Hello everyone, and welcome to Shedcast 31c, being the third in the series Life and Landscape in Anglo Saxon England. This week there’s quite a lot of life, not very much landscape I have to say. 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 soldiers of the English Ceorl. Today we are going to talk about how that life began slowly to change, and the experiences of life began to depend on the kind of relationship you held with the lord, and particularly, the terms under which you held land. You are going to hear a lot, over the next two episodes of two terms, so, on the principle that good education practice is essentially 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. We are going to talk about Inland. Inland means the innermost land, and is used in the context of working estates; it will be the areas held by tenants working directly for the lord, and held in demesne; it will be the core of the estate.
Having introduced those words let us, like Blue Peter, set them aside for a moment, and turn to something I prepared earlier. Because in our world of the scir and extensive lordship, as I have explained, there in no inland, only a little titchy bit of home farm to support the permanent staff of the Reeve and his tribute centre. Something has to change to develop the demand for core estates designed to generate income and support for a lord, and a lord who is, crucially, resident. So we need to start with Doe, before we get to the ray and me that is Inland and Warland.
The doe concerned is one of the main experiences of the everyday English, which is of course religion, almost as important in everyday life as the demands of lordship. During the 7th century, as I think is pretty notorious, Christianity was introduced back into England, in a top down process driven by the conversion of kings until it appears that England is once more Christian; though there can be little doubt that the headline process hides much that we cannot know, and it could be that the process takes far longer than it seems. Or indeed it could be that Christianity never conceded England quite as comprehensively as we thought to paganism; the runes are hidden to us to a large degree.
There are brief glimpses that comes down to us, as through a glass darkly, the odd example of friction and conflict. For example, here is a story from the Venemous Bede. Just before the las launched into yet another story of a miracle, Bede recounts a tale of a group of mid seventh century Tyneside farmers, who are dourly watching some monks drift helplessly out to sea out of control on a boat. The farmers are clearly not sympathetic to the plight of said monks and declaim:
Let no man pray for them, nor God pity any of them they have abolished people’s old devotions, and nobody knows how the new ones should be observed.
This gives a flavour of a church struggling to establish its pastoral care in the face of old practices, but it’s a bit unusual to have this level of insight; actually what is most remarkable about the record of the conversion in England, is the absence of much mention of paganism at all. It could be that the texts we have simply liked to pretend that the problem of paganism simply didn’t exist, when actually it did; but compared to continental experience the record still appears unusually light. And although it seems pretty much accepted that Christianity did disappear with the arrival of the Anglo Saxons, none the less there is some continuity – the same sort of level as with the survival of old Iron age and Roman regions that we talked about 2 episodes ago; so while Christian practice might have stopped for a while, when it was re-established minister churches are often built on old foundations, and the areas they serve follow old diocesan boundaries. The impression is less of a harsh imposition of an alien religion on a society organised around folklore, and more of a blending. Old semi-mystical beliefs will survive well into Early Modern England a 1000 years later, a sort of continual sub culture of magic. Equally famously, Pope Theodore suggested integrating local customs and feast days. Although this is often presented as a cynical thing, Theodore was no doubt sincere when he suggested that using familiar customs and festivals would help people feel comfortable with the new ways. Over the 7th century, Christianity spread and was adopted, and although initially top down, over time more influences came to bear. From the Celtic tradition in Ireland particularly came regular clergy and missionaries into England and Scotland. Within England, Anglo Saxon society had strong bonds of kinship that reached through society, and these connections would have helped also to spread the new religion.
By the 7th century, church organisation was well advanced, and pastoral care and the daily relationship of people would have been through two institutions – the monastery and the minister. By second half of the 7th century a number of monasteries were well established, but it was the minister churches that had the most impact on daily life. It was a very different model to the one we are used to in England now, depending of course on how used to any kind of religious organisation you are used to now; but you are probably familiar with the idea of a parish with its church and its priest. Not so in the 7th century, when pastoral care was dominated by the minster church, a name that survives to this day in England – think of York, where the church is the Minster rather than the Cathedral. The Minster was a church with a community of regular and secular clergy – monks and priests. The monks were there for a regular life of seclusion; but the community of secular clergy, the priests, were there to travel out across the range of villages, to look after their friendly neighbourhood, a little like Spiderman, actually not very like Spiderman, but travelling out from the minister to visit the settlements and farms, conduct ceremonies and give people the pastoral care they needed. And then returning to base after a tour of duty as it were.
The areas serviced by the minster would become referred to as the parochia. And Bede revels in this image of the holy man the priest travelling out to folk within the minster’s wide parochia, its collection of villages. It may be that Bede’s view was to a degree idealised, and there may have been rainy days in the Soar valley for example, when a priest got nothing much more than the odd ‘ay up’ from villagers lacking much gruntle, but who knows.
Wherever a cleric or monk came, he was joyfully received by all as God’s servant. If they came across him on his travels, they ran to him and, bowing their heads, rejoiced either to be signed by his hand or to receive a blessing from his lips; they also paid diligent attention to his words of exhortation. On Sundays they flocked eagerly to the church or to monasteries, not to refresh the body but to hear the word of God. If some priest happened to come to a settlement, 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.
It’s a nice image and I’m prepared to go with it for the moment. In our area I South Oxfordshire, a minister and its priests were established at Dorchester on Thames, about 6 miles from Benson, and from there the priests would travel outwards to visit their people. It reflects the importance Dorchester held in early Wessex, with its own Bishop, and being the place of conversion for Wessex’s first Christian king; and a minster church also seems to have been established at Pyrton, which sits at the foot of the Chiltern Scarp. The minster expands gradually but consistently, and puts down roots; very often, Minsters develop chapels or churches in some of the more far away villages, so that the priest has a place to stay and offer services for a while, and so there is a system of mother parishes and their dependant parishes; it’s a little difficult to recover the full network, but some of these are known. So, by 850 or so the minister structure is supreme, and well established. In many places it will survive into the 11th and 12th centuries, and is a bit of an oddity of the English structure of which later Norman reformers will be very suspicious. Those old Normans tended to have something f a sense of humour failure when they saw the English religious set up.
Another oddity of which the Normans will be suspicious is the local saint, a tradition which is by no means unique to England, but which survives rather longer, and is reasonably wild and restrained. Its antecedents were firmly Roman, and it’s possible that one of the oldest cults managed to survive through the period of paganism – this being England’s oldest martyr, St Alban, beheaded by tradition in Roman Verulanium in the 3rd or 4th century. There are many who will tell you that St Alban rather than St George, should be England’s patron Saint. Well, I say many. You may meet the odd one now and again might be a better phrase, but maybe they are right. Up until around 850, when structures and rules became a bit more severe and organised, local saints could be agreed by local popular acclamation, so it was all a lot easier to do. The likelihood is that there was some sort of guiding hand, maybe an ambitious local priest or bishop or lord, commissioning the writing of a hagiography, publicising miracles, constructing and decorating a shrine, that sort of thing. But as a result there were loads of them.
We have a local saint who became almost a national figure from the Chilterns, though I have to stretch a point about location. This concerns a young Princess called Frideswide, the daughter of a king Dida, described as a king near the Chiltern Hills Dodgy, because Eynsham is also mentioned and Eynsham’s nowhere near the Chilterns, but anyway, here I am telling you folk tales so, whatever. The Young Frideswide had no desire but one day along came a handsome prince and her dad listened and approved for once. Poor Frideswide fled and hid. Her father was so upset at having lost his daughter he fell dangerously ill, so Frideswide return, hurray, but then so dd the Prince. One story has Frideswide calling n God to save her and a bolt of lightening blinded the Prince; so she wept and said could God please help not quite that much and just kill the princes desire for her. And yes being blinded by a bolt of lightening would do that actually. So God restored the Prince’s sight and magically, the Prince no longer wanted to marry her, golly, who’d have thought it? Another story makes the Prince Algar of Leicester, and has him fortuitously falling from his horse and breaking his neck, which yah, is super lucky. Anyway, Frideswide is the patron saint of Oxford, city and university and she remains as unpronounceable today as she ever was, in fact a little more so. I suspect you are all sick now of this Rosie Lee stuff, but we also have a local saint as St Birinius, a Frank my dear who converted the king of Wessex to Christianity, became Bishop of Dorchester and founded churches at the little Chiltern villages of Checkenden and Ipsden. Rather delightfully, the reason Cynegils converted to Christianity appears not to have been the arrival of piety, but because he needed an alliance with Northumbrian, and Christian, king Oswald. There is a moral in that tale, not sure what it is. Anyway, I formally apologise for this digression, which got us nowhere at all.
By 850 also then, the liturgical year and cycle was well established in Anglo Saxon England. The use of the vernacular in the liturgy was perfectly acceptable, and traditions such as the processions round the village and fields at Rogantide were an important part of the rhythm of the village year. There seems to have been a surprising amount of participation going on, and the image of a solemn, devout and respectful silence as the priest was followed is probably to be banished in favour of something more hobbit like, ale fuelled and raucous. Which of course is disgraceful, if also an attractive thought. The Church and its priests were therefore well integrated into the life of ordinary anglo saxon society, the priest was a recognised figure, and might begin to put down local roots. The church was maintained by a levy or tithe I suppose which was originally voluntary, called the ciricsceott. The word appears to be derived from the Old English shot, or a division of land, but becomes known as the church scot. This scot, is a fine; fine in the old sense in the sense of a support payment or due, and the division of land referred to is therefore probably the area designated t support a particular priest. It is of course also 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 Minister 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 at Michaelmas, which was 11th November, and was another occasion for the people to gather; 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 motor, 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.
Now I mentioned the word parish, and by 850, a basic structure of some parishes seems very probably to have been established. Some division seemed sensible; dioceses were focussed on Cathedral churches, fine; and they supported network of Minsters within a defined boundary. It’s possible that’s what the original parish was – the area of authority of that Cathedral and Bishop. But then minsters come along, and their area of work needed some definition, and so that’s what their parish boundaries were there to describe. And then they might get sub churches, so that parish needs carving out. So probably a network developed, though timing is somewhat more contentious; there is a line of thought which has it that the parish system was organised by the Anglo Saxon kings after the chaos of the Viking invasions. However, there is a very famous landscape historian called W G Hoskin’s who rather less famously held a rule of thumb that everything in the English landscape is older than we think. The balance of opinion seems to be on his side here too, that the parish system was at least well advanced by the time the Vikings came. But it is also very probably incomplete and will be deeply affected by the development of lordship, as we will describe at some point in what I thought would be near future but as I warble is beginning to look increasingly distant to be honest.
So anyway, there’s a flavour of the impact of the church on daily life. There was a feature however, of minsters and monasteries which should not go unnoticed, and in fact is a feature which will play a part in transforming Anglo Saxon England. The feature concerned is that these minsters were all filled with substantial groups of people, these priests and monks. 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, or the tribute would be sent on. These guys are here all the blessed time, never going away. So something needed to be done to feed them.
You have probably forgotten by now that we were supposed to be talking about something called inland, the inner land around an estate, and yet then off I went on a chat about the church. Sorry and all, but unless you understood what minsters and monasteries were and when they were established, I thought you’d not understand why they would place new demands on their estates. What was needed now was this steady supply of food, and this is where the inland came in. A much greater area of land would now be needed to produce enough food for a resident community of people who produced nothing or very little for themselves. This land would need to be specifically set up and managed to produce the basics, and would need to produce more that it had formally produced, since many, though not all, of these religious types were not producing for themselves.
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. All land normally carried obligations and tax, notably a tax called geld. You will probably have heard of Geld – the basis of our pitiful attempts to make the Vikings go and leave us alone. Well, you can often spot inland estates because they are held with an 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 days 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; the land would now have to support many more people. 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. The inhabitants of monastery and minster were resident, they were there to push their tenants. 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 – worked 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 hang-over from an inland farm worked by a monastery’s household. Barton upon Humber for example, in Lincolnshire.
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 microphone 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 heavier, 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 – very fertile, but just very hard to work. So, excellent. Good news. 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. Estates remodelled themselves 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. There was a very clear need to share resources between smaller farms to maintain a proper team, and shared areas of pasture are developed, the first sign maybe of the manorial commons to be so important in the middle ages, the sign of the sharing of rights.
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. At the same time there is greater variety of crops – Oats and rye for example, all of which means there’s a great number of weapons in the peasant family arsenal for different landscapes and climates.
Well, all of this is something but it’s not enough; and there were other factors 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 the owners of the religious estates needed their tenants to produce more. So granted that the old tribute is far from onerous, terms and conditions could be increased, in theory. Actually terms and conditions could be increased so far, that the tenant no longer held basic freedoms, such as to leave the land. Terms and conditions could be so onerous that they could have few or no possessions, and would possess little more than some personal rights under the king’s law. However, there’s a problem – the rights of the ceorl were protected – by law, but particularly by custom. The monastery might furiously demand more – the cerorl could simply turn them away.
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 poor 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, whether than lord was secular or ecclesiastical – work, tribute and rent from one, protection from the other. In fact it was often much more basic than that; the contract 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. 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 – you’ll have to work on my demesne three days a week, and I’ll tell you what you are going to do when you arrive. Alternatively, it could be a gradual ratcheting up of rent – sorry, we’ve got more monks and priests, the rent or renders we need must go up this year.
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 their lord. Let us for a few moments then consider the kind of people who lived on inland estates. The peasants working Inland estates become to be characteristic of the kind of peasant we understand from the medieval world – the serf, the unfree peasant, working a parcel of land, owing extensive labour and rent dues to their lord.
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 thegn 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 therefore, 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 year 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 another. On the other hand, if you have to turn up at the boss’s for 3 days a week 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.
Now I think I have already issued the warning about the word peasant, but let me just make sure. The word peasant is a very general, catch all kind of word, it covers a whole multitude of people with different types of stats and land tenure. So, let us go through the kind of groups of peasant that might work Inland estates, both to give you an idea of the different types, but also to give you an idea of their working lives.
The status of our first category of inland worker was reasonably clearly at the bottom of the pile – 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 as 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 everyday
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 old 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’ve discussed ages ago, many people of British descent were simply part of the Anglo Saxon nations, and perfectly high status. Some were; the fact that the word for Briton had come to mean slave by the 10th century, is an indication of that. Slavery was also an industry in Anglo Saxon England by the way – a product of border wars between AS kingdoms. We know for example that Anglian Slaves were bought in Frankia in the 7th century and put to work on monastic lands.
But what seems clear is that 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 pretty much assumes there was no or little chance of the surviving as a freeman. 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 Greatfleda 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 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, and 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; but slaves 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, and however that went for them they could not pass anything they had accumulated 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, but principally it 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 reduce a landowner’s overall risk. So, if I refer back to the gobbet, you’ll see that Ecceard was a blacksmith. 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. Women usually worked in the household; when another noblewoman Athelgifu freed her slaves, they were seamstresses, skilled needle women, and weavers; and by the by, its 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 featured 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; though 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.
Wage labourers were also called 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 hold 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, often working in the household as well as 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, rom 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 rather than feed themselves – 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 with the landowner 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 actual situation on the ground 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 on which a new peasant might expect, 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.
Well my first thought is that this is jolly complicated, but let me note a few things. While not a slave – they has legal status and rights – families of Gebur stats are not free. When they dies, 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 the summer holiday to Bridlington he’d always wanted to take with the missus. Between 2 and 3 days a week 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 they pay rent.
You may well notice, however, that I have not mentioned public fines like the church scot. 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 in a way it’s a bad sign; either the lord pays the dues on their behalf or, because they are on the lord’s inland they are not subject to geld at all. Although you might gasp with frank disbelief, or laugh in a hollow kind of way, paying taxes is a privilege. It is 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. Ask not what your country can do for you, and so on. Freedom came with responsibility. Responsibility meant that you were free. 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. Where villagers petition the courts claiming they are free, 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, he [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; they cannot leave, either land or lord. They are at the mercy of their lord who may choose what rent he thinks appropriate. 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.
Just to recap, what we have been discussing, then, is a group of people who, one day, in times of trouble might turn to a saint called Walstan. Walstan is an Anglo Saxon saint from East Anglia, and he has the distinction of being the patron saint of farm workers – because slaves, household workers known as the famuli, the labourers called Bordars and the unfree peasants called the Geburs are all peasants who for some reason or other have fallen into dependency on a lord, and through necessity given up their freedom to a greater or lesser extent, and come to work on the inland estates. Taking the other side of the telescope, from the lord’s end, we’ve been mainly talking about ecclesiastical lords, monasteries and minsters, who have a different viewpoint because they are resident, and need larger, more secure and reliable supplies. It’s almost impossible to be specific about the timeline of these changes, but by the 8th century this increasing pressure on the peasantry would be clear; and although I have emphasised ecclesiastical lords, some of these same pressures would be affecting the large, royal multiple estates and the estates of lesser lords on those estates too. But we will come to them in the future. For the moment the more common model of lordship on royal estates would be less intense than this inland model.
We’ll hear about that next time, but for the moment, however, we have only talked about the lives of one part of the estate, those pulled onto the gravity well of the inland. What of those outside the inland? We’ll start with them next time.