When is forest not forest?

I'm reading this book titled 1215. Pretty snazzy title, huh?

In it the authors give the background of why the Magna Carta had the conditions within it that it did. For example the kings of England had long exploited both commoners and nobles alike by claiming large amounts of land as Royal Forest (which didn't mean that the king necessarily owned the land, but it did mean that other people could not legally hunt large game (mainly deer and boar) on the land). People that hunted deer and wild pigs on Royal Forest were subject to large fines and possible mutilation---taking out eyes and testicles was a colorful punishment.

This definition of forest is interesting because you'll often hear about how much deforestation has occurred in England in the past 800 years. Back in 1200 over one third of England was forested, y'know? But that is because of all the land declared "forest" by the king which was actually plowed fields and even villages. So the belief that there's been rampant deforestation recently is due to a misunderstanding of how forest was defined back then.

England's population actually jumped quite early. By 1086, when the Domesday Survey was done, England's population was 2.25 million with very little centralization. For the most part, villages didn't exist for another hundred years or so until population growth (the pop raised to 3.5 million in 1215) made it more practical for farmers to live in a center area and share equipment to work fields that surrounded them.

So you have to go back over 1,000 years to get to a time when England was covered with vast forests. However the huge increase in legal forests---the ones that often didn't have trees---was started by the royal propensity to hunt and perpetuated by the hunger for the easy money that was generated by punishing poachers.

This royal penchant for taking rights away from the people that actually owned the land was one of the trends that led to the Magna Carta though King John's other problems were certainly the precipitating causes.


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