16th Century Surveyors

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  Article taken from "Backsights" Magazine published by Surveyors Historical Society


by Sarah S. Hughes

The principle task of the surveyor in the medieval economy was assessing and recording the customary obligations and rights of tenants of the manor, not the technical business of measuring the size of tracts or marking their boundaries.  He was a man who "surveyed" for his master in the sense of overseeing the broad scope of agricultural production on a manor.  As such he kept the rolls or records of rights to land, of agricultural production, of the number of trees in the forests, and of the rents, fee, fines, or days of work due from each tenant to his lord.  He presided at the court of survey where tenants were obliged under oath to report in detail their holdings, crops, livestock, and personal possessions.

Incidental to these important responsibilities was his perambulation of the manor bounds, on which he was accompanied by his assistant, called a land-meter, and village elders who showed the marks of old boundaries, while youths came along to learn them.  His main obligation was to "observe and keepe the olde and ancient names of such marks and bounds as have been anciently used and accustomed."  He was not authorized to alter or correct traditional lines, although the surveyor could add new markers where he found old ones were "very few and slender" or "decayed and worne out of knowledge".  The civil processioning led by the surveyor was an act of collective recollection more important in a premodern society in which rights to land as owner or tenant were based on long and customary usage than any measurement of the orientation or exact number of acres in a plot.  After he estimated the sizes of the various tracts, the surveyor was expected to value each parcel of arable, meadow, pasture, and woodland by classifying it as superior, mediocre, or inferior and by assigning a monetary value.  The scope of the English surveyor's work in this period was legal, judicial, and mathematical, while requiring, as well, knowledge of all aspects of agricultural production.

Gradually during the course of the sixteenth century, the mathematical aspects of surveying assumed primary importance, although the other duties were not dropped.  Only in the seventeenth century were the functions of land steward and land-meter distinguished firmly, and the modern conception of surveying as an occupation concerned with the location and measurement of plots of land finally established.

The Renaissance in education and scientific knowledge, which coincided with changes in England's society and economy, provided the necessary intellectual foundation for the development of modern surveying.  The revival of interest in ancient Greek mathematics, the increased use of English instead of Latin, both for translations of old works and new books, and the spread of printing each contributed to the advances of the sixteenth century.

The enthusiasm of scholars for seeking original Greek texts was transmitted to a wider audience as classics such as Euclid's Elements were translated into English and distributed in printed form.  Noted mathematicians, including Leonard Digges, John Dee, and Robert Recorde, published popularizations of basic geometry and arithmetic useful to the practicing surveyor.  But since these subjects were not taught in sixteenth-century schools, their mastery through solitary reading was beyond the capability of many.  For these would-be surveyors the most practical publications were surveying textbooks, the first of which was printed in England in 1523.

The books written specifically for surveyors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are a guide to the changing nature of the profession.  They chart the shifting focus of a surveyor's duties and illustrate the difficulties to be overcome before scientific land mensuration was possible.  The many pages devoted to basic instruction in mathematics testify to the paucity of formal education relevant to training surveyors.  Sixteenth-century books often also included tables to assist those who could not multiply, divide, or use fractions in finding the are or monetary value of tracts they surveyed.  Even as late as 1688, John Love's Geodaesia devoted over one-fourth of its pages to instruction in "vulgar arithmetick," basic geometry, conversion of one unit of linear measure to another, and calculation of superficial areas.

--Excerpted from Surveyors and Statesmen, by Sarah S. Hughes

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