Friday, June 10, 2016

Social Organization in Anglo-Saxon England

Recreation of a Anglo-Saxon hut, sunken into the ground.

If we are to give a broad outline of the modes of social organization seen in Anglo-Saxon England, then we may make the following claims.

                Around the fifth century, territories were often defined in terms of tribal settlement. An honor system of avenging death, in this pre-imperialist age, had taken the place of economic relationships as the means of conflict generation; as the tribe settled an area, for example, should a member be killed by a rival tribe, it would be up to the victim’s family to avenge their kin’s death by murdering the murderer (Blair 5, The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Short Introduction).

                Clearly, this is a time before the Christian ‘turn the other cheek’ proverbs had taken root; but, perhaps this elaborate system of killings, and the presumptive psychological toll it must have taken on the practitioners, can help explain how Christianity—with its condemnation on killing— hastened the conversion process: it is no small measure to think that many Anglo-Saxons would have found it preferable to rely on civil authorities for the unjust killing of a family member instead of seeking the killer themselves and killing them in turn.

                (However, it is important to mention that, during this period, it was not unheard of to avenge a killing by accepting a large sum in payment from the murderer.)

                Tribes and Kin-groups were usually led by a king. This is to say that there were many kings in England at this time, so it is important to understand that the idea of a king as a supreme ruler, would not develop for some time, not until tribes had coalesced around a shared idea of heritage and cultural customs. But, these kings were more civil figures than anything else, as it was elected chiefs who usually led tribesmen into battle.

                During the 6th century, as tribes fought and what could vaguely be called kingdoms, as we know them today, began to appear, and as social strata began to become increasingly stratified, a military aristocracy formed. Called ‘thegns,’ this class of individual led a strongly communal life while serving their king in his incessant power-games. Spending much of their time in the noble hall when not on their estate or doing their lord’s bidding, such halls were often places of safety from the harsh environment outside where one could hear professional bards recount tales of heroism (such as the epic Beowulf) (18-19).

                Of course, not all social organization concerned the upper strata of society. In terms of governance, each kingdom was divided into administrative districts, each district comprising anywhere from 50-100 miles of land, land which was often determined based off of the earlier kin-based territories of fifth century tribes (20). Reckoned in ‘hides,’ the land was parceled out in accordance to what was needed to support free peasant cultivators, their families, and sometime a farming unit. The purpose of each ‘hide’ was to produce specialized products. Highly efficient in design, the origin of these ‘hides’ is a hotly debated topic among historians who view it as an odd pond of stability in an otherwise chaotic and unpredictable world.

                Because the countryside was under-peopled, kings would often give tracks of land away. On this land would be built manors and would subsequently form the basis of villas and townships; though “bear[ing] a strong resemblance to that of medieval Wales,… at a basic level some continuity from Romano-British rule is quite possible” (21). This pattern suited the small peasant population who, attending to just a single ‘hide’ of land, could lead their lives independent of their lord or church intervening in their daily affairs. Of course, it is important to note that at this period of Anglo-Saxon history, there was no sort of village community; archeology suggests that many peasants at this time lived in isolated clusters without any sign of streets or other such contemporary urban mainstays. (Towns as we think of them would not emerge until the 670s with the construction of churches and fortresses; each crafted, in turn, to defend the other alongside facilitating trade, 35.)

                It is not until the 10th century that we see major advancements in local governance. From King Athelstan to (nearly) contemporary times, the local government was altered: ‘shires,’ based on preexisting boundaries and manned by a magnate called an ealdorman, which was a cross between a local official and an earl (52). Shires, in turn, were sub-divided into ‘hundreds’ which possessed courts and military garrisons for settling business, collecting tithings, and enforcing royal decrees. In terms of law enforcement, it would not be until the 11th century that each shire would have a sheriffs which was specifically responsible for collecting revenues and ‘profits of justice’ (55). Considered as a whole, it is this sheriff and the shire court which are considered the most important contribution of the Anglo-Saxon period to later medieval periods.

                By 1066, however, it was common to read of ‘common fields’ tended to by peasants farming the land cooperatively. Because of this more sophisticated entanglement among the peasant population, evidence suggests that lords began demanding more of their farmers. Luckily, though, the military aristocrats were settling down at this time and mostly confined themselves to their manors. Around this period, we see the very early emergence of a pastoral system, though it was a purely private enterprise and one which could not by any stretch of the imagination be dubbed a fully-fledged parochial system (68-9).

                All though there is some other small points in this examination, I have left those points out as they are more suited to a thorough investigation instead of an overview. In sum, the above is a broad outline of the social and kin-based systems which were seen through Anglo-Saxon England. 

Works Cited
Blair, John. The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford U.P, 2000. Print.