Norman Social Organisation and Feudalism
It is important to remember, when talking about Norman social organisation, that both in Normandy and in Britain after The Conquest the 'Normans' as we think of them ie. cavalry bound mail clad warriors, tended to form the ruling elite. It wasn't that they were somehow a whole people separate and above the native population who were known as the 'commoners'. It is largely because of the top heavy nature of Norman social reportage that the lower classes were ignored. The 'fleeting' supremacy of the Normans left little time to dwell in literature on the people who supported the system. To enable such a professional warrior class, there had to be a culture where their none productivity had to catered for by excess production of food. A situation that applies to all societies that possess a standing army that needs feeding. They had their own terms for these lower ranks. In broad terms they are: The lowest of these ranks were the landless Serfs, bondsmen who laboured or looked after animals, approximately equivalent to a Saxon theow. Above the serfs were the Villeins, freemen who were tied to their lord's land, equivalent to the Saxon gebur. Next came the Cottars, men not tied to the land but expected to work for a local lord for one day a week, equivalent to the Saxon kotsetla. The highest of the 'non-military' ranks were the Freeholders who were not tied to a lord, much like the Saxon geneat.
Of the 'military' ranks, the lowest rank was the Sergens, a professional footsoldier, literally 'one who serves'. Above the Sergens was the Vavasseur, a soldier who equated to a squire, and who would have probably served a particular knight. The knight or Miles was the lowest of the military elite, a well equipped and well trained fighting man similar to the Saxon thegn or huscarl. Over the Miles was the Baron, the lowest rank of the nobility and a senior knight. Above the Baron was the Comes, or count, responsible for a whole district or county, much like a Saxon eolderman, and directly serving the duke. Before the conquest of Britain the highest rank amongst the Normans was Dux, or duke, and the title' of Duke of Normandy' was held by the English Kings from 1066 until 1204.
The term feudal is often associated with William and the Normans, suggesting a system whereby a tenant or vassal held land from the King or his superiors or Lord. In return, he was expected to render certain services or even military service. The term of such land holding is called 'fief' literally meaning ' in fee', a system of land holding that was popular throughout Europe until the end of the Early Middle Ages. The arrangement was such that as time went on, elements of these obligations of land tenure became more complex to include terms like 'feudal incidents', one of which is called a 'relief' which was the duty paid when a previous tenant had died. Often, the obligations were by and large commuted into cash payments, so that no physical liability took place, in effect becoming the start of regular rent payments. This in turn forced the troops that were up until that point semi professional with other responsibilities into truly professional troops.
With the conquest, most of the land previously held by the various Thegns and Eorls was confiscated and placed into the control of the Normans and their Flemming allies. This in reality placed all this land under the control of the King, however, William only actually owned directly 15% of the lands, whereas a smaller group of wealthy Norman families and his 'Tenants in Chief' held 50% of the estates. By 1086, only two English Thegns still held land through the King. The Norman estates in England were often supplemented by estates held in Normandy as well, inflating the wealth of several key Norman families and those linked with William. These families were to become major players later on in the development of Norman England.
As reward for service, William granted estates and parcels of land in the form of 'Honours'. Rather than being a single unit, these were usually scattered plots with a central point called a 'Caput' from the Latin, where we get the term capital. At this point, a castle was created for the Lord to reside, and to control his estates. The honours numbered 170 or so, with the smaller estates which were no big enough or important enough to be called honours, deemed to be 'Manors'. If the land of the manor was cultivated by the Lord, it was known as a 'Demense', even if it was cultivated by local tenants, again in return for rent or duties. In every estate, the system of obligation to your social superior stood, with the Serfs at the business end.
The division of land by William to the various ruling Norman families helped to spread them apart, which was considered to be a political move on his part to control them, but is now seen as just a continuation of a Norman practice that was current in Normandy. Strategic areas such as coastal ports, beaches and the borders with Wales and Scotland had key blocks of land allocated rather than the scattered system he previously employed. This again mirrors practice in Normandy with the 'Compte' model, and this method became more entrenched as time went on, with William handing over more land into the grip of Normans whom he trusted above prior Anglo-Saxon tenants, Bishops and Abbots. Each of these areas of land controlled by his 'Tenants in Chief' ensured that sufficient men at arms were available for William, and it has been estimated that William could in times of crisis call upon the services of 5000 knights to serve in his army by this system.
The Knights themselves were divided into two categories. Firstly were the household knights, who resided with their honourial lord and rode with him as he went about his duties on his estates. The other group of knights were the 'enfeoffed' knights, who after a period of military service were granted land, and then continued to serve or paid rents or rendered other services to the King. The King's tenants of William, also created knights of obligation under them, and in the process created other problems for themselves as their own miniature private armies grew, as the maintenance of knights was not cheap. In later years, these miniature armies under the poor governance of weak Kings such as Stephen and John began to vie for power with each other in a period of real instability which England hadn't seen for hundreds of years. The effect to begin with was to ensure that the king was able to call upon a large professional army to shore up any question as to his right to run the country. Even William was not foolish enough to do without the system of hiring in assistance in the form of mercenaries. Post the Battle of Hastings, there were many men to be had for 'geld', just as there had been under the rule of the Anglo-Saxons. To ensure that there was sufficient to pay for such help, taxes could be levied to offset the expense of mercenaries, and in the latter days of William's expeditions in Europe, he had to levy some of the heaviest taxes that the nation had seen, which was never popular with the general populace. He could also employ the services of the Fyrd even then, as semi professional troops, just as had been the case in Harold's day, which could swell the ranks of his field armies by tens of hundreds.
There were notable exemptions from the honour system known as 'book land'. Under the auspices of the Church, land could be held free of the responsibility required by ordinary folk. Owned by Thegns, this land could be held as long as certain duties such as fortress construction or maintenance, equipping ships, and guard duties were carried out. This ensured that the Thegns retained their status though, rather than their tenure on the land, making a subtle difference to that of the duties of Williams tenants in chief or vassals.
We have not yet addressed the term Feudal. The reason for this is that it was coined in the 17th century to describe the state of play in England during Williams reign and the Medieval Kings who reigned after him. This term was used from the visual reference of the 1700's, and not during the Norman Conquest, for the simple reason that the subtle governmental system that Harold II had used and as his predecessors had done was unknown. It was historically expedient for 17th century historians to place an unfavourable social cut-off at the point of the conquest, which in fact was just the transfer of power from one social class to another albeit foreign one. The mathematics of it simply reflect this. Even with a conquering army of 7000, and a semi professional army of much the same opposing him, William could not wipe out thousands of farmers and the ruling classes. The change of rule may not have been all sweetness and light, but one good boss was just the same as another good boss, or even a bad one for a bad one.
With the greater understanding of Later Anglo-Saxon culture, it's now fairly clear that the Normans should not be viewed simply as the evil and oppressive overlords of Robin Hood fame (a view which has more to do with the anarchic times of Stephen, John and Richard). Duty and obligation was the method the Saxons had used for hundreds of years, and this too was the system that the Normans employed. This meant that the Anglo-Saxon cultural system was easily able to absorb the new Norman social classes, so much so that not even the Norman language was adopted. William was just as likely to send in a force of men to quell any rebellion, as Harold would have done, he only really exceeded Harold's temper in the destruction of farmland and stores as in the 'Harrying of the North'. Something for which he was never forgiven, and rightly so.
Original article by Roland Williamson 2000