PART IV: LAYING THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE FEUDAL PYRAMID
The bottom and the top of the heap
The concept of feudalism is normally associated with the Norman times and not with the first centuries of the Dark Ages. It is true that after William I’s conquest (1066), a key date in the history of
this economic and political system reached its peak, but the bases of it were
established during the reigns of the Anglo-Saxon kings. Lords and vassals,
land-owners and tenants are terms which seem more appropriate for later ages,
but this system, which arose from the need of having protection from the
neighbours and “paying” for that protection, already existed previously though
on a smaller scale. Britain
The social and political system was based on the fact that there were rich people who had the power, and poor people who hardly could make both ends meet. The former were in charge of the administration (and the most important of all, in charge of collecting taxes) and the latter worked their fingers to the bone all day long, from dawn to dusk. Anyone could say that the situation has not changed much since those remote ages up to now, but at least this was a sort of agreement which both parties came to. The lord gave his vassals good land to work and live on as long as they pledged to serve him; they submitted to the power of their lord and committed themselves to serving him, especially by becoming members of his army, which was the lord’s main interest. It was a give-and-take relationship; both of them gave something and both of them received something good. These vassals, or tenants-in-chief, could give likewise part of their new properties to other tenants, who were of course in a lower position in the social ladder. One received something that the other gave him, but this had to guarantee that the first would promise submission to the second.
Land being the basis of the economy, the Romano-Celtic urban culture began to collapse in favour of a new rural civilization. There was even a process of deforestation (there was no green party to stop that!) in order to get more land to cultivate. Beside these farmlands new villages were born, the oldest of them being those which nowadays end in –ham and –ingham, for example Cheltenham or
When studying the social hierarchy and the economic-political situation in the Anglo-Saxon times, a strange vocabulary appears on the scene. Words like ceorl, fyrd or ealdorman are essential to understand life in these dark times; and other words like hundred, lord or sheriff do not have the meaning that they may have nowadays. Therefore it is necessary to specify what a series of special terms mean. Let’s put them together in a sort of dictionary; let’s call it A brief dictionary of Anglo-Saxon terms, or rather, A brief dictionary of Anglo-Saxon terms whose explanations are not so brief as it might seem at first sight. These words we are referring to are the following:
¨ atheling: the highest rank in the aristocracy. Athel means “nobly-born”, that is, one through whose veins only blue blood runs. If one’s parents were athelings..., good luck!, one was also an atheling; in other words, it was what we can call “to be born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth” (compare with slave)
¨ ceorl: the poor relations in the social pyramid and those who consoled themselves with the fact of seeing other people in worse conditions than them (see slave). They received land from a lord (see land and lord) whom they served both in the working field and in the battlefield. In later centuries the word ceorl changed its form into churl, which means “rude person, one with bad manners”.
¨ ealdorman: a noble of very high social rank who was appointed to govern a shire (see shire). When centuries went by, they became more powerful and they controlled more than one shire. That happened from the 11th century onwards. Then they became known as earls. Curiously, the bigger the possessions, the shorter the name. An ealdorman’s office became hereditary (compare with sheriff).
¨ free man: one who was not a slave (see slave). This term should not be confused with freeman (see below)
¨ freeman: someone who has been given the freedom of a particular city as a special honour. Freemen cultivated the land of the lord (see land and lord). This term should not be confused with free man (see above).
¨ fyrd: a local military force in which ceorls (see ceorls) had the obligation to serve in return for the lands (see land) which had been granted to them by a lord (see lord).
¨ geld: one of the many taxes peasants had to pay. On this occasion, it was a tax on the land they were working on. Bearing in mind that this land had been granted to them by the lord (see land and lord), we may wonder how the peasants did not realize that there was something fishy in that present from the very beginning. Or having to pay for receiving a present is a normal thing...? They should have thought things like ‘so much generosity is a bit suspicious’, ‘I smell a rat’, etc...; they should have looked at this gift horse in its mouth a couple of times before having accepted it.
¨ hide: a subdivision of the hundred (see hundred). In one hide there lived a peasant and his family, and it was supposed that this piece of land (see land) was enough for the whole family to live on. Not all the hides had the same size (from forty to one hundred acres); it depended either on the number of members in the family or on the generosity of the lord (see lord), rather than on how much the whole family ate.
¨ hundred: a subdivision of the shire (see shire) and unit of local government. The name was more commonly used in the south of the country. There were a hundred hides in a hundred (see hide).
¨ king: a bushy-bearded man who has the power, often wears a crown, is the owner of all the lands (see land) and obviously lives like a king; also, a man who thinks that, in order to occupy a post like his, one is born, not made (sin.= tin god).
¨ land: an area of ground which is mainly used for farming; also, a lord’s main possession (see lord). Other possessions of his in order of preference are: his vassals (see vassal), his sword, his horse and his wife.
¨ lord: this term is a portmanteau word, that is to say, the result of blending two different words. Originally hlaford, or loaf ward, the person who keeps the bread (and sometimes gives it to others). In the feudal pyramid he is below the king (see king) and above thousands and thousands of insignificant beings.
¨ manor: a large house and piece of land in the country which belong to a lord and which have been given to him by a king (see land, lord and king). Also, the instrument in the hands of a lord in order to have those below him in the social ladder on a string.
¨ moot: assembly of freemen (see freeman) presided over by thanes (see thane), which was held to administer law. There were shire moots, hundred moots and borough moots (see shire and hundred).
¨ sheriff: another portmanteau word which arises from the mixing of two words: shire (see shire) and reeve, the latter being an old word used to call a royal official. They were appointed by the king (see king), but their post was temporal and could not pass on to their offspring. Compared with the hereditary character of the post held by ealdormen (see ealdorman), this was more democratic since in this way more people were given the opportunity to feather their nest.
Note: Some centuries later the word sheriff was widely used in westerns (see Wayne, John).
¨ shire: the unit of local government in Anglo-Saxon England. It was presided over by an ealdorman (see ealdorman), and when these began to rule several shires, single shires were ruled by sheriffs (see sheriff). These territories were divided into hundreds (see hundred). After the Norman conquest, they changed their name into counties (don’t see county, since it cannot be included in an Anglo-Saxon dictionary, but in a
¨ slave: someone who worked without receiving any wages, but not precisely as a labour of love. There were three ways of becoming a slave: first of all, by being convicted in a court of law; secondly, by being a prisoner of war; and finally, by not paying one’s debts. If one’s parents were slaves..., bad luck!, one was a slave too, or in other words, that was what we can call “to be born under an unlucky star” (compare with atheling). Slaves were not entitled to wergild (see wergild) and lords (see lord) had the same affection for them as they could have for a piece of wood.
¨ thane (or thegn): a noble of lower rank than the atheling (see atheling) and the ealdorman (see ealdorman). A thane held his lands in return for military service to his lord and attendance to the witan (see land, lord and witan).
¨ vassal: someone without whom there can’t be a lord (see lord).
¨ wergild: such an interesting term that it deserves more than a few lines in a brief dictionary. For details, see next section.
¨ witan: “wise men” who gave the king advice on political and economic matters (see king). This institution has traditionally been regarded as a forerunner of the present-day Privy Council, whose members advise the sovereign on the affairs of the state. In these ancient times, these wise men were entitled to choose the king from the royal family, issue laws and decide on the taxation and foreign policy. However the king might take no notice of their advice (see consideration, lack of); so from time to time the king might play a dirty trick on the witan by playing dumb, but he knew that doing it was not very convenient for him because they had the right to choose the king and you should not bite the hand that feeds you.
¨ witanagemot: the wise men’s meeting. The Witan (see witan) met once in a while, when the king (see king) summoned them. The members of this organization were: ealdormen (see ealdorman), thanes (see thane) and another group of people who started to poke their nose into politics: the clergy.
Now that we have compiled all these pieces of information about the economic and
political life of the Anglo-Saxon times, the only thing which is left to do is to put them all together and shake them up so that we can get a perfect mixture. The result is possibly...a mess!, but... hadn’t we made it clear on the first pages of this chapter that if there is a word which can define the Dark Ages, it was without the slightest doubt the word mess; and hadn’t we clarified the point that studying this confusing age would make us scratch our heads more than once...? You had been warned, now do not complain.
Being worth one’s weight in gold (The price you pay)
We had left one term in the dictionary to be dealt with now: wergild. Indisputably, of all the Anglo-Saxon terms, this is the most striking. In Old English, wer means “man” and gild means “payment”. The wergild was the amount of money that somebody had to pay for having slain another person. Yes, you have read it well..., “money for having slain”..., killed, murdered, dispatched, butchered, assassinated another person... The money was paid by the assassin himself (not herself, since the field of killing was practically reserved for men) or his kindred (that’s what family is for!) to the kindred of the murdered man. In this way, the inflamed kin were calmed down and a bloodbath was avoided. The money to be paid varied according to the rank of the departed or even according to the part of the country where the murder had occurred. For example, a ceorl in
Kent “was worth” more
money than a ceorl in Essex, but much less
than an ealdorman in any region of the country. There was a fixed scale, but we
must presume that the price to be paid would rise a few shillings each year
(depending on the inflation?). Only a good economist could explain this
properly but we can say that the price to be paid for killing a thane was about
1,200 shillings whereas the wergild for a ceorl was only 200 shillings. This
can make us conclude that the wergild system, apart from being the forerunner
of life insurances, is the remotest predecessor of the stock market.
With the coming of Christian ideas, this practice disappeared little by little, but until Christianity had not totally taken root in the country, conversations like the following might have been heard:
‘Excuse me, sir.’
‘I have killed one of your nearest and dearest.’
‘Oh, good heavens! Who?’
‘Your cousin Edwin... How much is he?’
‘Well..., let me see.., er..., Edwin... Yes, he was a thane, you know. So that
means 1,200 shillings.’
‘All right... Oh! I almost forgot!... He was not alone. Your uncle Aethelberth
was with him and well..., you know..., it was not my intention..., but you know
that these things happen and... once you kill someone, you kill someone else
‘Yes, I understand... Well, I am afraid that this is going to cost you the earth.
Uncle Aethelberth was an ealdorman. So... 1,200 shillings plus 2,600
shillings..., that is 3,800 shillings altogether.’
‘My goodness! It’s certainly a king’s ransom. Can’t you give me a discount?
These are hard times, you know, and we all have to tighten our belts.’
‘I am sorry, it is a fixed rate.’
‘OK, I won’t insist... I am not very good at haggling and I don’t think you are
willing to wrangle for an ass’s shadow.’
‘Certainly I am not.’
‘Then..., here you are... 4,000 shillings.’
‘I have no loose change. Haven’t you got the exact amount?’
‘No, I haven’t.’
‘Then, I tell you what. For 200 shillings you can kill my nephew Alfred. He is
such a bore! You shouldn’t think twice about it! He is a thane too! A noble for
the price of a ceorl. It is a great offer!’
‘OK, I accept. Can I do anything else for you?’
‘Um..., well, while you’re about it, why don’t you bump off my brother-in- law
too? But there is no need to pay for that. It is on the house.’
‘All right! Who could refuse such a good offer?’
Kinship (Blood is thicker than water) and kingship (The boss is always right)
The title of this section has two words that could have also been included in the brief dictionary on the previous pages: kinship and kingship. For many non-native speakers, both words would be pronounced in the same way, but an English-speaker knows perfectly well that there is much difference between an alveolar nasal /n/ and a velar nasal //, and that in this case that apparently insignificant detail has great importance. So whereas for foreign students both words may seem as like as two peas in a pod, for English-speakers they are actually as different as chalk from cheese. In fact never had a type of “n” been so important in the study of history, particularly in the study of the history of the Dark Ages.
One’s kin are one’s relatives. The ties of kinship were very tight for Anglo-Saxons; family, relatives, kin, kindred, next of kin..., all these words were essential to any of these Germanic invaders, because family was above everything else; Anglo-Saxons valued family above life itself and any member of a family would go through fire and water just to help a relative. As we have seen in the previous section, they would even pay the wergild..., and they did it without worrying too much about it: ‘Yes, we know that money doesn’t grow on trees, but what’s a bit of hard cash compared with one’s kindred?’. This was the common thought, consequently, on which life in the early Anglo-Saxon England was based. But society underwent substantial changes little by little and soon the concept of “blood” evolved into “submission to a lord”. The establishment of the feudal system occasioned the increasing power of lords over peasants, and kings over lords. The king took a seat at the top of the social pyramid, and as he had nobody to take him off that comfortable position, he installed himself there and everyone owed absolute allegiance to him. This system would take a definite and definitive form after the Norman invasion.
But there is still one more element in this pyramid, one which would enormously contribute to the consolidation of the feudal power: the Church.