Chapter 2

The Times: 600-900

The country was inhabited by Anglo-Saxons. The French called it "Angleterre", which means the angle or end of the earth. It was called "Angle land", which later became "England".

A community was usually an extended family. Its members lived a village in which a stone church was the most prominent building. They lived in one-room huts with walls and roofs made of wood, mud, and straw. Hangings covered the cracks in the walls to keep the wind out. Smoke from a fire in the middle of the room filtered out of cracks in the roof. Grain was ground at home by rotating by hand one stone disk on another stone disk. Some villages had a mill powered by the flow of water or by horses. All freeholders had the duty of watch [at night] and ward [during the day], of following the hue and cry to chase an offender, and of taking the oath of peace. These three duties were constant until 1195.

Farmland surrounded the villages and was farmed by the community as a whole under the direction of a lord. There was silver, copper, iron, tin, gold, and various types of stones from remote lead mines and quarries in the nation. Silver pennies replaced the smaller scaetts. Freemen paid "scot" and bore "lot" according to their means for local purposes.

Offa, the strongest of the Saxon kings, minted high-quality silver pennies. He traded woolen coats for lava grindstones with Emperor Charlemagne, who used a silver denarius coin. There were 12 denarii to the solidus and 20 soldi to the pound of silver. These denominations were taken by England as 12 pennies to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound. The pound sign, an "L" with a hash mark derived from the word Libra, which meant weighing scales.

Everyone in the village went to church on Sunday and brought gifts such as grain to the priest. Later, contributions in the form of money became customary, and then expected. They were called "tithes" and were spent for church repair, the clergy, and poor and needy laborers. Local custom determined the amount. There was also church-scot: a payment to the clergy in lieu of the first fruits of the land. The priest was the chaplain of a landlord and his parish was coextensive with that landlord's holding and could include one to several villages. The priest and other men who helped him, lived in the church building. Some churches had lead roofs and iron hinges, latches, and locks on their doors. The land underneath had been given to the church by former kings and persons who wanted the church to say prayers to help their souls go from purgatory to heaven and who also selected the first priest. The priest conducted Christianized Easter ceremonies in the spring and (Christ's mass) ceremonies in winter in place of the pagan Yuletide festivities. Burning incense took the place of pagan burnt animal offerings, which were accompanied by incense to disguise the odor of burning flesh. Holy water replaced haunted wells and streams. Christian incantations replaced sorcerer's spells. Nuns assisted priests in celebrating mass and administering the sacraments. They alone consecrated new nuns. Vestry meetings were community meetings held for church purposes. The people said their prayers in English, and the priest conducted the services in English. A person joined his hands in prayer as if to offer them for binding together in submission.

The church baptized babies and officiated or gave blessings at marriage ceremonies. It also said prayers for the dying, gave them funerals, and buried them. There were burial service fees, candle dues, and plough alms. A piece of stone with the dead person's name marked his grave. It was thought that putting the name on the grave would assist identification of that person for being taken to heaven. The church heard the last wish or will of the person dying concerning who he wanted to have his property. The church taught that it was not necessary to bury possessions with the deceased. The church taught boys and girls.

Every man carried a horn slung on his shoulder as he went about his work so that he could at once send out a warning to his fellow villagers or call them in chasing a thief or other offender. The forests were full of outlaws, so strangers who did not blow a horn to announce themselves were presumed to be fugitive offenders who could be shot on sight. An eorl could call upon the ceorl farmers for about forty days to fight off an invading group.

There were several kingdoms, whose boundaries kept changing due to warfare, which was a sin according to the church. They were each governed by a king and witan of wise men who met at a witanegemot, which was usually held three times a year, mostly on great church festivals and at the end of the harvest. The king and witan chose the witan's members of bishops, eorldormen, and thegns [landholding farmers]. The king and hereditary claims played a major part in the selection of the eorldormen, who were the highest military leaders and often of the royal family. They were also chief magistrates of large jurisdictional areas of land. The witan included officers of the king's household and perhaps other of his retinue. There was little distinction then between his gesith, fighting men, guards, household companions, dependents, and servants. The king was sometimes accompanied by his wife and sons at the witanagemot. A king was selected by the witan according to his worthiness, usually from among the royal family, and could be deposed by it. The witan and king decided on laws, taxes, and transfers of land. They made determinations of war and peace and directed the army and the fleet. The king wore a crown or royal helmet. He extended certain protections by the king's peace. He could erect castles and bridges and could provide a special protection to strangers.

A king had not only a wergeld to be paid to his family if he were killed, but a "cynebot" of equal amount that would be paid to his kingdom's people. A king's household had a chamberlain for the royal bedchamber, a marshall to oversee the horses and military equipment, a steward as head of household, and a cupbearer. The king had income from fines for breach of his peace; fines and forfeitures from courts dealing with criminal and civil cases; salvage from ship wrecks; treasure trove [assets hidden or buried in times of war]; treasures of the earth such as gold and silver; mines; saltworks; tolls and other dues of markets, ports, and the routes by land and by river generally; heriot from heirs of his special dependents for possession of land (usually in kind, principally in horses and weapons). He also had rights of purveyance [hospitality and maintenance when traveling]. The king had private lands, which he could dispose of by his will. He also had crown lands, which belonged to his office and could not be alienated without consent of the witan. Crown lands often included palaces and their appendant farms, and burhs. It was a queen's duty to run the royal estate. Also, a queen could possess, manage, and dispose of lands in her name. Violent queens waged wars. Kingdoms were often allied by marriage between their royal families. There were also royal marriages to royalty on the continent.

The houses of the wealthy had ornamented silk hangings on the walls. Some had fine white ox horn shaved so thin they were transparent for windows. Brightly colored drapery, often purple, and fly nets surrounded their beds, which were covered with the fur of animals. They slept in bed clothes on pillows stuffed with straw. Tables plated with silver and gems held silver candlesticks, gold and silver goblets and cups, and lamps of gold, silver, or glass. They used silver mirrors and silver writing pens. There were covered seats, benches, and footstools with the head and feet of animals at their extremities. They ate from a table covered with a cloth. Servants brought in food on spits, from which they ate. Food was boiled, broiled, or baked. The wealthy ate wheat bread and others ate barley bread. Ale made from barley was passed around in a cup. Mead made from honey was also drunk.

Men wore long-sleeved wool and linen garments reaching almost to the knee, around which they wore a belt tied in a knot. Men often wore a gold ring on the fourth finger of the right hand. Leather shoes were fastened with leather thongs around the ankle. Their hair was parted in the middle and combed down each side in waving ringlets. The beard was parted in the middle of the chin, so that it ended in two points. The clergy did not wear beards. Great men wore gold-embroidered clothes, gilt buckles and brooches, and drank from drinking horns mounted in silver gilt or in gold. Well-to-do women wore brightly colored robes with waist bands, headbands, necklaces, gem bracelets, and rings. Their long hair was in ringlets and they put rouge on their cheeks. They had beads, pins, needles, tweezers of bronze, and workboxes of bronze, some highly ornamented. They were often doing needlework. Silk was affordable only by the wealthy.

Most families kept a pig and pork was the primary meat. There were also sheep, goats, cows, deer, hare, and fowl. Fowl was obtained by fowlers who trapped them. The inland waters yielded eels, salmon, and trout. In the fall, meat was salted to preserve it for winter meals. There were orchards growing figs, nuts, grapes, almonds, pears, and apples. Also produced were beans, lentils, onions, eggs, cheese, and butter. Pepper and cinnamon were imported.

Fishing from the sea yielded herrings, sturgeon, porpoise, oysters, crabs, and other fish. Sometimes a whale was driven into an inlet by a group of boats. Whale skins were used to make ropes.

The roads were not much more than trails. They were often so narrow that two pack horses could hardly pass each other. The pack horses each carried two bales or two baskets slung over their backs, which balanced each other. The soft soil was compacted into a deep ditch which rains, floods, and tides, if near the sea, soon turned into a river. Traveling a far distance was unsafe as there were robbers on the roads. Traveling strangers were distrusted. It was usual to wash one's feet in a hot tub after traveling and to dry them with a rough wool cloth.

There were superstitions about the content of dreams, the events of the moon, and the flights and voices of birds were often seen as signs or omens of future events. Herbal mixtures were drunk for sickness and maladies. From the witch hazel plant was made a mild alcoholic astringent, which was probably used to clean cuts and sooth abrasions.

In the peaceful latter part of the 600s, Theodore, who had been a monk in Rome, was appointed archbishop and visited all the island speaking about the right rule of life and ordaining bishops to oversee the priests. Each kingdom was split up into dioceses each with one bishop. Thereafter, bishops were selected by the king and his witan, usually after consulting the clergy and even the people of the diocese. The bishops came to be the most permanent element of society. They had their sees in villages or rural monasteries. The bishops came to have the same wergeld as an eorldorman: 1200s., which was the price of about 500 oxen. A priest had the wergeld as a landholding farmer [thegn], or 300s. The bishops spoke Latin, but the priests of the local parishes spoke English. Theodore was the first archbishop whom all the English church obeyed. He taught sacred and secular literature, the books of holy writ, ecclesiastical poetry, astronomy, arithmetic, and sacred music. Theodore discouraged slavery by denying Christian burial to the kidnapper and forbidding the sale of children over the age of seven. A slave became entitled to two loaves a day and to his holydays. A slave was allowed to buy his or his children's freedom. In 673, Theodore started annual national ecclesiastical assemblies, for instance for the witnessing of important actions. The bishops, some abbots, the king, and the eorldormen were usually present. From them the people learned the benefit of common national action. There were two archbishops: one of Canterbury in the south and one of York in the north. They governed the bishops and could meet with them to issue canons that would be equally valid all over the land. A bishop's house contained some clerks, priests, monks, and nun and was a retreat for the weary missionary and a school for the young. The bishop had a deacon who acted as a secretary and companion in travel, and sometimes as an interpreter. Ink was made from the outer husks of walnuts steeped in vinegar.

The learned ecclesiastical life flourished in monastic communities, in which both monks and nuns lived. Hilda, a noble's daughter, became the first nun in Northumbria and abbess of one of its monasteries. There she taught justice, piety, chastity, peace, and charity. Several monks taught there later became bishops. Kings and princes often asked her advice. Many abbesses came to run monastic communities; they were from royal families. Women, especially from royal families, fled to monasteries to obtain shelter from unwanted marriage or to avoid their husbands. Kings and eorldormen retired to them.

Danish Vikings made several invasions in the 800s for which a danegeld tax on land was assessed on everyone every ten to twenty years. The amount was determined by the witan and was typically 2s. per hide of land. (A hide was probably the amount of land which could support a family or household for a year or as much land as could be tilled annually by a single plow.) It was stored in a strong box under the King's bed. King Alfred the Great, who had lived for awhile in Rome, unified the country to defeat the invaders. He established fortifications called "burhs", usually on hill tops or other strategic locations on the borders to control the main road and river routes into his realm. The burhs were seminal towns. They were typically walled enclosures with towers and an outer ditch and mound, instead of the hedge or fence enclosure of a tun. Inside were several wooden thatched huts and a couple of churches, which were lit by earthen oil lamps. The populace met at burhgemotes. The land area protected by each burh became known as a "shire", which means a share of a larger whole. The shire or local landowners were responsible for repairing the burh fortifications. There were about thirty shires.

Alfred gathered together fighting men who were at his disposal, which included eorldormen with their hearthbands (retinues of men each of whom had chosen to swear to fight to the death for their eorldorman, and some of whom were of high rank), the King's thegns, shire thegns (local landholding farmers, who were required to bring fighting equipment such as swords, helmets, chain mail, and horses), and ordinary freemen, i.e. ceorls (who carried food, dug fortifications, and sometimes fought). Since the King was compelled to call out the whole population to arms, the distinction between the king's thegns from other landholders disappeared. Some great lords organized men under them, whom they provisioned. These vassals took a personal oath to their lord "on condition that he keep me as I am willing to deserve, and fulfill all that was agreed on when I became his man, and chose his will as mine." Alfred had a small navy of longships with 60 oars to fight the Viking longships.

Alfred divided his army into two parts so that one half of the men were fighting while the other half was at home sowing and harvesting for those fighting. Thus, any small-scale independent farming was supplanted by the open-field system, cultivation of common land, more large private estates headed by a lord, and a more stratified society in which the king and important families more powerful and the peasants more curtailed. The witan became mere witnesses. Many free coerls of the older days became bonded. The village community tended to become a large private estate headed by a lord. But the lord does not have the power to encroach upon the rights of common that exist within the community.

In 886, a treaty between Alfred and the Vikings divided the country along the war front and made the wergeld of every free farmer, whether English or Viking, 200s. Men of higher rank were given a wergeld of 4 1/2 marks of pure gold. A mark was probably a Viking denomination and a mark of gold was equal to nine marks of silver in later times and probably in this time. The word "earl" replaced the word "eorldormen" and the word "thegn" replaced the word "aetheling" after the Danish settlement. The ironed pleats of Viking clothing indicated a high status of the wearer. The Vikings brought combs and the practice of regular hair-combing to England.

King Alfred gave land with jurisdictional powers within its boundaries such as the following:

"This is the bequest which King Alfred make unequivocally to Shaftesbury, to the praise of God and St. Mary and all the saints of God, for the benefit of my soul, namely a hundred hides as they stand with their produce and their men, and my daughter AEthelgifu to the convent along with the inheritance, since she took the veil on account of bad health; and the jurisdiction to the convent, which I myself possessed, namely obstruction and attacks on a man's house and breach of protection. And the estates which I have granted to the foundation are 40 hides at Donhead and Compton, 20 hides at Handley and Gussage 10 hides at Tarrant, 15 hides at Iwerve and 15 hides at Fontmell.

The witnesses of this are Edward my son and Archbishop AEthelred and Bishop Ealhferth and Bishop AEthelhead and Earl Wulfhere and Earl Eadwulf and Earl Cuthred and Abbot Tunberht and Milred my thegn and AEthelwulf and Osric and Brihtulf and Cyma. If anyone alters this, he shall have the curse of God and St. Mary and all the saints of God forever to all eternity. Amen."

Sons usually succeeded their fathers on the same land as shown by this lifetime lease:

"Bishop Denewulf and the community at Winchester lease to Alfred for his lifetime 40 hides of land at Alresford, in accordance with the lease which Bishop Tunbriht had granted to his parents and which had run out, on condition that he renders every year at the autumnal equinox three pounds as rent, and church dues, and the work connected with church dues; and when the need arises, his men shall be ready both for harvesting and hunting; and after his death the property shall pass undisputed to St. Peter's.

These are the signatures of the councilors and of the members of the community who gave their consent, namely ..."

Alfred invented a graduated candle with spaces indicating one hour of burning, which could be used as a clock. He used a ventilated cow's horn to put around the top of the candle to prevent its blowing out, and then devised a wooden lantern with a horn window. He described the world as like a yolk in the middle of an egg whose shell moves around it. This agreed with the position of Ptolemy Claudius of Alexandria, who showed the curvature of the earth from north to south by observing that the Polar Star was higher in the north and lower in the south. That it was curved from east to west followed from the observation that two clocks placed one west and one east would record a different time for the same eclipse of the moon.

Alfred wrote poems on the worthiness of wisdom and knowledge in preference to material pleasures, pride, and fame, in dealing with life's sorrow and strife. His observations on human nature and his proverbs include:

As one sows, so will he mow. Every man's doom [judgment] returns to his door. He who will not learn while young, will repent of it when old. Weal [prosperity] without wisdom is worthless. Though a man had 70 acres sown with red gold, and the gold grew like grass, yet he is not a whit the worthier unless he gain friends for himself. Gold is but a stone unless a wise man has it. It's hard to row against the sea flood; so it is against misfortune. He who toils in his youth to win wealth, so that he may enjoy ease in his old age, has well bestowed his toil. Many a man loses his soul through silver. Wealth may pass away, but wisdom will remain, and no man may perish who has it for his comrade. Don't choose a wife for her beauty nor for wealth, but study her disposition. Many an apple is bright without and bitter within. Don't believe the man of many words. With a few words a wise man can compass much. Make friends at market, and at church, with poor and with rich. Though one man wielded all the world, and all the joy that dwells therein, he could not therewith keep his life. Don't chide with a fool. A fool's bolt is soon shot. If you have a child, teach it men's manners while it is little. If you let him have his own will, he will cause you much sorrow when he comes of age. He who spares the rod and lets a young child rule, shall rue it when the child grows old. Either drinking or not drinking is, with wisdom, good. Be not so mad as to tell your friend all your thoughts. Relatives often quarrel together. The barkless dog bites ill. Be wise of word and wary of speech, then all shall love you. We may outride, but not outwit, the old man. If you and your friend fall out, then your enemy will know what your friend knew before. Don't choose a deceitful man as a friend, for he will do you harm. The false one will betray you when you least expect it. Don't choose a scornful false friend, for he will steal your goods and deny the theft. Take to yourself a steadfast man who is wise in word and deed; he will prove a true friend in need.

To restore education and religion, Alfred disseminated the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles; the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation; the "Consolidation of Philosophy" by Roman philosopher Boethius, which related the use of adversity to develop the soul, and described the goodness of God and how the highest happiness comes from spiritual values and the soul, which are eternal, rather than from material or earthly pursuits, which are temporal; and Pope Gregory's Pastoral Care, which he had translated into English and was the fundamental book on the duty of a bishop, which included a duty to teach laymen; and Orosius' History of the World, which he had translated into English. Alfred's advice to pastors was to live as they had been taught from books and to teach this manner of life to others. To be avoided was pride, the mind's deception of seeking glory in the name of doing good works, and the corruption of high office. Bede was England's first scholar, first theologian, and first historian. He wrote poetry, theological books, homilies, and textbooks on grammar, rhetoric [public speaking and debating], arithmetic, and astronomy. He adhered to the doctrine that death entered the world by the sin of Adam, the first man. He began the practice of dating years from the birth of Christ and believed that the earth was round. Over the earth was a fiery spherical firmament. Above this were the waters of the heavens. Above this were the upper heavens, which contained the angels and was tempered with ice. He declared that comets portend downfalls of kingdoms, pestilence, war, winds, or heat. This reflected the church's view that a comet was a ball of fire flung from the right hand of an angry God as a warning to mankind, usually for disbelief. Storms were begun by the devil.

A famous poem, the oral legend of Beowulf, a hero who led his men into adventures and performed great feats and fought monsters and dragons, was put into writing with a Christian theme. In it, loyalty to one's lord is a paramount virtue. Also available in writing was the story of King Arthur's twelve victorious battles against the pagan Saxons, authored by Nennius.

There were professional story tellers attached to great men. Others wandered from court to court, receiving gifts for their story telling. Men usually told oral legends of their own feats and those of their ancestors after supper.

Alfred had monasteries rebuilt with learned and moral men heading them. He built a nunnery which was headed by his daughter as prioress. He built a strong wall with four gates around London, which he had taken into his control. He appointed his son-in-law, who was one of his eorldormen, to be alderman [older man] to govern London and to be the shire's earl. A later king built a palace in London, although Winchester was still the royal capital town. When the king traveled, he and his retinue were fed by the local people at their expense.

After Alfred's death, his daughter Aethelflared ruled the country for seven years. She had more fortified burhs built and led soldiers to victories.

Under the royalty were the nobles. An earl headed each shire as representative of the King. The term "earl" came to denote an office instead of a nobleman. He led the array of his shire to do battle if the shire was attacked. He executed all royal commands. An earl received grants of land and could claim hospitality and maintenance for himself, his officers, and his servants. He presided over the shire court. He received one-third of the fines from the profits of justice and collected as well a third of the revenues derived from tolls and duties levied in the boroughs of his shire. The office tended to be hereditary. Royal representatives called "reeves" started to assist them. The reeve took security from every person for the maintenance of the public peace. He also tracked cattle thieves, brought suspects to court, gave judgments according to the doom books, and delivered offenders to punishment.

Under the earls were the thegns. By service to the King, it was possible for a coerl to rise to become a thegn and to be given land by the King. Other thegns performed functions of magistrates. A thegn was later identified as a person with five hides of land, a kitchen, a church, a bell house, a judicial place at the burhgemote [a right of magistracy], and an appointment in the King's hall. He was bound to service in war by virtue of his landholding instead of by his relationship to the king. Nobility was now a territorial attribute, rather than one of birth. The wergeld of a thegn was 1200s. when that of a ceorl or ordinary freeman was 200s. The wergeld of an earl or bishop was four times that of a thegn: 5800s. The wergeld of a king or archbishop was six times that of a thegn: 7200s. The higher a man's wergeld, the higher was his legal status in the scale of punishment, giving credible evidence, and participation in legal proceedings. The sokemen were freemen who had inherited their own land, chose their own lord, and attended and were subject to their lord's court. That is, their lord has soke [soc] jurisdiction over them. A ceorl typically had a single hide of land. A smallholder rented land of about 30 acres from a landlord, which he paid by doing work on the lord's demesne [household or messuage] land, paying money rent, or paying a food rent such as in eggs or chickens. Smallholders made up about two fifths of the population. A cottager had one to five acres of land and depended on others for his living. Among these were shepherds, ploughmen, swineherds, and blacksmiths. They also participated in the agricultural work, especially at harvest time.

It was possible for a thegn to become an earl, probably by the possession of forty hides. He might even acquire enough land to qualify him for the witan. Women could be present at the witanagemot and shiregemote [meeting of the people of the shire]. They could sue and be sued in the courts. They could independently inherit, possess, and dispose of property. A wife's inheritance was her own and under no control of her husband.

Marriage required the consent of the lady and her friends. The man also had to arrange for the foster lean, that is, remuneration for rearing and support of expected children. He also declared the amount of money or land he would give the lady for her consent, that is, the morgengift, and what he would bequeath her in case of his death. It was given to her on the morning after the wedding night. The family of the bride was paid a "mund" for transferring the rightful protection they possessed over her to the family of the husband. If the husband died and his kindred did not accept the terms sanctioned by law, her kindred could repurchase the rightful protection. If she remarried within a year of his death, she had to forfeit the morgengift and his nearest kin received the lands and possessions she had. The word for man was "waepnedmenn" or weaponed person. A woman was "wifmenn" or wife person, with "wif" being derived from the word for weaving.

Great men and monasteries had millers, smiths, carpenters, architects, agriculturists, fishermen, weavers, embroiders, dyers, and illuminators.

For entertainment, minstrels sang ballads about heroes or Bible stories, harpers played, jesters joked, and tumblers threw and caught balls and knives. There was gambling, dice games, and chasing deer with hounds.

Fraternal guilds were established for mutual advantage and protection. A guild imposed fines for any injury of one member by another member. It assisted in paying any murder fine imposed on a member. It avenged the murder of a member and abided by the consequences. It buried its members and purchased masses for his soul.

Mercantile guilds in seaports carried out commercial speculations not possible by the capital of only one person.

There were some ale houses, probably part of certain dwellings.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook