Seminary XXIX: the construction of power in Anglo-Saxon England as per Ann Williams

Well, as promised the Earlier Middle Ages seminars have renewed at the IHR, there were even students there on the 1st October, and there was also Ann Williams talking about her new book, which is called The World Before Domesday: The English Aristocracy 871-1066. Ann is of course a scholar renowned in her field, but I’m not quite sure where she is based now; the author bio at her publisher’s says that she is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of East Anglia, and this may well be true but their webpages don’t reflect it if so. On the other hand, they also boast the employment of Catherine Armstrong who is by now a sort of famous for having got a job, increasingly difficult in itself, and one which is somewhere else. So not much help there. Anyway, her talk was entitled “Before Domesday: earls, ceorls, thegns and lords”. This is apparently a version of the book’s title that her publishers wouldn’t wear, but it wouldn’t have done justice to the book to judge from its contents, which go right down the social scale to local networks of notables, what scholars in other countries would call boni homines or scabini and so on. This talk, on the other hand, stuck closer to the mark that the title set.

Reenactors play a thegn and attendant setting off to war

Reenactors play a thegn and attendant setting off to war

What Ann was talking about was the difficulties in getting real social information out of not very many sources, a quantity of which are legal, and therefore troublesome as possibly idealistic and archaic, and some of which were written by Archbishop Wulfstan and thus troublesome in a different bunch of ways to do with rhetoric, theatrical presentation and good old fashioned fictiveness.1 There are more words for Anglo-Saxon rank in Old English than in Latin,2 but almost all the sources are in Latin so working out whether, when some source talks about ministri, for example, they mean actual servants or the kind of middling noble on the horse above who does only honourable service, is tricky; and when they say rustici, do they mean people who farm the land or people who live off others’ labour and trade, both of whom might be wrapped up in the Old English word ceorl, or do they just mean the peasantry at large in polemical and pejorative style as would certainly be the case in later sources… ?3 It’s tricky, and Ann spent a while making sure we knew that before she started venturing suggestions.

The most interesting things that she said were in the realm of change. The fact that things changed of course problematise the sources, especially Wulfstan who all-out tells us that he was living in a time of change and that it was for the worse. One of the changes of his time, however, might be that Æthelred the Unready was spending, and getting his nobles to spend much more on military equipment so that a fyrd essentially armed with spears and shields might be able to get helmets, swords and mailcoats and thus face the Danes a bit better… And if so, seeing as some definitions of thegnly status rest it on the sort of gear they could bring to war, was this in effect to promote them socially? It seems unlikely, but that just means that our tools for getting at status are too blunt, and quite possibly that we’re trying to make distinctions that the Anglo-Saxons themselves found tricky.

A London museum display of Anglo-Saxon wargear

A London museum display of Anglo-Saxon wargear

Another issue was the question of people who had status but lost it. At the end of the Anglo-Saxon period of course we suddenly have a vast swathe of evidence in the form of the double snapshot of Domesday Book, and this seems to show a lot of people of thegnly status who didn’t however have enough land to fulfil the sort of quotas that some sources prefer to the wargear measurement. Ann suggested that these were the people who’d fallen on to the sort of hard times Wulfstan mentions and were clinging onto legal status long after its supporting wealth had gone; on the other hand, John Gillingham suggested that perhaps instead, what with thegnly status being so deeply concerned with service to a lord, that they were new servitors on their way up, and of course there’s no way to rule it out. A similarly sharp point in the questions was made by Susan Reynolds, who first observed that the important line in divisions of status is always the one just below oneself, and that for us as historians the effect is similar because we draw the division most clearly wherever the sources exist in enough bulk to let us see some of what’s going on. For us, of course, that’s basically the royal level, and just below, so the division we think most important is between the nobles who served the king and everybody else; but if you lived in a village near Hartlepool or whatever, where the king didn’t go, smaller-scale ways of grading people would have been a lot more important, and often this would come down not to how much land or gear you had, or even who your father had been, but more importantly whom you now served and how important they were. Which is all very well, but how was their status defined… ?

So there is still a lot to do here, and it may not be possible to do all that we need, but from the sound of it Ann’s new book is going to be an excellent way to shed preconceptions, get yourself thoroughly dug in to the evidence and to start working out what you think, and what with the difficulty of reaching conclusions it may well be the last word for a while yet.


1. On why laws are difficult, I believe it’s now de rigueur to cite Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law Vol. I (Oxford 2003), unless you intend to disagree with him in which case it’s much easier to cite his “Lex scripta and verbum regis: legislation and Germanic kingship, from Euric to Cnut” in Peter Sawyer & Ian N. Wood (edd.), Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 105-138. On why Wulfstan is tricky, good heavens, where to start? The blogging world is full of Wulfstan, new research is happening all the time. I expect various persons will be along shortly with suggestions, but how about Dorothy Whitelock, “Archbishop Wulfstan, homilist and statesman” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 4th series Vol. 24 (London 1942), pp. 25-45, repr. in Richard W. Southern (ed.), Essays in Medieval History: selected from the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society on its centenary (London 1968), pp. 42-60, and in Whitelock, History, Law and Literature in 10th-11th century England, Variorium Collected Studies (London 1981), XI, for the basics? Yes, I’m behind the times: educate me! I see from the Regesta Imperii OPAC that there was a conference volume on him published in 2004: Matthew Townend (ed.), Wulfstan, Archbishop of York. The proceedings of the Second Alcuin Conference, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 10 (Turnhout 2004). Some of the paper titles look pretty good. Particular points to Andy Orchard for “Re-editing Wulfstan: where’s the point?”

2. The best thing I ever read about this was Alan Thacker, “Some Terms for Noblemen in Anglo-Saxon England, c. 650-900″ in David Brown, James Campbell & Sonia Chadwick Hawkes (eds), Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History Vol. 2, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 92 (Oxford 1981), pp. 201-237. I rather expect Ann’s book to be the thing I cite for this once I’ve read it though.

3. On that sort of treatment of the peasantry, you can see Paul Freedman, “Cowardice, Heroism and the Legendary Origins of Catalonia” in Past and Present no. 121 (Oxford 1988), pp. 3-28. Freedman has actually addressed this theme more widely, but as far as I know only in French (he’s unusual for a US academic, or indeed a UK one, for how much of his publication is languages other than English): the paper I mean is “Sainteté et sauvagerie: deux images du paysan au moyen âge”, transl. F. Marin in Annales: économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 539-560.

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9 responses to “Seminary XXIX: the construction of power in Anglo-Saxon England as per Ann Williams

  1. Thanks for keeping us all informed about these seminars Jonathan!

    I know it was only a kind of preamble in the seminar – and your post – but the issue of translation (both past and present) and the limitations it places on interpretation is fascinating to me. There was a wonderful series of lectures given by Umberto Eco in Oxford on this very topic a few years back, which I believe has now been published (in English) as “Experiences in Translation”; some readers of this blog may find it useful/interesting. There is an awful lot to be pondered over a ‘glass of scholarly apparatus’ in this, even if it doesn’t necessarily advance our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon nobility, etc..

  2. highlyeccentric

    Oh, gosh. That makes my head hurt. And makes me feel rather better about the Sermo Lupi :P.

  3. Kath, do I need to acknowledge you or anyone for the marvellous phrase “glass of scholarly apparatus” or can I just run off into the sunset with it cackling?

  4. *tee hee*

    I owe that one to my old mentor Barry Collett, now at Corpus Christi, Oxon.

  5. “A London museum display of Anglo-Saxon wargear” pic – looks a bit Bronze Age to me.

  6. I can’t refute you, as the site I borrowed that from had no indication of which museum it was. I struggled rather for appropriate images for this post…

  7. Yes, there are few pictures of collections of thegnly gear, excavated, or reconstructed, unless you can find re-enactor sites. The front cover of the Osprey book keeps popping up in searches http://www.ospreypublishing.com/store/Anglo-Saxon-Thegn-AD-449%E2%80%931066_9781855323490. Perhaps a picture link to their site will illustrate you post and appease them with a free advert??

  8. I found that too, but in a post primarily about another book, whose cover the publishers didn’t yet have online, I thought it would be misleading to use the cover of a different book as illustration you see. Anyway: bloke on a horse! That’ll quell the unrest.

  9. Pingback: Seminars CXXXI & CXXXII: searching the margins of Anglo-Norman England | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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