In the years before 1066, English history was chugging along very nicely, thanks, with the Anglo-Saxon and Norse royal houses at each other’s throats, as they had been for long enough that everyone thought, Well, families, you know. They’re like that. Because by then they were family, and that was part of the problem. They’d intermarried enough that it wasn’t always clear who was supposed to inherit the chairs, the dishes, the crown.
It wasn’t what you’d call peace, but at least everyone knew more or less what to expect.
Then the Normans invaded. In no time at all (as history measures these things) the family broke apart. The Norse became distant relatives who the Anglo-Saxon didn’t see anymore–except, of course, for the ones who’d settled in England. A lot of them had done that in the north, and the Anglo-Saxons saw them all the time but they didn’t seem quite as Norse as they once had, what with the Normans stomping through. By comparison, they seemed positively–English.
Or so I like to think. You won’t find that in any of the history books.
The new outsiders, the Normans, replaced England’s governing class (with themselves, you’ll be surprised to learn), along with its language (sort of; it’s complicated and we’ll leave it alone for now) and its social structure (mostly; everything’s complicated when you give it enough thought). People who’d once been free became serfs–tied to the land and subject to the lord of the manor and his whims.
See the end of the post for the grain of salt that goes with that last sentence.
Some 600 years later, during England’s Civil War, people who wanted to level out the country’s massive inequalities (called, surprisingly enough, the Levellers) talked nostalgically about the time before the Norman yoke was imposed on free Anglo-Saxon England. That was what they wanted–the freedom the land and its people had once known.
So just how free was Anglo-Saxon society?
Well, it depended on who you were. Free men were free. Free women were freer than they’d be again for many a century, or at least free women upper-class women were. Less is known about free women further down the social ladder. Slaves, though, were anything but free, and although the poorest peasants weren’t slaves, their situation sounds a lot like serfdom, which is somewhere between slavery and freedom.
Let’s work our way through it–or at least as much as I’ve been able to wring out of the internet and the books I have at hand. It won’t be a full picture. So much about Anglo-Saxon England has been lost.
In Anglo-Saxon England, people could be born into slavery or they could be enslaved as a penalty for some crime. They could be captured in war, and capturing slaves was as important a reason to go to war as capturing land was. Finally, children could be sold into slavery by their parents and adults could make themselves into slaves. Both of those were probably desperate steps that people took in the face of famine.
There was a well-established slave trade, both within England and to other countries. So slavery’s roots reached deep into the economy. Bristol was a slave port, trading with the Viking merchants based in Ireland.
Slavery wasn’t necessarily a permanent condition, although it could be. Slaves could buy their way out; they could marry out of slavery; or they could be freed by their owners. It wasn’t uncommon for people to free a few slaves in their wills. Sally Crawford, in Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England, speculates that people freeing slaves in their wills could, at times, have been done it with an eye toward not imposing the liability an older, unproductive slave on their heirs. She doesn’t offer any hard evidence for that, just raises the possibility. Either way, freeing a slave seems to have been considered a pious act.
Not that Christianity pitted itself against slavery. Toward the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, ecclesiastical landowners had more slaves than lay people did.
What did slaves do? They were plowmen, stockmen, beekeepers, dairymaids, swineherds, seamstresses, weavers, domestic servants, concubines, cooks, millers, and priests.
I’m not sure what to make of priests being on that list, but it’s very much a part of the picture.
Crawford writes about Anglo-Saxon slave owners having reciprocal obligations to their slaves–primarily to keep them fed and clothed, but also, possibly, to train some of them for skilled jobs. They also had the power to beat their slaves–not, she says, because slaves were considered a lower form of human but because Anglo-Saxon law punished transgressions with fines, and they couldn’t fine someone who couldn’t pay, so they fell back on physical punishment.
Is she right about the reciprocal nature of Anglo-Saxon slavery? I’d have to hear it from the slaves before I’d be convinced, but they left no record.
HIstory Today paints a less forgiving picture. “As Old English law codes make clear, slaves could be treated like animals: branded or castrated as a matter of routine and punished by mutilation or death; stoned to death by other slaves if they were male, burned to death if they were female.”
According to Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger in The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, no line clearly divided slaves from the “other members of the labouring classes.” They wouldn’t have lived separately, and “almost everyone was beholden to someone more powerful than themselves.”
As the years ticked away and we come closer to the Norman invasion, Crawford says, slavery became less widespread. Free labor was available to do the same work and slaves had become an economic liability. The Domesday Book, which counted every chicken feather in England so that the new Norman king would know just how many chicken feathers he’d amassed in his conquest, counted slaves as 12% of the population.
History Today isn’t convinced that slavery was on the wane and estimates that slaves made up 20% to 30% of the population.
I’m staying out of this. Can we say that slaves made up a significant portion of the population and stop squabbling, please?
Just above the slaves on the social ladder were people who owed service to their lords. Most of them were serfs.
Cottars were one step up from slaves and many of them might have been freed slaves. (You notice how hazy that got? “Many”; “might have been.” We can’t know, so let’s not pretend we do.) They worked on the lords’ estates in exchange for some land they could work for themselves. It was often marginal land.
Above them came bordars, or geburs, who are in italics because the word’s Old English (it means tenant farmer) and Old English is foreign enough to a modern English speaker’s ear that we treat it like a foreign language and use funny-looking letters. Bordars don’t come in italics because the word crept into Norman usage, although most of us won’t recognize it.
Look, don’t ask me to explain it. I’m following Crawford’s system of italics and inventing explanations as I go. You shouldn’t trust me too far on this.
Have we gone off topic? Of course we’ve gone off topic. It’s what we do here.
The bordars/geburs weren’t as poor as cottars but still owed work to the lord. Some were brewers or bakers.
Above them came the coerls–small freeholders. They paid taxes, sat on juries, and owed public service, all of which marked them as free, but they also owed service to a lord. They may or may not have been armed and may or may not have fought with their lord when called on. It’s not clear.
The word coerl comes into modern English as churl–a peasant; someone who’s rude or mean spirited, probably because from the Norman point of view, all Anglo-Saxons working the land looked alike and sounded alike. And were inherently rude and mean spirited, not to mention muddy, and so they could all be treated like dirt.
Coerl didn’t bring any italics with it. I’m only using them here to talk about it as a word, the same way I italicized churl.
And that, my friends, has nothing to do with our topic. Don’t you just love the way I keep us focused?
Under Alfred the Great’s version of Anglo-Saxon law, you couldn’t treat a free person like a slave–couldn’t whip him or her, say, or put him or her in the stocks. If you did, you’d be fined. You also couldn’t cut his hair–and here we’re only talking only about his hair, not hers–“in such a way as to spoil his looks” or to leave him looking like a priest. You also couldn’t cut off his beard, which is one of the things that convinces me that his really does mean his here.
Anglo-Saxon pronouns were gender neutral. Without the beard, you can’t tell a his from a hers.
The point of the law, apparently, was to keep a lord from forcing a free person into the ranks of slaves, because the hair and beard were marks of a free man.
Free boys, when they turned twelve, had to swear an oath to the king–at least from the time of Athelstan onward–and the king’s shire reeve visited every community once a year to hear them swear.
What they swore wasn’t just loyalty, but to favor what the lord favored, to discountenance what he discountenanced–and to turn in anyone who didn’t. “No one shall conceal the breach of it on the part of a brother or family relation, any more than a stranger.”
So that’s what freedom looked like.
The Norman conquest
Crawford’s reading of the transition from Anglo-Saxon to Norman society was that the lives of serfs and slaves might not have changed much. Rural life still focused on the manor and the lord, even though the manor would have been owned by a new lord, who’d have spoken Norman French. I can’t help imagining that those new lords, given a huge amount of power and surrounded by a language and a culture that frustrated them and made no sense to them, would have been ruder than the old ones–more churlish, if you like irony. They were conquerors, and conquerors do tend to act that way.
I said earlier that people who’d once been free became serfs after the conquest, and that seems to be the general belief, but I can’t document it. Lots of things from that time can’t be documented. Be cautious about how much belief you pour into that particular juice glass. If I had to guess–and I don’t but I will anyway–I’d guess that it was the coerls who dropped down the scale into serfdom. If that’s true, it would have been a loss of both freedom and status.
As for the Anglo-Saxon elite, they lost their lands and their status, and many fled abroad. Some lost their lives in various rebellions. I haven’t seen anything that says they became either serfs or slaves. Aristocrats recognized other aristocrats, even those who were their enemies.
The lives of both the poor and the rich were massively disrupted–or ended–by the harrying of the north, the Norman response to a rebellion. The Domesday Book lists land in northern village after northern village as waste–valueless and unoccupied. But we’re not talking about whether the transition to Norman rule was brutal–it was–only about whether life, once things settled down, became less free than it had been before they came.
To weigh against any losses of freedom, it was under the Normans that slavery gradually died out.
If people ceased to be slaves and became serfs, did their lives improve? Possibly. Probably. But again, they left us no documents. We can’t know.
So although my heart’s with the Levellers, I’d have to say that the picture of Anglo-Saxon freedom and Norman oppression was photo-shopped.