Seminary XVI: those are knights and we’re feudal, all right?

The name of Nicholas Brooks is not one that many Anglo-Saxonists are going to need introducing, so you will understand how we, we being Allan Scott McKinley, Martin Ryan and myself, convenors of the Problems and Possibilities in Early Medieval Diplomatic sessions at the Leeds International Medieval Congress, were quite pleased to have him speaking for us last year. Since then, however, that work has been refined and as a result he was presenting it again at the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages seminar on 23 January, under the title: “Archbishop Æthelnoth ‘the Good’ and his knights: feudal origins revisited”.

Norman knights charging, in the Bayeux Tapestry

Norman knights charging, in the Bayeux Tapestry

What had basically been added to make up the extra half-hour was a thorough grounding of the paper in the historiography which it was attacking, and because Professor Brooks goes over things very completely it is possible to condense his basic thesis into a fairly short paragraph, albeit by leaving out most of the convincing erudition. So because there is much to write and little time I’ll do that and you’ll have to take my word for it that really, it didn’t seem terribly disputable.

Basically, the old argument starts with a premise that feudalism is about military service more than anything else, and that in this respect the Normans were something unusual. When the Anglo-Norman realm’s administration begins to be seen in detail (and I’m sure Gesta will refine this if I over-simplify) we see this being shown by land being given out to knights (the Latin word used is always milites, soldiers, and one of the problems with this is that while the word remains the same in the period warfare, and its costs and consequently the standing of those so described, is possibly changing a great deal) in exchange for their service, to a level of precision that means that we can talk about a knight’s fee, `fee’ here coming from the same route as `fief’, and meaning the amount of land appropriate to fund and reward the service of one knight. The observation that there is nothing like this visible in England before the Conquest goes back to Sir Frank Stenton, although the similar one that really, there isn’t in Normandy either, has been less widely heard. It’s not that there isn’t service by men to their lords in exchange for land, of course, although even this has only been deeply appreciated in recent years, partly because of the work of Robin Fleming, and also now because of the very detailed work on lordship and power in Mercia by Steven Baxter. Such servants are usually termed ‘thegns’, or in Latin ‘ministri’, which has a very broad range of meanings, and there’s been some debate about what it might include. But there isn’t this clear exchange of land for clearly military service by trained soldiers.

Or so we thought, anyway. But Professor Brooks has pulled together three disparate documents, two writs to newly-appointed archbishops of Canterbury, one of which, from Edward the Confessor, seems to have later been doctored, and one of which, from Cnut, apparently hasn’t. The earlier one, from Cnut, includes among other properties of the see that the Archbishop is now empowered to take possession of, the various revenues from the see’s dependents, who include “as many thegns as I have allowed him”.1

Well, not so much by itself, even if it does seem to be a royally-set limit on dependents like the later quota of knights. But Professor Brooks has also dug up a lease from the archbishop to two men who are called his ministri by the scribe.2 The scribe is quite important, because he doesn’t seem to be local. In fact his charter looked perfectly regular to me, but that’s because I study Catalonia and one thing any Anglo-Saxon diplomatist will tell you about their material is that it’s weird by the standards of any European ‘charter landscape’.3 This man, in fact, seems to be from Flanders, and the charter he writes therefore records what would be normal for a charter from there, including the laymen present, which an Anglo-Saxon charter would not normally do. And among these laymen there are thirteen whom the scribe calls milites.

There followed various bits of comparison to the later quotas of Canterbury, and an argument that if, in 1086 already they show fragmentation into bits they can’t be very new, but that was disputed in questions, and really the core is there. The Archbishop of Canterbury has some ministri that the king allows him to keep, well before the Conquest; and when a foreign scribe turns up and describes the archbishop’s retinue, he sees milites, knights. Professor Brooks suggests that these are the same people, and that actually the king is allotting armed retainers to his great men as early as 1020. Furthermore, he argues that the numbers are broadly the same as what the archbishops would be allowed in 1086, but I don’t know how far I believed the maths. It was certainly possible to consider it the sort of back-of-the-envelope calculation Professor Muhlberger has just been talking about—I have more on sloppy maths in medieval studies coming, but I thought the link was good enough by itself. Feel free to discuss :-)

1. The document can be found in Florence E. Harmer (ed./transl.), Anglo-Saxon Writs (Manchester 1952), no. 28. The translation is Professor Brooks’s. I can give the Old English if it will help anyone.

2. A text and translation of this charter can be found in John Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005), pp. 513-514.

3. I believe this term was originated by Heinrich Fichtenau, but I got it from Hans-Heinrich Kortüm, Zur Päpstliche Urkundensprache im frühen Mittelalter: die päpstlichen Privilegien 896-1046, Beiträge zur Geschichte und Quellenkunde des Mittelalters 17 (Sigmaringen 1995), p. 11, where of course it’s German, “Urkundenlandschaft”.

2 responses to “Seminary XVI: those are knights and we’re feudal, all right?

  1. It seems to me that thegns are a good comparison in early Anglo-Saxon England. Think for example of Benedict Biscop who got Wearmouth as his thegn’s fee for service to King Oswiu. This isn’t a royally founded monastery like say Lindisfarne. King Ecgfrith gives Biscop the land he is DUE. Later, King Ecgfrith does found Jarrow as a royal monastery, but its added on to Biscop’s thegn’s land. I also wonder if this is why Biscop was worried that Wearmouth-Jarrow would somehow pass into the ownership of his brother.

    In his letter to Bishop Egbert, Bede is worried that there won’t be enough land left to pay/reward soldiers to protect the country.

  2. Michelle, yes, definitely. The question is how many sorts of thegn you have. I think that the sort of people you’re finding in Bede, most obviously Biscop, are doing their time in the comitatus and then getting their estate, that is the soldiers get land on retirement, almost in the Roman style. I don’t think, for example, that because Biscop was a thegn on thegn’s land he was expected to turn up armed and dangerous when the king called; he’d already done his stint. He had the land because he’d already done the service, not to persuade him and fund him to do it. This is the difference between thegn’s land as we usually understand it and a knight’s status later on. But some of these later ministri might be more like the knights than like Biscop…

    Bede’s letter is the interesting bit—I mean that’s true so often, isn’t it, it’s a completely different level of engagement with politics than everything else he wrote would lead us to expect, and surprisingly it doesn’t seem to be obviously online—because it suggests the possibility that some people who might have been expected to serve as soldiers were already living on land-grants; but as you know he seems to imply that they’re doing so in order not to have to serve, which is rather different again.

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