have a gwesvta every year, that is a pound yearly from each of them.’ The gwestva or tunc pound was therefore the tribute paid to the chieftain by the uchelwyrs or free tribesmen in the free maenols and trevs, quite apart from that of the aillts and taeogs occupying the other maenols.


In South Wales, according to the Gwentian and Dimetian Codes, the trev was the unit paying the gwestva or tunc pound, and. whilst there is no statement how many tunc-paying trevs there were in the cantref they are said to be grouped into maenols of 13 trevs .


What then was the trev or tref?


 According to the Codes it was a unit of occupation, traditionally reckoned as of a definite area and as normally containing so many tyddyns or homesteads. And I think we may go one step further, and fairly identify the group of its occupants with what in the Codes and law treatises is known as the trefgordd ,. In the phraseology of the Codes and treatises the gwelegordd was the family group of members of the gwely . The gosgordd was the group of persons in the retinue of the brenhin. So that the trefgordd would naturally be the group of occupants of the tref and. as the tref, or its multiple, was the areal gwestva paying unit, its group of occupants - the trefgordd - would be the payers of it.


What then was the trefgordd?


The word 'trefgordd' is in frequent use in the Welsh Codes and the legal tracts of later origin. I have tried, in my last volume, to realise what it meant in terms of the actual tribal everyday life of the period- let us say of Howell's time.


The typical trefgordd turned out, according to the hints to be gathered from the traditions recorded in the Welsh Codes and later legal treatises to be the normally complete or typical self-contained group for the purpose of tribal husbandry or occupation. It appeared. to be a group of occupants with its own herd of 24 cows and one bull, under one herdsrnan and his dog, with one common churn for the milk of the herd, and with one plough and plough-team of 8 oxen for such co-aration as was required by a mainly pastoral group of occupiers.


It seems probable that the tref was theoretically the area occupied by such a trefgordd, i.e. in theory the normal extent of land considered as sufficient for a complete self-contained. group under pastoral conditions of tribal occupation, with a complete plough-team and cattle enough to keep up, roughly speaking, a milking herd of 24 cows.


The unit responsible for the food rent or tribute was apparently regarded at the time of the Codes, not as the group itself but as the area occupied by it. The occupiers for the time being pay the tribute due from the tref occupied by them.


According to the Codes the trefs of free tribesmen seem, as already said, to have been originally kept distinct from those of the non-tribesmen or taeogs. But the Denbigh Extent bears witness to the fact not only of the ease with which the occupants of a tref or 'villata' with their cattle could be moved, but also that in later times at any rate the occupying group might be a mixed one composed of tribesmen from more than one gwely and even of non-tribesmen also. A gwely might be scattered with its cattle in several tunc-paying villata and. have sometimes only a small undivided share in any particular one.


The cattle, we infer from the earlier evidence, though in one herd and. under one herdsman, often had several owners. As in Swiss mountain pastures now, so in Wales at the time of the Codes, the results or value of the milk of the herd in the common churn was divided among the owners according to a test-milking of their several cows on a certain fixed day. And further, as in Switzerland to this day the cattle do not remain in the same place all the year round, so in Wales there were summer and winter trefs in tribal times.


It is not needful to go further into details except to emphasise the fact borne out by the Codes and also the Denbigh Survey that the group of occupiers consisted of several households with their separate tyddyns or homesteads, according to the description of Giraldus Cambrensis scattered about here and there, and that in the tyddyns and their cattle-yards there must have been provision for the oxen contributed to the plough team as well as for the winter shelter of the other cattle. Thus the agriculture of the strictly pastoral tref differed widely from that of the settled village community with its permanent agriculture and its scattered holdings in yardlands on the open field system. it was a co-aration by the cornmon plough of portions of the pasture or waste chosen each year, the crops of the cyvars or erws ploughed being taken by the contributors to the full team of 8 oxen according to the rules laid down in the Codes, i.e. in the same order of rotation as the position of their oxen in the plough-team. So that regarded as a taxable or gwestva-paying area the tref would not consist of so many yardlands nor even of so many erws of pasture and so many of permanent arable, but each year what was required for arable would be taken out of the common pasture, to become pasture again after the removal of the crop, thus laying the foundation in the course of pastoral husbandry for what in more settled, agricultural communities afterwards became so prominent an element in the open field system, as already pointed out.


Whether the gwestva-paying area was a tref or, as in Venedia a 'maenol ' of four trefs does not matter for the present purpose. It is enough that we can see how, even from a mainly pastoral point of view, it would be easy for a conquering chieftain to estimate roughly by its area how many such economic units or centres of food.-rents a country side or a larger district theoretically should contain; or to ascertain how many at any time it did contain, by counting the ploughs or the herds or the churns , or, in the case of a mountain district devoted to sheep, by counting the shepherds.


It is easy to see also how the tunc-pound paying area might by gradual transition from pastoral to more strictly agricultural times easily come to be regarded even as a plough-land , just as in England hides more or less tended to become carucates , under similar circumstances.


The Welsh word 'tref’ in its Irish equivalent ' treab' with its wide meaning is significant enough to illustrate this point. Its dictionary meanings, according to Dr. Atkinson's glossary of the Brehon tracts, are the following:-

Treb , dwelling house, a farmstead.
Trebad , act of ploughing, husbandry.
Trebain, I plough, manage a farm.
Trebaire, farmer, householder.
Bo treb(ith)tha, plough-ox.


Lastly, it hardly need be said that in taking the tref to be the typical economic and areal unit of pastoral occupation and also of tribute, it is by no means to be regarded as probable or even possible that once chosen as the typical unit, let us say in Howell's time, it could remain in each instance ever after unchanged. There is nothing to show that in another generation the growth of population might not require an extra plough-team, or that the typical herd of cattle might not have so increased as to require another herdsman with his dog. And yet the tribute of the tref might remain the same tunc pound as at first fixed indeed, we so find it in the Denbigh Extent of the fourteenth century.

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