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In the south-western counties of England tithings were the smallest unit of local government. They should not be confused with the parochial tax called the tithe, by which a tenth of all produce was paid to the parish's rector or vicar - the only connection between them was that both words derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for 'ten'.
Tithings usually comprised a single village or large hamlet, or a number of adjacent farms and hamlets, though a few consisted of just a single farm (generally one which had formerly been a larger settlement). Like parishes they were geographical areas, comprising not only the settlement but also its associated territory. Some tithings were co-extensive with the parish of the same name, but the larger parishes tended to contain more than one tithing - Axminster, for example, had eleven, Crediton eight and Ottery St Mary seven. Occasionally a tithing straddled a parish boundary, incorporating parts of two parishes.
Although in the modern period tithings are most often encountered as sub-divisions of parishes, in origin they were not part of the parochial system at all. In fact they probably pre-dated parishes - it is likely that when the first parishes were created it was done by reference to pre-existing tithing units. Throughout the medieval period the tithings were the principle vehicle for local government at the level below the shire and the hundred - for example, tax rolls always listed the population by tithing, not by parish. In the modern period, however, as a consequence of the Tudor preference for governing through the parish, the tithings began to lose their relevance, remaining important only in parishes which were too large to be managed as a single unit. In parishes which consisted of just one tithing its identity tended to be subsumed into that of the parish.
The tithings' origins lay in the Anglo-Saxon peace-keeping system called frankpledge, by which the population was grouped into units of ten households or adult males, who were then made collectively responsible for all offences committed by members of their group. Of course many settlements contained more than ten male adults, or even ten households, and outside the south-west the residents of such places would often be divided into more than one tithing. In the south-west, however, settlements were never subdivided in this way - a hamlet or village was always a single tithing, no matter how large. It seems likely that here the ten-man or ten-household system had been grafted onto an even older system of territorial division . (What the south-west called a tithing was generally called a township in other parts of England.)
Modern writers have sometimes stated that there were originally ten tithings in every Hundred, so that each Hundred contained 100 households or dwellings. However it is quite likely that this is just a subsequent rationalisation from the etymological origins of the names tithing and Hundred and was never the historical reality.
To find out more, see:
A.J.L. Winchester, Discovering Parish Boundaries (Princes Risborough, 2000)
D.A. Crowley, 'The Later History of Frankpledge', Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 48 (1975), pp. 1-15.
Brian Randell, 10 Dec 2009
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