An Anglo-Saxon conversation. Written by Master Aelfric (between 989 and 1002) for his students in the monastic school at Cerne Abbas (Dorset), the following conversation gives an insight into the life and thoughts of the ‘unfree’ in late Anglo-Saxon England.
Master: ‘What have you to say, ploughman? Tell me how you go about your work.’
Ploughman: ‘Oh I work very hard indeed sir. Every day at the crack of dawn I have to drive the oxen out to the field and yoke them to the plough. I would never dare scive at home, no matter how bad the winter weather: I’m too frightened of my landlord for that. No, once I’ve yoked the oxen and fastened the share and coulter to the plough, I must plough a full acre or more every day.’
Master: ‘What else have you to do in a day?’
Ploughman: ‘Oh, there’s a lot more than that, you know. I’ve got to fill all the oxen’s bins with hay, give them water, muck them out.’
Master: ‘Oh, my: it sounds like hard work.’
Ploughman: ‘It’s hard work alright, sir, because I am not free.’1
The Middle Ages did not spring into being in 1066, and many aspects of society were not immediately changed by the Norman Conquest. In fact, many characteristics of life in the second half of the eleventh century had their roots deep in Anglo-Saxon history and would continue to influence the development of people’s lives long after the final arrows had fallen around the broken shield-wall of the last Anglo-Saxon king on Saturday 14 October 1066. It is therefore important to gain an overview of the structure and dynamics of late Anglo-Saxon society. Only in this way can we trace the great trends and issues that would dominate the lives of medieval people.
So what was it like to live in England around the year 1000, at the turn of the first millennium since the birth of Christ? Despite a century and a half of social and political upheaval since the Viking ‘Great Army’ had first overwintered in England in 851–2, England was generally within borders we would recognize today (except for the much-disputed northern border with the Scots). Furthermore, since the overthrow of the last Viking king of York (Eric ‘Bloodaxe’, in 954), it was ruled by one king who was descended from King Alfred and whose ability to tax and keep order was impressive by any standard. The old kingdoms (Wessex, Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia), which had characterized England at the beginning of the ninth century, had long gone and it was now possible to call the country ‘England’ and its dominant culture ‘English’ (both terms derived from the tribal name ‘Angle’).
Wealth and economy
England in the eleventh century was a wealthy country in which the ability of the government to raise huge taxes during the Viking wars had revealed just how dynamic and productive society was, despite the upheaval. These taxes drew on the resources of a well-organized rural society which, during the tenth and eleventh centuries, was taking on many of the characteristics of the medieval countryside: stone churches acting like an anchor slowing down settlement shift; more nucleated villages; new field systems. Many of these developments were influenced by powerful local landowners capable of reorganizing the landscape and its people and maximizing the surpluses of a prosperous farming system.
In 1018 a geld (tax) introduced by Cnut, the new ruler of both England and Denmark, raised £82,500. This vast tax was in addition to the £112,000 which had been raised in Danegelds since 991. All of this money paid to the government (and then to Viking marauders) was in addition to any other payments that ordinary people habitually made to local landowners and royal officials. To give this some sense of scale, in the mid-tenth century a fully grown pig cost 6 pence (with 240 pennies in each £1). In the 1060s the four mills of the Abbey of Ely at Hatfield turned in a combined yearly profit of £2, 6 shillings and 4 pence. The combined value of all the estates of Glastonbury – the wealthiest abbey in 1066 – was in the region of £820. So great was the output of tenth-century urban craftspeople that some historians have gone so far as to talk of the tenth century witnessing the ‘First English Industrial Revolution’.2 England was a well managed and wealthy community. Only such a wealthy community was capable of paying the huge Danegelds in the years up to 1018. Consequently, it is no surprise to discover that modern archaeologists have found Anglo-Saxon silver pennies (the everyday English coin for much of the Middle Ages) as far afield as Russia.3 This trading network which linked England to Russia was no temporary connection, since the 4,600 coins discovered to date span a period from 852 to 1272. English farmers and craftspeople were part of a Europe-wide manufacturing and trading system, importing wine, spices, silk and pottery from Northern France and the Rhineland, whetstones and querns from the Eiffel mountains, and exporting slaves, linen, horses and weaponry.
An ethnically divided nation?
Was England of the year 1000 a united national community? Or was it a community divided between native Anglo-Saxons and immigrant Danes who had seized land in eastern England (the Danelaw) before this was reconquered by Anglo-Saxon kings in the tenth century? At first glance it might seem more like the latter. The chronicler Ethelweard (who died about 998) described the Danes living in England in the late tenth century as ‘sprung up in this island, like poisonous weeds among the wheat.’ And it is easy to see how, when a second phase of Viking attacks began in the 980s and eventually culminated in the conquest of England by the Danish King Cnut, in 1016, this could be assisted by an immigrant community who ‘cheered’ for Denmark rather than for England. When the Anglo-Saxon King Ethelred II (‘the Unready’) ordered a slaughter of the Danish population in England on St Brice’s Day, 13 November 1002, the terrible echoes of modern ethnic cleansing seem to resonate powerfully with the idea of a profoundly divided nation. But is this a reasonable assumption?
In assessing the significance of some 13,500 metal-detector finds of Viking and Anglo-Scandinavian metalwork discovered up to 2004, the picture is emerging of a lower-class immigration of peasant farmers (into Lincolnshire at least), not just the arrival of higher-status warrior-landlords.4 In addition, comparisons of skeleton evidence from Wharram Percy (from 950 onwards), on the Yorkshire Wolds, and medieval cemeteries from York (about 20 miles away) suggests skull types at Wharram Percy and York in thelater medieval period are broadly similar, whereas in the earlymedieval period York skulls are similar to ones from Oslo. This suggests that York in the ‘Viking Age’ was heavily settled by incoming Vikings, while outlying country areas were not. But, as migration from outlying areas into York occurred over the medieval period, the Viking genetic difference ‘was diluted and eventually dissolved’.5
All of this sharpens the question: how did these people regard themselves? It is this question that we need to address if we are to come anywhere near deciding how united England was in the decades before 1066. Clearly, those who spoke English regarded themselves as the descendants of Anglo-Saxon settlers who had migrated from north-western Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries (whether they really were, or were actually British people who had adopted Anglo-Saxon culture, speech and dress, is another question). But what of the descendants of Vikings – how did they regard themselves? Was England on the eve of the Norman Conquest a culturally divided nation, or one which was basically united from a fusion of Anglo-Saxons and the descendants of Vikings?
Evidence for major changes brought to English life and culture by the Viking invasions includes the following. Many new place names in eastern England (e.g. by and thorp); new words in the language; new personal names; evidence of a new class of independent farmers known as sokemen(enjoying greater freedom than their English counterparts); new units of tax assessment (wapentakes and sulungs in Danish areas, instead of hundreds and hides used to organize areas for tax purposes in Anglo-Saxon areas); new titles for the nobility (e.g. jarl or earl); and new administrative areas (e.g. the Ridings of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire). In addition, the Danish settlement involved the dispossession of English landlords of their estates. Alongside these changes, the aftermath of the first phase of Viking invasions saw a huge increase in industrial production: wheel-thrown and glazed pottery; increased marketing and trade; mass-produced metalwork. While the Vikings did not create this tenth-century ‘Industrial Revolution’, their trading skills meant it developed dramatically. This mass of evidence can leave one assuming that those areas which experienced the greatest concentration of these changes (the Danelaw) must have had a culture and a sense of community very different from that in other areas of England.
However, this may be too simple a view. What probably mattered to most people by 1000 was allegiance to local lords, rather than whether their ancestors were Anglo-Saxons, Britons, Danes or Norwegians.6 This formed a mosaic of local loyalties within a community that now recognized itself as England. An alternative view, then, rejects this degree of national unity in favour of older, regional, kingdom identities but still insists that there was no great cultural and ethnic divide between Anglo-Saxons and Danes. It was these old regional loyalties which affected how people viewed themselves, and it seems that the incoming Danes had adopted the regional loyalties of the areas in which they had settled.7
Similarly, virtually no Scandinavian-style buildings have been found by archaeologists in England. The shops and houses excavated in the 1970s in Coppergate, in Viking Jorvik (York), are identical in style to English ones. There is in fact no ‘ethnic signal’ from these buildings. Furthermore, it was the English language which triumphed in the Danelaw – albeit with borrowings from Danish – and the use of the Viking runic alphabet soon disappeared. It is surely significant that the Scandinavian language was extinct on the Isle of Man by 1200. So, if it survived only 200 years here, where the Scandinavian culture was dominant, it probably did not last beyond the third generation of settlement where Scandinavian settlement was less intense on mainland England.8
A recent re-examination of the archaeological evidence for Scandinavian burials in northern England has concluded that there were many more than have previously been considered; however, the assimilation of the immigrants was rapid. This was a process accelerated by English rulers from Athelstan to Edgar who, even as they were including Scandinavians at court and recognizing Scandinavian practices in law codes, were enforcing their own authority across all England.9 Under Ethelred II, the 997 ‘Wantage law code’, with much Scandinavian terminology (contrasting with the contemporary ‘Woodstock law code’), might suggest an ethnically divided realm but probably simply recognized the need for separate legislation in the north, while enforcing West Saxon authority there. As such, it was produced more to placate the north in the face of renewed Viking attacks than as a result of the ethnic separateness of the region due to earlier immigration.10 In the same way, Swein Forkbeard’s activities in the north in 1013 were probably due to the area’s ‘distance from the heartlands of the English kings and the dissatisfaction of northern nobles with King Ethelred, rather than the expectation of being able to draw upon latent feelings of ethnic allegiance.’11 Revealingly, under Cnut, the ScandinavianUrnes and Ringerike styles of artwork are rare in the north and east Midlands, where they might be expected to have been popular, and instead are found more in East Anglia and southern England. Clearly this says more about the attraction of fashions associated with royalty than the ethnic origins of art patrons, and indicates that even the presence of Scandinavian kings as rulers of England from 1016 until 1042 ‘did not have the effect of renewing a sense of Scandinavian solidarity amongst the inhabitants of those regions settled by earlier generations of Scandinavians.’12 Social status was more important than ethnic identity.
A Christian nation?
A key piece of evidence supporting the idea of Scandinavian newcomers quickly adapting to the culture they found in England comes from religion. Late Anglo-Saxon England was a deeply Christian community. There were two main forms in which the Church was organized in Anglo-Saxon England. The first was the monastery (monasterium). This was a community of monks and/or nuns. Their vows involved celibacy and rejection of private property (whereas lower orders of clergy were allowed to marry). The second group was made up of secular clergy (priests) leading services and preaching but not following a monastic way of life, although at times they could be found living in a kind of community – large churches called minsters. Local Church administration was probably first centred on minsters at royal estate centres, which sometimes preserve this origin in a modern place name (e.g. Warminster, Wiltshire) with a large parochia (area of responsibility) which was later subdivided into parishes where Church work was financed from compulsory tithes.
In addition, there were other Church communities. These included bishops’ households of priests and other clerics, and married priests and married clerks in lower orders living in their own households. The evidence for clerical families, married deacons and priests suggests that some of those responsible for preaching and teaching were not living in religious communities (in monasteries or minsters) but were in family units and possibly staffing village churches which had been set up as part of the sub-dividing of large areas once administered by minsters.
Local landowners could remove their lands from royal taxation by setting up a monastic church, administered by a family member. This was clearly not in the spirit of how monasteries should be established and such monasteries were more of a tax loophole than a statement of individual piety. In a similar way, estate-churches were often set up near a lord’s hall and administered by the landowner, who appointed the priest. This provided a focus for the local community under aristocratic control. This trend increased under Viking influence in northern England and revealed itself in the dissolution of some monasteries, a huge increase in carved personal stone monuments in the tenth century, and an increase in estate-churches. This does not necessarily mean that the new Danish lords were unsympathetic to Christianity. It may simply mean that they wanted both to give gifts to the church and yet keep a close control over how this land was used and its resources distributed.13
The extent to which the Viking raids and eventual settlement affected the spiritual state of later Anglo-Saxon England is complex. The Viking influx was clearly an invasion of pagans. Evidence of this is seen in the destruction of monasteries, in pagan carvings (e.g. from Kirk Andreas, Isle of Man), in animal sacrifices (e.g. from Skerne, Yorkshire, on the River Hull), an increase in idol worship (e.g. Archbishop Wulfstan of York’s criticism of this in 1000), possible human sacrifice on the Isle of Man and the destruction of Christian graves on the Isle of Man (e.g. Viking boat graves at Balladoole show no respect for an earlier Christian cemetery). But this impact of paganism should not be overstressed. In 869 Vikings martyred King (St) Edmund of East Anglia but, by 890, their descendants were minting coins with his name on them. Attacks on monasteries were not attempts to destroy Christianity but were targeting sources of wealth. By 1000 most northern pagans had become Christians and the Viking King of England and Denmark – Cnut – made Archbishop Wulfstan’s attacks on idol worship into law in 1020. There are very few pagan Viking burials (those on the Isle of Man are exceptional). Finally, some gravestones show Scandinavian art but in a Christian context. In short, the Vikings were cultural chameleons and rapidly adopted the lifestyle and beliefs of the advanced and numerically dominant community they had conquered in eastern and northern England.
When we think of Viking attacks on England it is the destruction of monasteries which often provide the most striking visual image of their impact. There is sometimes an assumption that the seventh and eighth centuries were a ‘golden age’ of monasticism, which was disrupted by Viking invasions then reformed in the tenth and eleventh centuries – this reform being necessary due to a dilution of the once-rigorous system which had been monastic and celibate but had grown lax and worldly during the disruption of the Viking wars. However, many of the issues which were ‘live issues’ to tenth-century reformers of the English Church were also ‘live issues’ in the earlier eighth century too.
None was more pressing than sex. Celibacy was a crucial characteristic of the tenth century monastic reforms. This, for reformers, was the mark of difference between a monk and other clergy. Canon law forbade the marriage of bishops, priests and deacons, although men who were already married might be ordained to these higher posts but not if they had remarried after being widowed. Married priests and deacons had to be celibate after ordination (rulings varied as to whether husband and wife should live as brother and sister, or should separate). Minor orders (acolytes, exorcists, readers) could marry and continue sexual relations. That any clergy should be married was a scandal to reformers of the Church in the tenth century. It was not resolved then, however, and remained a live issue after 1066 too.
Overall, the Christian Church had a great impact on society. It assisted in record keeping and history making; it was vital for royal administration; it increased the role of women (giving them considerable responsibilities as abbesses); it pioneered building in stone. By 1066 about one-sixth of the land in England was in Church ownership. This provided settled and continuous control of estates, since church land did not change owners on the death of a landholder as secular estates did, making it easier to manage the land, invest in it and develop it. This also encouraged the development of fixed and nucleated settlements. These were focused on churches and monasteries as central places, were generally on lower ground, and were less likely to be on marginal/wilder land which no longer carried as much settlement as it once had. Thus landscape and people’s daily experiences were deeply affected by the Church, which produced ‘a Christianised way of ordering the landscape which put the church at the centre of settled fields, surrounded by the boundary zone of uncultivated land’.14
Churches, then, by the later Anglo-Saxon period, were at the centre of all community life. By 850 cemetery burial near churches was becoming the norm for most people15, though royalty had been doing this since the 680s. Dispersed lay cemeteries away from churches had vanished by 900, and Church cemetery burial was by then standard practice. And churches were a common feature in the landscape. By 1014 law codes recognized the existence of a hierarchy of churches ranging from ‘head minsters’ (cathedrals), to ‘rather smaller minsters’ (the usual class of minsters), to ‘one still smaller’ (in a law code of 1020 defined as having a graveyard) and finally to ‘field churches’ (by 1020 defined as a church without a graveyard). In the period 1070–1120 there was a huge expansion of church building but it built on the later Anglo-Saxon system and distribution. In Domesday Book (1086) about 2,000 churches are listed and the assumption is clearly that every village has its church and its priest. While this was not actually achieved before 1066, the development was well on the way. This process, from the tenth century onwards, was increasingly associated with stone church building, the creation of church cemeteries for all burials and – especially during the eleventh century – the appearance of fixed stone fonts to welcome babies into the Christian community. The critical ‘period of shift’ in this development seems to have been between about 1030 and 1080.16
In their architectural styles Anglo-Saxon churches revealed their formative influences. Early – Romanesque – churches (sixth and seventh century) copied Roman Mediterranean models: brick construction, relatively short proportions, eastern apses and side rooms reached from the nave.17However, eighth- and ninth-century churches copied Carolingian building styles of the new western Holy Roman Empire: stone rather than brick, towers and transepts, east-end crypts holding relics, galleries and towers calledwestworks, and cloisters. From the westwork a second choir added to the drama of the liturgy, while increased church length allowed for more processions.18 The style of German churches continued to influence English church architecture during the tenth century19and can be seen in examples such as the cathedral plans of Canterbury, Sherborne and Winchester, and in smaller churches such as Brixworth (Northamptonshire) and Odda’s chapel at Deerhurst (Gloucestershire).
So, what impact did a second wave of Viking invasions around the year 1000 have on this well-established Christian community, which had already absorbed an earlier wave of pagan immigrants? The answer appears to have been: very little impact indeed. The appearance of pagan symbols on carvings from the eleventh century should not be interpreted as a revival of paganism. The overall evidence instead suggests that pagan motifs in art and poetry, dating from the reign of Cnut, constitute aspects of what might be called ‘cultural paganism’ – that is, not necessarily active pagan belief but references to cultural and artistic images which signalled the different origins of the new arrivals in eleventh-century England. This gave a ‘light pagan colouring’ to aspects of later Anglo-Saxon society but not to a revival of paganism.20
Altogether, then – counter-intuitively and in the face of the massacre of St Brice’s Day – it is clear that England in the eleventh century was not a nation of sharply divided ethnic groups. Rather, it was united around a distinct set of Christian values and a sense of an English identity. The fact that there were strong regional identities as well – and that a Scandinavian influx into eastern England had maybe increased these – should not cause us to doubt this basic unity. Indeed, the fact that from 1016 until 1042 the English throne was occupied by a king of a united England and Denmark probably played a major part in unifying the nation and in closing any ‘social fault lines’ which had opened up during the second phase of Viking attacks around the year 1000. And, whatever the impact of that event on St Brice’s Day, the Anglo-Saxon authorities simply did not have the organization and resources (let alone the reason and will) to exterminate all the descendants of Scandinavian immigrants. Dreadful as it was, that massacre probably targeted only a small minority of high-profile foreigners who seemed closely associated with the most recent phase of invasions. Finally, by the time the experiment in Anglo-Danish kingship was over in 1042, the terrible ‘ethnic cleansing’ of 1002 had been superseded by 26 years (1016–42) of Anglo-Danish cooperation and was a distant memory from another generation. Unity had triumphed over the forces of disintegration and ethnic division.
Life on the land
For about 90 per cent of the English population, regardless of their ethnic origins, life was lived on the land. The Anglo-Saxons had brought no new farming technology or practices to England21 and the most striking farming practices which emerged by the end of Anglo-Saxon England were developed in this country.22 Farming continued a pattern which had existed since the Bronze Age of a fully exploited landscape, with the heavier soils of valley floors being as actively worked as the better-drained higher land. On Exmoor, for example, pollen analysis suggests that there was no change caused by the end of Roman rule. In the period 400–600 there was no return to woodland and no alteration to a rural economy which on Exmoor was based on raising livestock. The big change (with increased cereal production) occurred between 600 and 800, and practices then stayed the same until the period 1500–1750.23
The Exmoor example is consistent with evidence from across England which suggests that the later Anglo-Saxon period saw great changes in the countryside. In this period were the beginnings of many developments which would be features of the rural scene for much of the Middle Ages. Evidence from the 1990s excavations of an extensive landscape tract at Yarnton (on the Thames valley gravels, north of Oxford) suggests that the earliest Anglo-Saxons settled in a landscape apparently abandoned by the Romano-British for perhaps several generations. The farms they built were scattered across the landscape. But in the 700s (and especially in the 800s) this pattern was replaced by one with more buildings, including timber halls, in more nucleated patterns and with a wider variety of crops grown, along with the creation of riverside hay meadows. This probably indicates the start of nucleated villages and the beginnings of open field farming, and reveals the mobility of settlement patterns which were arrested in the later Anglo-Saxon period.24
This raises the question of how much this system of rural communities was affected by the Viking invasions of the ninth and tenth centuries. Why were there so many new place names if other evidence suggests continuity of population? The answers are varied. Many new place names were probably applied to old settlements, since some sites such as Whitby (Yorkshire) and Osbournby (Lincolnshire) show continued occupation. New owners may have simply legitimized their ownership with a new place name without having any impact on those living there. Some new place names may date from a second wave of colonists who moved into previously unused and less-desirable land – the mapping of ‘Danish place names’ does suggest they are found on the least desirable land and slotted into ‘gaps’ between Anglo-Saxon villages which continued to be occupied. Mapping of place names suggests that where by is used in Yorkshire it indicates Anglo-Saxon settlements taken over as going concerns, and a similar interpretation of ‘tun-hybrids’ (such as the place name Grimston) shows the same pattern. The word thorp indicates settlements established on the outskirts of existing villages, whereas thveit indicates a woodland clearing and an area of primary cultivation and settlement by Danes. In addition, evidence in north-west England and the central lowlands of Scotland (and the Isle of Man in some cases) shows that Scandinavian place-name forming elements were still being used long after the Viking Age by people who no longer spoke, or understood, Scandinavian languages.25 All this suggests that modern place-name experts would no longer use Scandinavian place names as evidence of a massive dislocation of the countryside in the ninth and tenth centuries, even if it accompanied large-scale Scandinavian immigration. Similarly, current research stresses continuity of the parish structure and of estate boundaries in the Danelaw. The Vikings seem to have caused nothing which might be remotely thought to resemble a revolution in the countryside.26
But what of the villages themselves? Settlements in even the Middle Anglo-Saxon period do not constitute the start of villages, since most were rarely more than farmsteads. Many of these were abandoned in the later Anglo-Saxon period, and those which survived tended to do so as corners within later villages. This suggests that villages were products more of the Late than the Middle Anglo-Saxon period. This later change was possibly due to a greater degree of estate management by landlords out to maximize profits, the break-up of large so-called multiple estates, church building in stone, and the change from a pattern of dispersed hamlets and farms to more nucleated settlements with a greater degree of property demarcation within and around them.27 From 700 onwards settlements show increasing stability, with more enclosures accompanied by larger post-hole-built buildings. This trend accelerated in the ninth century, with nucleated villages developing c.850–1200. England on the eve of the Norman Conquest was in the midst of a major formative period in the layout and organization of the countryside.
Associated with these developments was open-field farming, in which large areas of the countryside were divided into communally farmed arable strips, within great open fields. Open-field farming was probably a Middle to Late Anglo-Saxon reorganization designed to maximize efficiency due to population increase. Experiments with modern cereals have produced 5,183 dietary kilocalories per hectare by this method, compared with 884 for milk and 312 for beef.28 This process of adopting open fields and increasing reliance on arable farming was not completed until after 1066. It was probably stimulated by the break-up of earlier ‘multiple estates’ which caused an emphasis on self-sufficiency of the new smaller estates (since they could no longer rely on the mixed resources of the larger units) and saw the emergence of a class of local lords, called thegns. Thismanorialization of the countryside was an Anglo-Saxon, not a Norman, invention. So, it was the period after 700 which saw manor-estate construction and ambitious landscape (often monastic) management, producing the ‘typical Anglo-Saxon landscape’. Detailed local studies, such as that of the Bourn valley south-west of Cambridge, reinforce this impression that it was in the period 700–900 that systematic planning laid out the first open fields in central England.29
By the 1060s about 30 per cent of the landscape was employed in arable farming and about 15 per cent as managed woodland; the remaining 55 per cent supported pastoral farming, or was too poor to be used (with a small but unspecified area in urban use). By comparison, early twenty-first-century figures for England are: arable 40 per cent, woodland 9 per cent, pastoral 25 per cent. The remaining 26 per cent of the modern landscape is mostly within urban areas.
Early Medieval towns
If the vast majority of people lived in the countryside in the year 1000, a very important minority (about 10 per cent) lived in towns. This proportion was comparable with Roman Britain at its peak. During the eighth century, after a period in which there had been no true urban settlements in England, places began to appear which had features resembling towns. Archaeologists call these early trading centres wics or emporia. For example, Lundenwic was a huge 120-acre (48.5-hectare) town to the west of Roman London under what is now the area named Aldwych. Hamwic lay under modern Southampton. Gippeswic (Ipswich) was in Suffolk and another settlement was probably located at York. Some of these early trading centres appear to have been occupied on a temporary basis only. There also existed so-called ‘productive sites’.30 On these there is no surviving evidence of permanent structures but there is evidence of production and trade. These sites, when excavated, tend to produce large quantities of worked artefacts.31
These emporia were probably products of direct political intervention. Evidence for this is that they appear at a similar time and there was one per kingdom. Wessex had Hamwic, Mercia had London, East Anglia had Ipswich and Northumbria had York. This is important because it reminds us of an important feature of towns in the Middle Ages – they rarely grew up of their own accord but were usually encouraged by a powerful local member of the elite who gained from the increased trade opportunities. They quickly stimulated more elaborate patterns of exchange across wider regions, and this is particularly apparent in eastern England from the Tyne to the Thames. For example, wheel-thrown Ipswich Ware pottery has been found on monastic sites as far away as the north-east of England.32
By the ninth century these early semi-urban sites had developed into what are recognizably towns. A number of factors encouraged this further development. Firstly, they provided defended places, or burhs, which were particularly important as Viking attacks escalated from the mid-ninth century. However, burhs were not simply a response to invasion, since the Mercian King Offa (758–96) set up burhs at Bedford, Hereford, Oxford and Stamford, and these were clearly part of early state-building. Secondly, the Vikings themselves may have increased opportunities for trade, since they had wide-ranging trading connections. The Harrogate Hoard of coins, a gold arm ring and scrap silver (discovered in 2007 and probably deposited in the 930s) contained items from as far apart as Afghanistan, the Middle East, Russia, Scandinavia, Ireland, France and England. Thirdly, both the Church and local elites may have created semi-urban sites to encourage trade. There is an ongoing debate as to whether the most influential encouragement for the development of towns was provided by the Church, or by royalty and local elites. In other words: was a royal palace built near a pre-existing minster church, or was a minster church built near a preexisting royal palace? This in turn can colour how archaeologists interpret what they find at these early urban centres. Was the stone building at Northampton a palace, or a minster refectory? Was the palace at Cheddar the centre of the site, or simply added to a pre-existing minster? Since hundreds of minsters are associated with small towns these are important questions. On balance the evidence suggests that royal centres were located near minsters and that by about 850 monastic towns had become ‘progressively more urban, progressively less monastic’.33 Fourthly, increasing sophistication in government meant that towns were useful places in which to place royal administration, justice and trade. As a consequence, where towns grew up around minsters, elite laity patronized them, benefited from them and eventually took them over.34Fifthly, the re-emergence of a money economy by the eighth century encouraged the growth of trading centres. The main difference between Middle Saxon wics/emporia and tenth-century towns are that the towns, unlike the earlierwics, had many functions – providing regional market centres, centres of craft production and places in which coins were minted. Any medieval townsperson would have recognized them.
From the tenth century onwards the growth of urban centres reduced the range of craft specialization on rural sites. Clearly, by this time towns had become places where most items were made as well as sold. From the ninth to the twelfth century it was town-based pottery kilns that produced the so-called ‘Saxo-Norman pottery’ (such as Stamford, Thetford and St Neots Ware) which was used across the country. Other examples include weapons, which were produced on a commercial basis. By 996 Winchester had a ‘Street of the shield-makers’ and London in 1016 reputedly contained 24,000 mail-coats which had clearly been made by local craftspeople. And any suggestion that the Vikings were the main cause of urban growth – from about twelve towns in the 850s to over a hundred in 1066 – must be rejected. Town expansion happened in non-Viking areas too and it is clear that towns were not a Viking invention but a general trend. On the Isle of Man, where Vikings dominated, there were no towns. In Ireland, Viking towns copied Anglo-Saxon forms.
A feature of early eleventh-century towns, which mirrored the situation after 1066, was the predominance of London (with its population of about 15,000). It was significantly above the next tier of towns (York, Winchester, Norwich, Lincoln, Oxford, Thetford), with populations each of 5–10,000. The ealdormen of London began to play a role in the succession of kings, which was something unheard-of a century earlier. A sign of this growing importance of London lies in the fact that Cnut garrisoned Danish military units there to secure its loyalty. This was necessary as London had earlier loyally supported Ethelred II and Edmund Ironside against Cnut. So Cnut, ever the tough pragmatist, had to enforce the loyalty which he celebrated as being his by right!
What kinds of social classes existed in the two centuries before 1066? The simple answer is that Anglo-Saxon England was not a society of ‘free-born Englishmen’. Instead, it was a clearly hierarchical society and a slave-owning one at that. In this last respect it differed from Norman England.
The nobility was a varied group. In the highest stratum were the earls, who had authority over regions, such as Northumbria, which had once been independent kingdoms. Below earls lay ealdormen. This literally meant ‘one senior in age’ (a prominent nobleman in the king’s service, prominent in the army and royal court, deputizing for the king in law courts). Ealdormen came to have a key role in administering local government in the shires and in overseeing local justice in the hundred – local – courts (which are first recorded in the early tenth century). The country gentry of Anglo-Saxon England were the thegns. This term covered a huge range, from privileged nobles to retainers. By the 1060s there were about 4,500 of these local landowners, with their estates defined by charters. More powerful nobles – such as the king himself and the bishops – enjoyed a power calledborh, or personal protection. This gave them special rights to compensation regarding offences on their property, or against their servants, and the power to administer justice. Whereas fines paid to members of the lower classes for crimes against their household went to the king, those with borh took it themselves – and presumably made sure they got it too.
The free Anglo-Saxon peasant farmer was usually described in Old English as a ceorl. He could carry weapons, could clear himself of crimes by swearing an oath protesting his innocence and could do the same for others. He could play a full part in the army and in local courts and possessed a share of the village land and flocks. He was responsible (on pain of a fine) for responding to royal commands to fight and attend court. Such freemen (termed sokemen in the Danelaw) made up about 15 per cent of the population and appear in large numbers in the eastern counties. Whilst many were little better-off than their semi-free neighbours, the dividing principle was whether a person was free to give (or sell) their land to another. While every man was under a superior lord, freemen could choose their lord. However, it seems that in eastern England lordship was weak. Here the growth of manors and labour service (key features of medieval feudalism), which was already an established part of rural society in other parts of England, seems less developed. By the end of the Anglo-Saxon period a ceorl could attain the rank of thegn by owning five hides of land, a bell house, and a place in the king’s hall.
Below free peasants lay the gebur (semi-free peasants owing labour service to the local lord in return for their own land). About 70 per cent of the population was made up of these semi-free peasants by the mid-eleventh century, and Domesday Book describes them in a number of hierarchical terms, often later simplified to that of villein. This last point reminds us that the feudal system, with its manor courts and its labour service, whereby villagers were forced to provide free labour on the land farmed directly by a lord, had roots which went back long before 1066.
And what of slaves? This class, described by the Old English term theow, made up about 10 per cent of the population, had no legal rights other than the expectations in Christian teaching (e.g. a slave forced to work on a Sunday would be freed). Some slaves were victims of defeat in war; some descended from slaves; others were penal slaves such as those enslaved for working on a Sunday, or for some classes of theft. Others might sell themselves into slavery to avoid starvation. Bristol was a port which specialized in the shipping of slaves to Ireland 700 years before its more infamous specialization in the African slave trade to America. The Bristol slave trade with Ireland was fiercely opposed by Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester from 1062 until his death in 1095. From the Viking port of Dublin, Anglo-Saxon slaves shipped from Bristol could be bought for labour in Iceland, Scandinavia or even Arabic Spain. The trade was eventually banned in 1102, at some loss of revenue to the crown which took a 4 pence tax on every slave sold.
As in any society, differences in wealth revealed themselves in personal adornment, quality of weapons and the ability to display wealth and power through methods as diverse as protecting retainers and giving gifts to churches. Curiously, there is a noticeable decline from the mid-tenth century of precious metal in personal adornment (despite discovery of new silver sources in the European Hartz Mountains in the 960s and continuing lavish gifts to churches). The same decline is true of elaborate swords with makers’ names inscribed on them. This was clearly not due to poverty, since the large number of coin hoards from the mid 1060s indicate significant portable wealth in the hands of wealthy elites. Instead, something was changing in the patterns of production and consumption. But what it was is not clear. It accompanied other changes in which elites were relying more on urban trade for high-quality goods than on household, or travelling, craftsmen. ‘The Germanic world of gift giving, tribute taking and shifting personal relationships had ceded to one in which values could be measured and paid in coin, services commuted and subjects taxed, with social position even more likely to be dependent on birth than on attainment’.35 There is a very medieval – even modern – flavour to this development.
Population and health
The population of England by the mid-eleventh century was about 2.5 million. To put this into context, the English population in 1541 was probably about the same size (estimated at about 2.7 million) after all the demographic ups and downs of the Middle Ages. Life expectancy was about 35 years for a man and 25 years for a woman. This difference was mostly caused by death in childbirth. In terms of life expectancy, life in early medieval England was comparable with the poorest less economically developed countries (LEDCs) of the twenty-first century. In fact, when the life expectancy for women dropped to 26 years in Sierra Leone in 2002, following a catastrophic civil war which had brought that country to the lowest point on the world rating of LEDCs, it was one year longer than the estimate for women in the early Middle Ages. That same year, the male life expectancy in Burkina Faso was 35.3 years – about the medieval male average. Current projections suggest that in 2021 male life expectancy in Britain will be 74 years and female life expectancy 80 years.
The reasons why England, on the eve of the Norman Conquest, can be compared with a modern LEDC are fairly simple and apply to the whole of the Middle Ages: no knowledge of germ theory and, consequently, poor disease prevention and pre-scientific approaches to treatment of injury and disease. In a period of history before knowledge of antisepsis and anaesthetics, death was an everyday reality. This does not mean to say that there was no medical tradition. There certainly was and some medical manuscripts have survived from the later Anglo-Saxon period. Whilst these indicate ‘knowledge’ available to the most educated, they probably also contain folk traditions used by less literate rural communities.
One of the most famous of these manuscripts is Bald’s Leechbook, a physician’s reference book which describes many illnesses, symptoms and treatments. Dating from c.900–25, this manuscript quotes from a variety of classical works and folk remedies. It contains many formulas and herbal treatments alongside many superstitious ideas about how to apply these herbal medicines. Alongside such ideas as the use of oak bark as an astringent, this leechbook gives over a whole chapter to remedies for elf-shot (diseases caused by elves) and identifies many kinds of elves (including wood elves and water elves) and the diseases they were thought to cause, along with supposed ‘remedies’. Remedies are given for ailments as varied as fevers, tumours, snake bites, abscesses, skin diseases, paralysis and wounds.
In Lacnunga (a mixed collection of medical texts, mainly in Old English, and probably copied in south-west England, c.1010) are a number of charms which give an insight into Anglo-Saxon popular religion within a Christian culture. Alongside these charms are references to the use of herbs such as mugwort, waybroad (plantain), stime (watercress), maythen (camomile), wergulu (nettle), crab apple, chervil and fennel. In addition, as evidence for the survival of some aspects of classical medical knowledge, Anglo-Saxon translations of classical works such as Dioscorides’ Herbalsurvive from the tenth century.
Contrary to what might be expected, living standards may actually have risen following the end of the Roman Empire, with a knock-on effect for nutrition and health. The end of imperial taxes and long-distance trade may have meant that many people were living in closer proximity to protein sources in the countryside, and in England – in common with northern Europe generally – there may have been an increase in protein-rich diets which may explain a rise in average height until the early eighth century. The average western European height returned to the lower Late Roman level by 725.36 In England this coincided with increased reliance on arable farming (along with open fields) in the three centuries up to 1066, which probably accompanied a reduction in protein as a proportion of the average person’s diet. However, other evidence suggests that, despite these fluctuations, average height has remained fairly stable for the past 5,000 years, although it must be said that early medieval children’s reduced access to protein probably meant that they did not achieve their ‘fully grown adult height’ until they were in their 20s.37 By this time, though, their height was comparable with that of modern adults.
Regarding diet on the eve of 1066, the staples were bread wheat and – in wetter areas – rye. Archaeology shows this was supplemented with peas and beans. Barley was used in brewing. The increasing reliance on arable crops was assisted by very favourable climatic conditions in the period between the ninth and twelfth centuries.
The role and status of Late Anglo-Saxon women
Anglo-Saxon women had the power to own property in their own right. At marriage a woman received from her husband a morgengifu (morning gift), which could include land and which was hers to sell, or bequeath, as she willed. Within marriage, finances were held to be the property of bothhusband and wife.38 Women could own substantial estates in their own right, one example being Elfgifu who owned fifteen estates in and around Buckinghamshire in c.970. In the 1060s Eadgifu ‘the Fair’ held estates amounting to 27,000 acres in eastern England and was an immensely wealthy woman. Revealingly, a significant number of royal land grants are to husband and wife jointly, and over 25 per cent of surviving Anglo-Saxon wills are by women bequeathing their own property. (In contrast, after the Norman Conquest no woman could make a valid will without the consent of her husband.) As well as having the right to sell and exchange land, women had free access to the courts to enforce their rights or to settle disputes. In addition unmarried aristocratic women were highly influential in running abbeys.
Surviving laws and marriage contracts reveal that women had a significant amount of protection within marriage. A woman had to be in agreement with the proposed marriage and was not liable for any actions of her husband. Monogamy seems to have been the norm by the eleventh century, although Viking influences may have challenged this at times. A law of 1008 insisted that widows should remain unmarried for one year and were then free to marry whoever they wished, and that such a widow was entitled to a substantial share of the inheritance. The laws contained severe penalties for sexual assault and indicate that compensation was paid to a free woman herself if she was a victim. However, a law of Cnut states that any woman guilty of adultery would lose all her property and have her nose and ears cut off. This, however, is unrepresentative of the normal practice, the usual punishment being financial not physical. Overall the evidence suggests that the average Anglo-Saxon wife was valued and respected and had her economic rights safeguarded. Wills show many men leaving valuable property to female relations. With regard to children, the laws suggest that there was no automatic bias in favour of husbands with respect to the custody of children if a husband and wife separated, and no bias in favour of the husband’s family in the event of his death.
We know less about the economic activities of women in this period than in the later Middle Ages, but certain manufacturing skills seem associated with women, such as cloth making. This could include the high-status production of gold-embroidered cloth as well as more mundane articles.
Art and ideas
When English drawing led European artistic fashion, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it built on skills established in late Anglo-Saxon England. However, within eleventh-century England there were two competing schools of artistic thought. The Winchester Style produced naturalistic art inspired by classical traditions, while the curling tendrils of the decoration found on many objects looked instead to Scandinavia (and to earlier Anglo-Saxon traditions) for its models. Tinted outline drawings within the Winchester tradition gave convincing form and depth to line drawings. Other drawings made greater use of colour. The Winchester Style also influenced sculpture in stone, in examples such as the two stone angels found at the tiny church at Bradford on Avon (Wiltshire). Other examples of such carving are found on ivory.
In stark contrast to these naturalistic forms are Scandinavian Jellinge Style animals, with their sinuous double outlines which, around the year 1000, gave way to the Ringerike Style in which tendrils of acanthus leaves issue from the stylized bodies of animals. The finest example of Ringerike Style comes from a grave slab found in St Paul’s Churchyard, London, dating from around 1035. It was Ringerike which finally gave way to Urnes Style, around 1050, in which the tendrils become longer and there is less foliage.39
These great traditions of art and of decorated architecture did not end in 1066 but continued to be deployed and to influence developments beyond the Norman Conquest. Even as it was giving way to Romanesque Style in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, the Winchester Style gave a ‘lightness of touch’ to English Romanesque drawing.40 Also, by the 1020s ornate Gospel books, which had once displayed the finest styles of Anglo-Saxon art, were already going out of fashion – to be replaced by books such as the Hereford Gospels which were influenced by Romanesque Style. While few such books were produced between the 1050s and the early twelfth century, it was not the Norman Conquest which had weakened the link with the artistic past; the change had already begun before 1066. As with so much of late Anglo-Saxon England, these artistic achievements outlived even the traumas of the 1060s and 1070s and were key elements in the character of the emerging Middle Ages.