Monday, August 1, 2011


Paramount to medieval Welsh culture was the "cenedl"...the kindred. In medieval Wales this was important for social stability and cultural survival. Inheritance of land and compensation for injury was accounted through the kindred. Surrounding the "cenedl" was the land occupied and claimed by the family. All families needed houses, and the plot of land carrying a house (ty) was called a "toft". Essentially the word implies land that was enclosed, thus giving rise to a settlement involving animals and gardens. Food production became the essential activity, and the land and homestead became the "tref".

Previous posts defined the "legal acre", which helped set boundaries and locations for plowing and feeding animals. Welsh law defined that four such acres would be in a "toft". The kindred shared land, and four "tofts" were to be in every "shareland". Thus, four related families might share around 16 acres. Now, four "sharelands" would be consided a "holding". This would mean that roughly 16 families would occupy and share 64 "legal acres" of land. Perhaps 32-40 family members.

Four "holdings" would become a "townland". Not in the same sense as we know towns today, but a group of rural families having an identity. Thus, 256 acres would organize a kindred into a recognizable unit.

Four "townlands" would provide a population needing political and judicial activity, recognizing that so many folks would come to disagreement. This was known as the "maenol" (manor), and became the center of legal activities. [The name "mayor" comes from this organization.] Now you can imagine the complexity as the number of family members grew. So roughly there was 1024 acres in every "maenol". [Remember today that 1 square mile contains 640 acres, so this would be around 1.5 to 2 square miles.]

Now 12 "maenols" (Maenolydd) would make up a "commote". This became the smallest social unit of administration for the multiple family groups that came to occupy the land. This would roughly be 12, 800 acres of land. [About 20 square miles.] This would be like a "county" in one of the states. Two "commotes" became a "cantred" (canfref). The "candred" identified as tribal land. Thus a tribe would be seen as a group of "kindred" occupying an area of land which acted together for peace and war. They were responsible for handling all criminal and civil issues occurring within their "cantref".

So let's review.

4 legal acres in every toft (farm with a house),
16 legal acres in every shareland (4 tofts = 4 farmsteads working together),
64 legal acres in every holding (4 sharelands),
256 legal acres in every townland (4 holdings),
1024 legal acres in every maenol (4 townlands),
12,800 legal acres in a commonte (12 maenols),
two commotes in the canfred. (English verson of Welsh Word is cantref.)

Wow, just think this all started with a kernel of barleycorn!

Information abstracted from Hywel Dda The Law, Law Texts From Medieval Wales, Translated and Edited by Dafydd Jenkins, Gomer Press, 1990.

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