In the year of 2016, we tend to associate tax collection with a number of images and concepts, such as complex forms, expensive government programs and the IRS. Our perception of taxation is inevitably bound to the society in which we live. In reality, however, the basis of this association is merely founded on our general tendency to overlook the full history of tax collection. Historically, taxes have not always involved lots of tough number crunching, box checking and the tracking down of receipts; in many eras prior, taxes have been associated with much more lively and exciting things, including riots, protests, pillaging and popular revolts. The geld – also referred to as the Danegeld – is one example of a tax which, in its time, was associated with things far different than the things we associate taxes with today.
The geld has its roots in feudal England. Though the first geld was collected in the early 800s in Frisia (modern day Netherlands and Germany), the practice of collecting the geld occurred most frequently in England. As we know, the English nation was formed through the interactions between natives and foreign invaders from Scandinavia and northern France over the course of a number of centuries. The geld was a payment – in the form of silver – which, at different points in history, performed either one of two functions: it paid off intruders or, once the intruders had more or less settled in England, it was used to pay the conquerors to defend the land against further invasion.
In pre-Norman England (also known as Anglo-Saxon England), the geld was used to buy off the Danes (and other Scandinavian invaders) so as to prevent harm to English property. Once the Danes emerged as the effective rulers of England, they continued to demand funds from the English in exchange for defense services. Hence, the geld took the form of an established land-tax levied by the Danes. In 1066, William the Conqueror defeated the English and incorporated England into his empire. Under Norman rule, the geld continued to be collected as a land-tax. The last geld was collected around 1161-1162 by Henry II.
The collection of the geld resulted in an enormous quantity of silver being shipped back to Scandinavia – over 100 tons of silver were captured.
The geld is a perfect example of a tax which had nothing to do with government bureaucracy and everything to do with greed and violence. In fact, it is difficult to conceive of a tax which is more distinct in nature from the system of taxation we have today. The next time you feel the urge to complain about filling out your tax paperwork, just remind yourself that you have it much better than the typical person who lived in feudal England!
Image credit: Charles Starrett