Anglo-Saxon Social Organisation
The Anglo-Saxon community in England was basically a rural one, where primarily all classes of society lived on the land. At the top of the social system was the royal house. This consisted of the king and princes (æðelings), who claimed a common ancestry with the king; they had special privileges and responsibilities which included military service and command in the field. By the middle of the ninth century the royal family of Wessex was universally recognised as the English royal family and held a hereditary right to rule. Succession to the throne was not guaranteed as the witan, or council of leaders, had the right to choose the best successor from the members of the royal house.
Below the king were the eoldermen (or ealdormen), the ruling nobility. The eolderman was the king's 'viceroy' in a shire, responsible for administration and justice, for calling out the fyrd and leading its forces in the field. The office was not hereditary, but it became usual in the tenth century to choose eoldermen from a few outstanding families.
The same eoldormanry frequently remained in one family for more than one generation. By the early 11th century the term eolderman began to be replaced with eorl (or earl), possibly influenced by the Danish 'Jarl'. In the second half of the 10th century the title became more important, an eorl now governing several shires. æðelings, eorls, bishops and archbishops formed the high witan.
The next class down the social ladder was the ðegn (thegn). Good service by a ðegn could result not only in rich gifts but sometimes in the granting of lands and, on rare occasions, elevation to eorl or eolderman. The eoldermen were all high ranking ðegns. Ðegns formed the backbone of the Anglo-Saxon army. Most ðegns were the 'king's ðegns'. These were the ðegns whose lord was the king himself, as opposed to one of the richer ðegns or eoldermen. They held their lands from the king and could lose them (and sometimes their lives) if they did not answer the king's summons. Their service to the king was performed on a rota and they would accompany him everywhere, both as bodyguards and lesser officials. Ðegns were primarily warriors whose duty was to carry out the 'common burdens' of service in the fyrd, overseeing fortress work and bridge building. A ðegn's status as a warrior is confirmed by the interchangeable use of the word 'ðegn' and 'milites' in contemporary manuscripts depending on whether the text was in English or Latin. The 'cynges ðegn' is usually referred to as a 'milites regis' in the latin texts. A ðegn's wereguild (blood-price) was set nominally at 1200 shillings.
The ðegns were a numerous class, there were approximately two thousand landowners of the thegnly class in Wessex and Mercia. Ðegns were not restricted to the king's service for the great eorls had their own ðegns; even some of the more powerful and landed ðegns had their own lesser ðegns. In return for land a ðegn performed certain duties which are well described in a late tenth century document which states:
- 'The law of the ðegn is that he be entitled to his chartered estates, and that he perform three things in respect of his land: military service and the repair of fortresses and work on bridges. Also in many estates further land duties arise by order of the king, such as servicing the deer-fence at the king's residence, and equipping a guard ship and guarding the coast, and attendance on his superior, and supplying a military guard, almsgiving and church dues and many other different things.'
A lesser ðegn could gain promotion to a king's ðegn through service as the early eleventh century document, Gethynctho, shows:
- '3. And the ðegn who prospered that he served the king and rode in his household band, on riding errands, if he himself had a ðegn who served him, possessing five hides on which he had discharged the king's dues, and who had attended his lord in the king's hall, and had thrice gone on his errand to the king - then he [the ðegn's ðegn] was afterwards allowed to represent his lord with a preliminary oath.'
Below the ðegns were the ceorls, freemen, farmers and independent landed householders who formed the mainstay of the Saxon kingdom, based as it was on a rural economy. The term free in an Anglo-Saxon context can be misleading, since there were many degrees of freedom. Ceorls were 'folcfry' (folk-free), that is, free in the eyes of the community. They enjoyed weregilds and had the right to seek compensations for other free kinsmen and kinswomen. They were allowed to bear arms and be considered 'fyrd worthy' and 'moot worthy'. This meant they were considered worthy to serve in the fyrd and take part in folk meetings. They did not have the same degree of freedom as ðegns or eoldermen. A ceorl's wereguild was set nominally at 200 shillings, one sixth that of a ðegn. There were three main classes of ceorl, although the dividing line between the classes was indistinct. First were the geneatas, the peasant aristocracy who paid rent to their overlord. geneat originally meant companion, implying that the class originated from the lord's household, often receiving land as a gift. The geneat's duty was also recorded in the same document as the ðegn's law, kotsetla's duty and gebur's duty.
- 'The geneat's duty varies, depending upon what is determined for the estate. In some he must pay ground rent and one store-pig a year, and ride, and perform carrying services and supply cartage, work and entertain his lord, reap and mow, cut deer-fences and maintain hides, build and fence fortifications, conduct strangers to the manor, pay church dues and alms, attend his superior, and guard the horse, carry messages far and near wherever he is directed.'
Second were the kotsetla, who paid no rent but had to perform numerous duties for their overlords.
- 'The kotsetla's duty depends on what is determined for the estate. In some he must work for his lord each Monday throughout the year, or three days each week at harvest-time. He need not pay ground rent. He ought to have five acres; more if it be the custom on the estate; and if it is ever less, it will be too little, because his labour must always be available. He is to pay his hearth-penny on Ascension Day, just as every freeman ought, and serve on his lord's estate, if he is ordered, by guarding the coast, and work at the king's deer-fence, and at similar things according to what his station is; and he is to pay his church dues at Martinmas.'
Third were the gebur, who were totally dependant on their lord. The gebur's life was dominated by the labour services owed to his lord. It is probable that the gebur class started out by giving their land to a ðegn in return for protection from raiding parties.
- 'The gebur's duty varies; in some places they are heavy, in others moderate. On some estates it is such that he must perform such work as he is directed for two week days each week for every week throughout the year, and three week days at harvest-time, and three from Candlemas to Easter; if he performs cartage he need not work while his horse is out. At Michaelmas he must pay ten pence tax, and at Martinmas twenty-three sesters of barley and two hens; at Easter one young sheep or twopence. And from Martinmas until Easter he must lie at his lord's fold as often as it is his turn. And from the time when they first plough until Martinmas he must plough one acre each week and prepare the seed in the lord's barn himself; if he need more grass, then he is to earn it as he is allowed. He is to plough his three acres as tribute land and sow it from his own barn. And he is to pay his hearth penny. And every two are to support one deer-hound. And each tenant is to give six loaves to the swineherd when he drives his herd to the mast pasture.'
The arrangement is not totally one sided however as the lord:
- 'ought to give the tenant, for the occupation of the land: two oxen and one cow and six sheep and seven sown acres on his piece of land. He is to perform all the duties which appertain to him throughout the year. And they are to give him tools for his work and utensils for his home. When death befalls him, his lord is to take charge of what he leaves.'
The economy depended on slave labour and although the gebur was a lowly peasant, he was privileged compared to the ðeow, and had the right and duty to serve in the Fyrd. All ceorls could win promotion through prosperity or military service, and if for example a ceorl possessed five hides of land, he became entitled to the rights of a ðegn (although he would not necessarily become a thegn) as the Gethynctho tells us:
- '2. And if a ceorl prospered, that he possessed fully five hides of his own, a church and kitchen, bell-house and burh-gate, a seat and a special office in the king's hall, then he was entitled to the rights of a ðegn.'
He could not, however, rise to be an eorl.
Below the gebur were the ðeow - slaves or bondsmen. Although ðeow were slaves they did have many rights and there were rules set down for what they should be provided with:
- 'One slave ought to have as provisions: twelve pounds of good corn and the carcasses of two sheep and one good cow for eating and the right of cutting wood according to the custom of the estate. For a female slave: eight pounds of corn for food, one sheep or threepence for winter supplies, one sester of beans for Lenten supplies, whey in summer or one penny. All slaves ought to have Christmas supplies and Easter supplies, an acre for the plough and a 'handful of the harvest', in addition to their necessary rights.'
Ðeow were allowed to own property and could earn money in their spare time. If they earned enough they could even buy their freedom, although slaves were sometimes freed by their owners 'for the good of their souls,' often on their owners deathbed as a manumission. Sometimes, when times were particularly hard, people sold themselves into slavery to ensure they were provisioned, and thus survived.
When looking at Anglo-Saxon social organisation it is important to describe the geographical division of Saxon Britain. The basic unit of land was the hide. This is usually described as enough land to support one family, however the actual size of the hide seems to have varied considerably from estate to estate - estimated at anything from 40 acres to 4 square miles (120 acres seems to be an 'average' hide). More usual (and more evenly supported from contemporary sources) is a unit of land worth approximately £1. For the purpose of assessment of tax and military service, hides were grouped together in units called 'hundreds', comprised of approximately 100 hides. In charge of the hundred was the 'hundred eolder', and each shire contained many hundreds.
Original article by Ben Levick 1990