Notes for Norman England: The Social System of Anglo-Saxon England

22nd November 2017

What was it like to live in 1060 England?  
With only 2 million people living there, the whole of England didn’t even have half of the population of London today. Compare that with the 53 million people that live in England today! However, life was much harder and people would usually only live until their 30’s. Society was split into different classes with massively contrasting lifestyles, starting from the slaves at the bottom, right up to the aristocracy at the top.  



Let’s start at the bottom.  Although slaves made up 10% of the population at the time, they were barely seen as human.  They were looked at as property that could be bought and sold freely.  They did, however, receive lighter punishments for crimes as tougher punishments may inhibit their working ability.  Whilst it was a normal part of Anglo-Saxon society, owning slaves was seen as barbaric by the Normans.  


Peasant Farmers

Most people back then were farmers.  They would rent small farms from their local lords that they would then work for, as well as growing produce for their own family.  They would then be given a set amount of work by their lords that if it were not met, they would risk losing the right to use that land.  There was also a type of peasant that was allowed to work on other lord’s farms, known as Ceorls.   If they wanted to use the land, they would still have to carry out work on their local lord’s farm too.  To use any lord’s land for their own produce, they would have to farm for the lord as well.  



Thegn's were seen as the warrior class of 1060.  They were local lords that owned more land than the peasants, usually more than 150 modern acres of land.  Back then, land was referred to in “hides” which derives from the word family.  150 acres would be 5 hides.  They would live a much more lavish lifestyle with a manor house, including a tower and church.  There were between 4000-5000 Thegns in England at the time.  That’s less than 1% of the Anglo-Saxon population!  



Earls were the most important people in the country after royalty, the highest ranking of the Aristocrats.  The Earl’s relationship with the king was based on loyalty.  The more loyal the Earl, the more rewards and honour they would be given. Earls would often compete with each other to go up the ranks to gain more rewards and honour.  


Social Mobility 

In Normandy, people’s social status would be linked to their ancestry and the importance of their family.  However, social mobility was easier in Anglo-Saxon society.  Slaves could be freed by their masters.  There were different ways people could go up the ranks. For example, a peasant that gained and paid tax on more than 5 hides of land, or a merchant who made voyages abroad on their own ships.  Thegn's could also be raised as Earls and Earls could even become royalty.  However, this worked both ways as Earls could be demoted to Thegns and Ceorls could sell themselves to become slaves to feed their families.  


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