2.5 Life on the Inland

As 7th century turns into 8th, society becomes a little more hierarchical; tribute centres like Rendlesham begin to disappear for more permanent royal sites. But more significant for the life of many Ceorlisc families, was the arrival of Christianity. Because the new religion brought with it new institutions – priests, minsters, monasteries. These institutions required permanent establishments and households. And to support them, more is required from the land. Technology will help, and new, more intensively farmed Inland estates. But to work them, and new breed of peasant farmer will be needed.


Last time we heard about the large, multiple estates of the Scirs, a world of independent free peasants and extensive lordship, where the yoke of hierarchy and lordship lay relatively lightly on the shoulders of the English Ceorlish family. Today we are going to talk about how that life began slowly to change for some, depending on who your lord was. We are going to talk about a process we might call intensification; intensification of the exploitation of land, intensification of lordship.

Central to the topic, is where you lived, the landscape you worked. And there are two central concepts about which you are going to hear a lot. So, on the principle that good education practice is endless repetition, or gum bleeding history as we used to call it, let me introduce those words early. And then I’ll repeat them until you tell me that your gums are bleeding.

The first is Warland, which is a deceptively exciting word, conjuring up images of mighty warriors bestriding the world like equally mighty colossi, if that be the plural of colossus. Actually, although it is very exciting, it is actually related to the Old English word waru, or defence, and the word therefore means territory intended to help defend the country or the land of the people. But we are not going to talk about Warland today, that treat will be for another day.

Instead, since we are talking about intensification, we are going to talk about Inland. Inland means the innermost land of the multiple estates we heard about last time. The land closest to the entre, to the tribute centres, the home of the reeve or the lord. We are going to talk about how the demands on that kind of land changes from the 9th century, how some lords begin to demand more of it, expect greater output and why. And how the lives of the peasantry are therefore affected.

Let me briefly give you the answer. Which seems all wrong – really there should be a great reveal at the end, but never mind, history’s not supposed to be fun. Two things come together really; residency and technology. Some people start living in one place rather than moving around all the time as has been the case. A lord and their household that stays in one place puts much greater demands on the land that supports them to produce more, and demand more of their workforce accordingly. So that’s one, The other, technology; there are improvements in technology which allow a more intensive agriculture.

Residency then. The tribute centres like Rendlesham begin to disappear, because the Lords that own them and spend less time wandering around – I mean they absolutely do still go from estate to estate, but they develop  head offices where they are often resident. But the first prime movers in this are not the secular lot, they are the church.

This will not be a podcast on the conversion; all I will say is that from the arrival of Queen, and later Saint, Bertha of Kent in 580, by 700, Christianity was the official religion throughout England, and by the mid 8th century, paganism was being actively repressed. That’s it that’s all for here, despite the fact that it is a rich history, and that St Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford comes from our hood in south Oxfordshire, and that religion is as important a part of daily life as ploughing the fields. Not going to talk about her not going to talk about that. There’s a limit.

What I am going to talk about is residency – Minsters, churches and monasteries.  We are used these days to a network of parishes with their church, in pretty much every village; but in virgin territory that’s not the way is started out. The early church had relatively few priests and vast territories to convert and look after. The Anglo Saxons dealt with this by establishing minsters. Minsters were churches with a community of secular clergy attached, priests. Each minster would manage a vast territory, called parochia. Off they’d go periodically, each priest, taking the word to the people. In remote places in the hills of the Chilterns it would be a rare occasion indeed that you would see one, and it would be quite an event. Here’s a quote from Bede which gives a flavour

Wherever a cleric or monk came, he was joyfully received by all as God’s servant…the inhabitants crowded together, eager to hear from him the word of life; for the priests and clerics came to settlements for no other reason than preaching, baptizing, visiting the sick, and in short to care for their souls.

In our area, then 3 main settlements of minister priests are established – at Dorchester before 800, and at a place called Pyrton before 1000 – Pyrton was a) a village near Watlington at the foot of the Chiltern Scarp and b) where John Hampden got married. Wait until 17th century for that story.  The Third was at Thame, where we only have evidence of its existence from 1100. The thing about these communities are that although the priests will travel, at any one time there is a large community of people living in the same place demanding food and creature comforts.

There is another process, which overlaps chronologically, but will take over and become THE process; the building of local churches and the creation of parishes. While we know this starts in Anglo Saxon times, and is well advanced, it is not complete until well after the Normans arrive. In our area then it seems highly likely that the church established in the royal vill and tribute centre of Benson, the church of St Helens, takes responsibility for the pastoral care of all the tunescips and hide farms scattered over the scir all the way to the Thames on the eastern side. Churches are maybe established or chapels around the scir, and maybe even the odd resident priest.

So we have minsters, estate churches, and the third type of religious settlement is the monastery, filled with regular clergy, Monks. As elites become richer, they begin to allocate land to found monasteries to save their souls and be a good citizen. In our area,  there is an Abbey founded at Dorchester by 635, one at Abingdon by 695, a priory at Cholsey by 986, and then more stuff after 1066. This is a process going on all over England.

There are other reasons by the way for establishing a monastery. One of these is about security of land ownership. Land is held by custom broadly in the earliest days – folcland is the term. Obviously the great war leaders, and kings hold the largest chunks. When land was given away by king or lord to someone or something, it was given by charter and therefore has a new, more strictly defined status – bookland it will be called, because it’s written down. Because priests can read and wrote he clever devils. We’ll come back to that, but even though land’s formally been given away to a monastery or nunnery, the patron retains a lot of control. A lot. So one theory, just to digress, is that many nunneries were established to make sure of a family’s womenfolk’s future security –  a place to go to if unmarried, or retire to later in life if widowed, or for education in their youth. Just as a by the by.

Anyway, the church and ministers were maintained by a new levy or tithe I suppose which was originally voluntary, called the circsceott. The word appears to be derived from the Old English shot, or a division of land, but the payment becomes known as the church scot. It is of course the source of that famous phrase, scot free as in, ‘I got out of not doing my homework scot free’, or whatever the specific application. The phrase definitively has nothing to do with the absence in any particular location or situation of a native of Scotland. The church used the fine to maintain its fabric, which was its responsibility, while the parishioners’ job was to maintain the church yard. Even as more local parish churches become established, a process which we’ll talk about in a minute, the Minster remained in the background, monitoring and managing the priest, and organising the visitation of the Bishop which of course was never as frequent as the likes of the Venemous Bede would like.

Payment of said Scot was required by all ceorls at Michaelmas, which was 11th November, and was another occasion for the people to gather together and hooley; and it’s a notable feature of the time that getting people together was a bit of a bother; you couldn’t just hop in the wheels, and you might be coming down from the hills with half a day’s walk away or more. So, if there was one reason to get together, you’d get together for many things at the same time. So, it might be that the local court would be held on that day, or there’s a tradition that land rents are paid at martin mass, or on Lady Day which I think is 25th March, another occasion for a festival. In such small communities, all of these were an opportunity to get together. And there was much rejoicing. And there was much ale. And hooley was had by all. And sundry.

So anyway, the feature of minsters, and churches, and monasteries which plays a part in our story, is that they were all filled with a substantial number of people, who, just to present my diploma as professor of the bleedin’ obvious, all needed feeding. Monasteries and ministers were endowed with plenty of land, by and large, so resources were not the problem; but the point is that they were resident.  And so needed a reliable and continuous supply of nosh, and materials and things. This was a very different situation to the Royal Estates and scirs we have spoken about, where every year you brought your render to the royal tribute centre and then off you hopped. And at some point the king or dignitary would sweep by to consume said tribute and then disappear in a cloud of dust, not to return for ages.

But these guys are here all the blessed time, never going away. So something needed to be done to feed them. So, areas of land would need to be specifically set up and managed to produce the basics – all the time. Also, it would now need to produce more than it had formerly produced – because these priests and monks and nuns were basically not producing for themselves. Sitting around praying and all that stuff, not ploughing and manuring. Well, not manuring in the right places if you see what I mean. So it would need to be farmed more intensively, and the famers concerned would have to pull out their collective fingers and bend their collective backs to the wheel.

So monasteries began to organise estates to maintain them in the state to which they really needed to be accustomed. Let us call this new area inland shall we? Ok, then, that’s what we will do, the area of the estate designed to feed the resident community shall be known as inland, and inland shall be the name of the calling. Often this area was organised as part of a deal with the person making the original endowment to the minster, whether that was a noble, or a royal patron. Now All land normally carried obligations to pay a public tax, notably a tax called geld. You will probably have heard of Geld – a version of it formed our pitiful attempts to make the Vikings go and leave us alone, the Danegeld. Well, you can often spot inland estates because one of the benefits given when setting up the deal was to remove the obligation to pay geld.

Now, the object of our series is supposed to be the ordinary folks. And being a peasant working on land for lovely religious people, and land not subject to at least one of the types of tax sounds great doesn’t it? Well, as it turns out it is anything but, for reasons along the lines of Spiderman’s dictum – with great power comes great responsibility. Hold that thought, at some point over the next 3 or 4 decades I promise I’ll make it relevant.

So, a reason why these inland estates would be geld free was of course because they faced an uphill challenge providing all this extra nosh for the priests; the land would now have to support many more people. So what we are talking about here is a pressure towards intensification; intensification of production, fine, we have to produce more, more, more, we need more, give us more. But intensification of production inevitably led to intensification of lordship as well.

How so you ask? Well because these priests were resident, they were there all the time to push their tenants to manage them closely, and make sure they worked hard for them. Put out of your mind the idea that church landlords would just sigh shrug their shoulders, piously proclaim that the lord will provide and eat fewer beans in their potage. Nope, they wanted action. A high proportion of Inland would therefore very often be held in demesne – managed  directly by the religious institution, often using the reeves and their families, by household workers, and by slaves. Often you can spot some of these farms, because they were often called Bartons. The word barton derives from the most popular crop, barley, or bere – so, bere-tun, or barley farm. So, if you see a place name with Barton as part of it, that’s often a hangover from an inland farm worked by a monastery’s household. Barton upon Humber for example, in Lincolnshire. In our area, the village of Berrick was probably also Benson inland – Berrick is derived from bere-wick, barley farm.

So, how to produce more, how to increase productivity? One way might be about improving agricultural methods. And as it happens there is a bit of this about, around the 8th century. The first of these was the mouldboard plough, and since the use of the mouldboard plough is a remarkably influential sort of thing I know it gets mentioned all the time, but really you’d be surprised if I didn’t cover it. I know you have probably heard this before, it’s the sort of thing that gets mentioned by sharp looking authors in jeans, jacket and a fitted headset microphone and powerpoint slides describing the history of the world in 35 minutes, but how could I do an English social history without mentioning it?

The mouldboard plough was heavier and could work claggier, clay soils. So, that meant that there was much more land that was open to cultivation. It’s suggested sometimes that this is marginal less fertile land, but that is not necessarily the case. In our own area, south Oxfordshire, much of the land in the vale was of the heavier clay type – perfectly fertile, but just very hard to work and impossible to work with the ard plough, otherwise known as a stick. So, excellent. Good news. More land. Also, the mouldboard plough was much quicker. This is because since it turned over soil so effectively, you only needed to plough in one direction rather than criss-cross like the old ard plough, and so one person could do more in the same time. So that’s good then it’s nowhere near as ‘ard.

However, the new plough it is something of a beast – big and heavy, so it is quite ‘ard. Promise that’s the last of the plough related puns. Because it was so big, it meant that rather than two oxen pulling it, you needed a larger team, maybe 4, maybe even eight. A team of eight, 2 abreast with a plough behind is quite a long thing, and the shape of fields needed to be different – the longer the better, so that you don’t have to turn so much; think of an oil tanker trying to do a triple salchow with pike. And so I manage to link early English agriculture with Torvil and Dean. But also a team of oxen is an expensive thing, both to buy and the maintain. They needed feeding too, and so the demand for pasture increased. So Estates remodelled themselves extensively to make sure that there was sufficient pasture for the oxen nearby rather than only far off pasture to which the oxen would be walked.

So there are landscape implications. More of the lowland is now ploughed – we can see this in our area, where arable is extended to the heavier clay villages like the Hazeleys. There is greater demand for the upland resources – of woodland and pasture since more of the land in the vale is now being ploughed for arable.

There are social impacts of this. Firstly, very few peasant farmers could afford the capital investment in plough and ploughteams. This favours the rich landlord, who could impose harsher terms on their farmers, because they could provide the plough. Also, there is a benefit in farmers sharing resources; so shared areas of pasture are developed, commons rights to land become more important.

Another important area of innovation was the kind of crops grown. The most popular crop in the early Anglo Saxon farm was barley, far and away; but now wheat made its re-appearance as the crop of choice. Wheat re-entered the ring because it offered a greater number of calories per acre. Barley doesn’t go away, but it’s no longer called king barley, just barley. But wheat required more work, more cultivation, more management

There is another factor which put greater pressures on inland farms. This is an era of a gently growing population, a very long trend which carries on to the 14th century. Obviously, there’s a long way to go before the excesses that exacerbated the Great Famine of 1315 and the Black Death in 1350, but over time there are more and more people competing for land.

All these pressures lead inexorably to a change in status for the peasants working inland farms. The basic premise is this; that religious institutions are granted land. Their estates needed tenants and farmers who would produce more, and the resident priests could manage them much more closely. Plus the institutions were the only ones with the money to buy the right kit. The institutions wanted to make their terms and conditions much more demanding; and since the existing, extensive lordship imposed relatively few demands, there was surely scope to do so.

but, there’s a problem. The rights of the ceorl were protected – by law, but particularly by custom. The monastery might furiously demand more – but the ceorl could simply turn them away, refuse, refer to custom. Call in their colleagues to confirm no no this is the way it’s always been done here.

But the thing is; medieval life was precarious, as we have said. Maybe a smaller peasant landholder has split up their holdings between their children too much and are on the bread line in bad years; the idea of primogeniture is very much a thing of the future, though landholders at all levels try to keep their estates together. There might be a run of a few years of poor harvests, a few bad planting decisions, a roving war band over your land. And suddenly and you could be on your uppers, and desperately looking for a helping hand. And that might mean going cap in hand to your lord and asking for a few concessions – a bit of credit, a rent holiday, less tribute for example, or simply a bit of a handout to tide them over. Now there’s a basic, often repeated understanding that there was a sort of contract between peasant and their lord, this thing called the Moral Economy we have referred to. A sense of reciprocal obligation, the right way to do things that preserved the dignity of both.

But it could be much more basic than that when there was trouble; the practical arrangement between peasant and lord was very often the least bad deal that the peasant could get away with. It goes then, that the peasant family that has fallen on hard times has a conversation with the lord, look guv, we are in a spot of bother, nothing we can’t handle, but just a temporary problem. Ok, says the boss, we’ll help you out, but in return things are going to have to change around here.

It might a conversation like – look You are going to have to give me the land you hold – don’t worry you’ll get some of it back, but you’ll be working it in return for some labour dues. Or look, you can hang on to all your land, but you’ll hold it from me and have to work on my demesne three days a week. Oh, and I’ll tell you what you are going to do when you arrive for your labour days, you don’t get to chose, because you are no longer independent. Or, it could be the introduction of a cash rent; or simply existing rent or renders we need must go up this year.

The possibilities of exploitation ae endless. By a variety of pressures, the status of the families that worked inland estates changed, from free peasant with a direct relationship with the king to a smallholder or even cottager, owing service to a lord.


So, This leads me to a basic fault line you might like to be aware of, a fundamental division in society, and this concerns the concept of service. Service was not a dirty word in medieval England of any period; the association of service with lowly status comes much later in English history. There was pretty much nobody in medieval society that did not serve somebody – the greatest of thegns owned service to the king.

But the type of service did make a difference – there was honourable service and the kind of service that conferred no honour. On one side of the line, the honourable side, were things like carrying messages, hunting, guarding the lord’s possessions or estate. On the other side of the line, are things like muck spreading. Or liming, which was the digging out of lime to spread on the fields to improve their fertility, which is hot, hard, physical, dirty work. This work is not exactly dishonourable, that coveys the wrong meaning, but neither does it confer honour – it is work to be avoided if at all possible. The type of service you provided therefore, gave you a clue as to the status of that person.

Another aspect about service was its predictability. Let’s say that you owe your lord a day’s work during harvest time; well, that’s thoroughly predictable, and you can probably pitch it proudly, as having nothing to do with service but simply one family helping out. This kind of work is called boon work – it is given as a favour to the wider community, it is part of the reciprocal rights of custom, freely given.  On the other hand, if you have to turn up at the boss’s for 3 days a week come rain or shine, and you get doled out and have to do whatever jobs are hanging about, then your fish are in a very different type of kettle indeed. It’s a much lower status kettle all together.

As time goes by, the changes in terms of service on inland creates a series of recognisable ranks among this kind of peasantry with tied service, which we’ll go through. But there are common threads. One is the loss of the rights of inheritance. Ceorls had the right to pass on their land; the new inland workers did not. They were given a set of kit – implements, land, house; and when they died it went back to the lord. Now, practicalities meant that the next generation of the family would be first in line – but it was not a gimme. Another is this type of service – they owned very defined work, and that work was based on a private contract with a lord. The land they held was the result of a contract, and this is very new. Ceorls generally held land because it was theirs, they held it from custom; and Anglo Saxon law reflected this, because it had very little to say about property, they are about personal relationships. It is very typical of the Anglo Saxon state that the laws of Ine, for example, are all about civil injury – crimes against people – not criminal law, which are crimes against the state.

OK, so let us turn to the kinds of inland workers recognised as part of an estate described in a 10th century document of enormous value and interest, the Rectitudines Singularum Personarum which described a model estate and its people.

Ok, so the status of our first category was much more common on inland, but known throughout Anglo Saxon society; the Slave, the theowas or wealas. Here in the 10th century was a conversation recorded with a ploughman, from the Oxfordshire village of Eynsham, about his day, an exceptionally rare record of the voice of the powerless. It comes from a homily via the Abbot of Eynsham, and we think this ploughman was probably a slave though it’s not certain; but he is at very least unfree.

Oh I work very hard, dear lord. I go out at daybreak driving the oxen to the field, and yoke them to the plough. For the fear of my lord there is no winter so hard that I dare skive off at home. But the oxen having been yoked up, and the share and coulter fastened to the plough, I must plough a full acre or more every day

Have you any companion?

Yes, I have my lad driving the Oxen with a goad who is hoarse now because of the cold and the shouting

What else do you do in a day’s work?

I do more than that sire. I have to fill the Oxen’s bins with hay and water them, and carry their muck outside

My my it sounds like hard work then

It’s hard work all right sir, because I am not free

To be a slave did not necessarily mean that you were one of the old Britons, as was once thought, on the basis of Gildas’s diatribe, nor did it necessarily mean you’d been captured in some war or other. As we can see from the history of the Gewisse, which had some British origins, many people of British descent were simply part of the Anglo Saxon nations, and with perfectly high status. Many slaves also fell into slavery through circumstance, by falling on hard times and being forced to sell their freedom to their lord in return for survival. There was a half-way house – it was permissible to sell you children into slavery if they were under the age of 7, and with their consent under the age of 14. That sounds pretty desperate of course, and it was. It was a desperate calculation that for your children the life of a slave was better than they could expect as a freeman. But if there was no or little chance of them surviving, that was their last chance. Here is a quote for you which sheds a bit of light. It is a statement in the will of a noblewoman called Geatfleda.

Geatfleda has given freedom for the love of God and for the need of her soul: namely Ecceard the smith, and Aelfstan and his wife and all their offspring, born and unborn, and Arcil and Cole and Ecfert and Ealdhun’s daughter and all those people whose heads she took for food in the evil days.

There is it then – ‘all those people whose heads she took for food in the evil days’, here are people who went to their lady Geatfleda when they had reached their wits end about how to feed themselves. They were in a situation so dire that they could not even really negotiate serfdom – they had to give themselves completely into servitude to survive. The gobbet also specifies the children – children born to a slave were themselves automatically born slaves. The model of slavery probably followed Roman law, they were the chattels of their master, without legal personality and without kin.

It is not clear just how important slaves were in the economy of the time; slaves numbered in the Domesday book of 11th Century about 10% of the total population. But by that stage, numbers of slaves had probably been declining for a while for reasons we’ll come to; but it seems almost certain that many slaves were not declared. So the answer is probably that they played an important part in the rural economy, and they played that part in estates both large and small, and that they were probably more than 10% of the population in the 8th and 9th centuries. The church was a large scale landowner, and canon law did not condemn slavery outright, and therefore the church was a large scale owner of slaves.

It is faintly ironic that the AB York, Wulfstan, gave a famous sermon in the early 11th century excoriating those English who sold their fellow English into slavery. At the time, he probably had well over 400 slaves on this estates. Do as I say not as I do seems to the be immortal subtext. The church did tell its bishops that they should free slaves on their death, and gave this message also to their parishioners – as we have seen Geatfleda do. Slaves might also ask neighbouring landowners to intercede on their behalf; and could also buy their own freedom. The corollary of that of course, is that slaves could own money, but it seems that did so at their own risk – they had no legal rights. However that went for them they could not pass anything they had accumulated on to their children – everything they held was the property of their master. If a slave did earn their freedom, they were traditionally taken to a cross roads where a ceremony was carried out, the cross roads might symbolically represent the different choices and paths the slave now had. It also symbolised the right the slave now had to travel.

By and large the little evidence there is, suggests that landowners took the view that their interests were best served by working slaves full time over a long period. This meant that it was worth investing time to train them in specialised skills; this also meant that slaves could be deployed to carry out the most crucial tasks and so reduce a landowner’s overall risk; the slave couldn’t ;eave, unlike a free ploughman. So, if I refer back to the gobbet, you’ll see that the slave Ecceard was a blacksmith, a highly skilled job. Other references we have show slaves as skilled stockmen – beekeepers, dairymaids, swineherd, and above all, as ploughmen.  The role of ploughman, one of the most skilled and critical jobs in the rural economy, is consistently associated with slaves on Inland. Women usually worked in the household. We have another record where another noblewoman, Athelgifu, freed her slaves. They were seamstresses, skilled needle women, and weavers.  And by the by, it’s also worth noting that her priest was a slave, which is fascinating and on occasion happens elsewhere as well.

Slaves were very much inland workers, tied to the household and estate; and not just for large landowners like the church. In fact smaller landowners probably relied even more on slaves, because they had fewer tied tenants to help with their work, and with smaller estates the ability for slaves to carry out higher status, specialised roles was  probably lower, they were more likely to be jack of all trades, master of none.

Slaves probably lived in shared slave huts, possibly the sunken buildings found on many sites, and they may have also been given a small plot of land. These small plots were designed to help them feed themselves, but categorically not to allow them to become self-sufficient.  In a larger estate they might also get some perks, like traditional handouts at harvest time – the records of one estate  required slaves to be given food at Easter and Christmas and a ‘harvest handful’, a point at which you’d presumably look around for any friends with unusually large hands to help out.

The general story, though, as I have mentioned, will be of a move away from slavery, a movement that the conquest of 1066 will accelerate. Recent research has shown that the process was slower and more prolonged than used to be thought, but none the less this is the way it was going; Slaves tended to be given small plots on the inland, and therefore be categorised as serfs rather than slaves. It’s not a great improvement; unlike many of the other peasant groups we’ll come to, they depended entirely on the lord, and the land they gained was essentially like a wage given in land; they shared much more in common with wage labourers, the most dependent category of non slave, rather than the poorest type of serf.

On to most dependent of the unfree serf, the Bordars. Just to give you a point of reference, a reasonably well off, self sufficient peasant would expect to hold a yardland, or virgate of land; this is equivalent to about 30 acres, or ¼ of a hide. The Bordar would still hold a bit of land – but a lot less than that – they would be given a small holding and a toft, a small cottage; they would be tied to the inland estate, and in fact their very name describes their role, which was often to work in the household, as well as a general labourer. Although OED quotes the name as taken from Latin Bordarius, cottager, an alternative etymology is from the OE and French borde, or table; a word which also goes on to become board in terms of full board, room and food for the day. So Bordars had come to be associated with work that supported the lord’s personal household. Essentially, Bordars were general labourers, whom the lord had decided were easier to pay in land. So the Bordar would hold lands deemed just about sufficient to feed themselves, maybe around 5 acres or so, but this made them precariously subject to the winds of fate and climate. On the estate, their tofts were often grouped very close to the centre, referred to sometimes as bordlands.

Bordars might work on the lord’s estate or household, spreading muck, the substance euphemistically referred to as nightsoil, liming, building, cleaning chimneys. For this small holding to maintain themselves they would give very heavy service to the lord, maybe 3 days a week, which would leave them frighteningly little time to work their own smallholding. They would be too poor to maintain their own plough so would have to bargain for a share or use of another villager’s plough. Essentially this is a group of families who found themselves in this precarious position because they had very little bargaining power, and been forced to accept a contract heavily weighted in favour of the landowner. They might not be strictly a slave, they have legal status and rights, but I wonder if it felt that much different in practical terms. The question is how many Bordars are there; and our only real point of reference is, as always, Domesday book in 1087. By that time, Bordars would form around 30% of the population. We of course are still in the 8th century and their numbers would have been very much lower. The story that will enfold is that as lords, both secular and ecclesiastical, demand more and more of their tenants, more and more tenants of inland estates fall on hard times, and fall into the categories of poorer serfs, a far cry from the free, self sufficient farmer.

Our last category of inland peasant was called the gebur, and their name has survived in the word ‘boor’, a word which of course is not the most positive, but there was again no negative association with the word back then. The life of the gebur was a hard one, though it is difficult to be definitive about how hard, because customs varied from place to place, and if there’s one thing you might like to take away from all of this is that although there are very much national trends, the reality from place to place depended very much on the local situation and landlord. Indeed a 10th century estate document remarked that the gebur gave labour rent which was

In some places heavy, in some places light

On this particular estate, which is at Bath, there is quite a description of the terms and conditions which a new peasant might expect; it was designed to attract new immigrants. I can even visualise a poster in my mind’s eye ‘Not sure what to do with your life?  Go west young man, and become a Gebur – a free year if you come to Bath Abbey!’ because the incoming gebur was given a year off from their cash rent as an incentive. After that he needed to pony up his 10p a year. They were granted a yardland, which as I have mentioned is a quarter of a hide or 30 acres. Of those 30 acres he was provided seven sown acres, two oxen, six sheep and a cow. He was provided with ‘tools for his work and utensils for his home’. I’m then going to quote a bit more of the T&Cs

‘He must work [for] two days in each week, [doing] such work as he is directed to, throughout the year, and to work [for] three days each week during the harvest, and for three [days each week] from Candlemas to Easter.

So that’s like a couple of months or so

He must pay ten pennies tax on Michaelmas day (end of September), and on the day of Martin’s Mass (11th November)  [he must give] twenty-three sesters of barley, and two hens; at Easter [he must give] a young sheep or two pennies. And from Martin’s Mass to Easter he must remain with the lord’s fold as often as it comes around to him. And from the time when one first ploughs, to Martin’s Mass, he must plough one acre each week, and collect the seed himself from the lord’s barn. In addition to that, [he must plough] three acres as compulsory service on demand and two [acres] pasturage-ploughing. If he needs more grass then he may earn it in such way as one allows him to. His plough-rent [is] to plough three acres and to sow [it with seed] from his own barn. And [he] pays his hearth-penny. As one of a pair [he must] feed a hunting dog. And each peasant pays six loaves to the lord’s swineherd when he drives his drove [of pigs] to woodland-pasture.[1]

Well I doubt you’ve retained any of that – it’s on the website by the way – but my first thought is that this is jolly complicated. But let me note a few more helpful remarks. While not a slave – they have legal status and rights – families of Gebur status are not free. When they die, all of this stuff and the house will become the lord’s property again. The dues geburs must do in return for his yardland are very heavy, they’re not going to be putting anything side for that summer holiday to Bridlington he’d always wanted to take with the missus. It’s Between 2 and 3 days a week work for the boss when you tot it all up, possibly more. None the less they are not like the Slave or the Bordar, with insufficient land to feed themselves and their family; they are a self sufficient peasant, and not only that they are expected to produce a surplus in many years, because as we saw they pay cash rent.

You may well notice, however, that I have not mentioned public fines like the church scot or geld. They are scot free. They do pay the hearth penny, which is a payment from each household towards alms for the poor, a precursor to a charge that will be called Peter’s Pence. However, what they do not pay is geld to the king.

You might think that’s a good thing, but you would be wrong to so think. I can almost hear your gasp with frank disbelief, the hollowness of your laugh. But to pay geld was a sign that you are a fully paid-up card-carrying member of the tribe and community. You have status. I know that sounds all wrong, but the next time you look at your pay calculation and see all that money heading towards the government, feel not the pain and discontent, but the thrill and pride of the Old English small farmer, travelling to the hundred court to take part in his tithing  and pay his geld, as a free man should. It meant you were  part of the moral economy, a person o honour. In fact, Landlords were very keen to prevent their Bordars and Geburs from claiming they paid the geld – because it was the sign of a free man, rather than a serf. There are court cases of disputes between villagers and lords that survive, and often villagers were trying to claim that they are free, and therefore have access to royal justice. To support their argument, they often use paying tax as evidence. Landlords didn’t want that, oh dearie me no, they owned the unfree as part of their chattels, and that’s the way they liked it.

The entry has another angle. As I said this, the element of a free year at the start almost has the feeling of an incentive to join the estate. There is a law of Ine, which is written in the early 8th century which goes as follows:

If a man takes a yard of land or more, at a fixed rent, and ploughs it, [and] if the lord requires service as well as rent,  [the tenant] need not take the land if the lord does not give him a dwelling…

By accepting the house, then, the gebur has given up an enormous amount of independence; Taking the house means they are unfree, they cannot leave, either land or lord. They are at the mercy of their lord who may choose what rent he thinks appropriate.  The key differentiator which gets referred to again and again is that the gebur, unlike the free peasant, does not know what work he will do day to day – but must simply do what his lord decides.

The life and status of the serf, the gebur, is from the start a product of a contract with a private landowner; as distinct from the public status of a free person. They are to some degree private property. The gebur may not be a slave but nor is he free. I cannot help but think dungeons and dragons sorry. The Level 3 skeleton may not be alive but nor is he dead, he is the Undead.


Ok, such then are the changing lives of a group of the Anglo Saxon peasantry. We’ve heard how residency especially of ecclesiastical estates have led to an intensification of production, and an intensification of lordship. For many those extra demands resulted in a loss of status and freedom. It is important not to assume as many have, that the gebur and Bordar of the inland estate are the typical Anglo Saxon peasant or ceorl; this is an assumption made by many, and led to the idea that feudalism had arrived before the conquest. Now there are similar aspects to the medieval feudal villein. Here is the arrival of an arrangement that gave land for defined work – it is a significant change, but it is not based on the principle of property, of rights vested in land ownership, of land for military service. It is a personal contract between lord and peasant, in a sense it falls into that idea of a moral economy, though a one sided one. In return for protection, food, land, work, the individual gives their service.

And most importantly of course it’s only part of the Ango Saxon peasantry. There is another world out there, the more traditional world of warland, land held by the traditional free peasantry. And it is to them, their lives and customs and rights, that we will turn in the next episode.

Do remember the PDF slides on the website, the history of england .co.uk; Slides 17 to 20 refer to this episode. There’s a homepage for the AS series, https://thehistoryofengland.co.uk/podcasts/anglo-saxon-england

Also don’t forget that on the same website, you can see how to become a member, and the sort of things that become yours when you do so – as well as the pride, and the extra spring in your step that will be yours also.

Until next time then, thank you for listening everyone, do let me know what you think, come along to the website and or facebook site that sort of thing. But most importantly, good luck, and have a great week.

[1] http://www.earlyenglishlaws.ac.uk/laws/texts/rect/view/#edition/translation-4.1




2 thoughts on “2.5 Life on the Inland

  1. Huh. I’d always assumed getting off Scott-free meant not having to read Ivanhoe in school.

    Sorry. A little sorry, anyway.

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