By Křišťan Věstonice of Moravia
One important element of SCA arts and sciences that may not be intuitively known or understood is the role of a surveyor and the surveyor’s value to medieval society. Surveyors existed in the Middle Ages; they were guild members given legal sanction as approved agents for their work by the King or through the military. Medieval surveyors were literate and understood complex mathematics – normally the result of a long and rigorous skilled-labor apprenticeship tenure with a guild.
Unlike fine arts, entertainment, or practical craftsmanship, surveying is a skill that does not produce a product of beauty or functionality that can be appreciated in its final form. Surveying is rather like mathematics or astronomy – a tool that increases our ability to create order and improves our understanding of the world around us.
This article aims to increase our awareness of the roles, functions, and value of the surveyor’s craft. In doing so, it is hoped that our lives in the Middle Ages – and our collective sense of place in it – may be more deeply and colorfully enriched.
Greek Mathematics Meet Roman Technology
The revival of interest in Euclidean mathematics was a direct result of the “…Renaissance in education and scientific knowledge… providing the necessary intellectual foundation for the development of [medieval] surveying.” At the time, the medieval human concept of an earth-centric universe combined with Euclidean geometry provided accurate earth measurement; but without calculus, was lacking when projected into space [e.g., for maritime navigation].
Medieval surveyors used crude but effective Roman tools for their work. In the hands of a capable surveyor with a firm grasp of mathematics, these tools were precise and accurate when measured against future scientific standards. There were limitations, however. Roman surveying instruments were restricted in range to the vision of the naked eye, and the equipment was unwieldy and vulnerable to the caprices of weather.
Medieval surveying was – quite simply – grueling mental and physical work, frequently in difficult weather conditions. To accomplish the work normally required a large team of workhands, each with a specific duty to aid the surveyor.
Tax Assessment for the King
“The principal 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 making their boundaries. [The surveyor] kept the rolls and records of rights to land, of agricultural production, of the number of trees in the forest, and of the rents, fees, fines, or days of work due from each tenant to his or her lord.” In England and throughout central Europe this tax assessment was called taille (Tah-LAY), or simply “aid” conducted on behalf of, and under the sanction of, the King.
The scope, therefore, of the medieval surveyor was mathematical, legal, and judicial. In addition, the surveyor was required to be well versed in geology, fish and wildlife ecology, crop and timber production, animal husbandry, and topography and land measurement. In taille assessment, the mathematical and technical aspects of surveying were of secondary importance to the general span of knowledge required for accurate taxation.
In addition to legal authority for taille assessments, medieval surveyors also possessed technical expertise to support a variety of public works which benefitted public commerce, the military, and the concerns of the Crown.
- Surveying works for harbors and wharves, canals and aqueducts, and all-weather stone roads supported commercial and military needs.
- Plumbed city walls and fortifications supported military defense.
- Mapping and boundary surveys supported the sovereign interests of the Crown.
Of special note were road and city design surveys.
In laying the course for a road, the surveyor had to understand topography and carry on a fine balance between the cost of expensive road materials and construction against the shortest viable distance between two points. Horse and oxen-drawn commerce required a gentle gradient. As well, a steep road gradient risked washing out in heavy rains. The surveyor had to work with the terrain to lay out a road that could efficiently carry hundreds of years of traffic.
Finally, the medieval surveyor supported the interests of organized religion. The urban layout of cities significantly changed in the mid 1300’s from a random form to a configuration which conveyed Christian symbolism. City plots and streets were straightened and paralleled through accurate surveying, providing a Euclidean aesthetic designed to reflect order, beauty, and truth – pleasing God as He looked down from Heaven.
Value to Royalty and to the People
Using Greek mathematics and Roman technology, the role and work of a surveyor spans a significant part of medieval life. Kings, Barons, and Lords relied on trusted taille assessors to assure effective yet equitable taxation from their subjects. Surveying support to public works promoted efficient commerce for economic growth and welfare to the populace; and it maximized the effectiveness of the King’s instruments of war. The surveyor’s work also reproduced mathematical order in city design that reflected medieval Christian aesthetic values designed to please God.
The author hopes that our lives and personas of the Middle Ages are enriched by a consideration of how surveying as an art and science touches nearly everything we do, and improves our medieval world.
Křišťan Věstonice – spoken: “Khrish TAHN Vest oh NEE chay”, is a surveyor from Moravia (southern Czechia) in 1435. He conducts taille aid assessments on behalf of the Crown; however, his primary surveying work is determining precise elevation measurements used to drain marshes and swamps, thereby securing viable farmland.
Křišťan is currently a subject in the Barony of Ponte Alto.
 Bosshardt, William and Lopus, Jane S. (2013). Business in the Middle Ages: What Was the Role of Guilds? Social Education, 77(2), 64-67.
 The Renaissance of course would be hastened by the arrival of the printing press in 1436.
 Hughes, Sarah S. (n.d.) 16th Century Surveyors. Backsight Magazine, published by Surveyors Historical Society. Retrieved November 7, 2022 from http://www.surveyhistory.org/16th_century_surveyors1.htm
 Hughes, Sarah S. (n.d.) Roman Surveying. Backsight Magazine, published by Surveyors Historical Society. Retrieved November 7, 2022 from http://www.surveyhistory.org/roman_surveying1.htm
 A future article is planned which will discuss these Roman surveying tools and their use.
 Ibid. Roman Surveying.
 Ibid. 16th Century Surveyors.
 Encyclopaedia Britannica. (1998).
 Ibid. 16th Century Surveyors.
 A future article is planned which will discuss Medieval land measure and the taille tax system.
 Lilley, Keith, D. (2003). Cities of God? Medieval urban forms and their Christian symbolism. London: Royal Geographical Society.
 Křišťan has submitted his device (displayed above) through the College of Heralds of Atlantia. Final SCA approval for the device is currently pending.