The hide was the basic unit of assessment for tax and other public obligations in most of the counties of Wessex and western Mercia. It was the oldest of such units in Anglo-Saxon England, documented from the early seventh century, almost as soon as literacy was re-introduced into England. According to Bede, the hide was the land of one family, presumed to be a free, tax-paying peasant family, though by the date of Domesday Book the virgate had become the typical peasant holding. In most areas, the hide was divided into four virgates, each of 30 acres, for the purposes of assessment.
Over a century ago J.H. Round demonstrated the essential artificiality of this system of assessment. It was artificial in the sense that assessments were imposed from the top downwards, not aggregated from the bottom upwards. Each county was allocated a round number of hides which was divided among its constituent Hundreds, the hundred hides then being further subdivided among the vills in that Hundred. At the level of the vill, multiples or fractions of 5 hides are common in some Domesday counties and would have been more common when the system was first introduced. Although Round's thesis has been challenged in recent times by computer-based models, these have not been found convincing.
For the debate, see J.H. Round, Feudal England (1895); John McDonald and G.D. Snooks, The Domesday economy: a new approach to Anglo-Norman history (1986); and R.A. Leaver, 'Five hides in ten counties: a contribution to the Domesday regression debate', Economic History Review, vol. 41 (1988), pages 525-42. Recent work on the earlier history of the hide also reinforces Round's view: Defence of Wessex: the Burghal Hidage and Anglo-Saxon fortification, edited by David Hill and A.R. Rumble (Manchester, 1996).