What Does It Mean?

Commons

by Mike Fitton

Mike Fitton is a resident of Bracebridge and an honorary member of the MPSGG. He is very knowledgeable on English research and has spoken at many of the club meetings.

You are reading an old deed. George Williams, who made the deed, sold his small farm with its piscary and estovers. What do these mean?

Many years ago, when farming was the main occupation, a farmer often had to buy certain privileges from a neighbour, because they were not obtainable on his or her own farm. These privileges became officially attached to the farm, so that they could be sold along with the farm. They were known as COMMONS, because the farmer and the neighbour shared the privilege, and perhaps others shared it too. A common is the right or privilege to take or use someone else's land, water, woods or produce. There were several kinds.

The right to feed cattle on a neighbour's property was known as PASTURE. The term to indicate that one animal could pasture was GATE. An ancestor of mine had twelve gates on Inchfield Pasture, which meant that he could feed twelve cattle on that land, even though he did not own it. When I first read this, I had visions of a field with a large number of entrances, until I understood how the word gate was being used. Some fields were referred to as gated pastures, which meant that only a limited number of cattle could feed on them.

The right to feed pigs had a different name, PANNAGE, because pigs like to root in woodland areas rather than graze in open fields. The right to feed sheep was called FOLDAGE, because sheep will wander all over the place unless they are kept in an enclosed area.

The right to fish in a river or stream owned by another person was called PISCARY. There were often strict limitations on how fish could be caught (no lights at night, for example), when they could be caught, and how many could be taken. The owner of a river was not prepared to give up all of the fish.

The right to dig and take turf from another's land was called TURBARY. Turf was used to cover roofs where thatch was not available, and in the form of peat was an important source of fuel where trees were scarce and before coal was widely used. Turf was used in many industrial processes to keep heat in kilns until the end product, whether lime or metal, was produced. It also helped loosen soils containing excessive clay, and improve soils with excessive sand.

The right to dig up and take coal, minerals, stones and sand had no special name.

The right to take wood from another person's land was known as ESTOVERS. There were several kinds, each consisting of a BOTE or right to take a specific kind of wood. Firebote was the right to take firewood, and housebote the right to take wood for general domestic use. Ploughbote was the right to take wood for making or repairing tools and implements. Haybote was the right to take wood for repairing fences.

Many commons were held in parcels of land which were not part of existing developed farmland, and were therefore described as WASTE. The local lord of the manor owned the waste, and could enclose it for his own purpose, provided that he did not interfere with the established commons.

George Williams' farm with piscary and estovers probably had a right to catch some salmon in season and to obtain wood from a nearby stand of trees.

There were of course other privileges with strange names. One of my favourites is CORRODY. It sounds like the right to rust. Actually, if you gave money or land to a monastery, the monastery in return gave you the right to free accommodation within its walls on request, and this was corrody. Perhaps corrody was the right to rusticate.

This article first appeared in the November 2001 newsletter, Volume 17 - Number 2