Class System

Saxon

The family was extremely important in Anglo-Saxon society; women took their social rank from their father, or their husband after marriage. The family was a large group of cousins, aunts, uncles etc, a clan rather than a family in the modern sense. If wergeld was due, it was shared by the kindred, whether paying it or receiving it, and if a bloodfeud was in progress, any adult male on the other side was a valid target. A man was expected to support his kinsmen through thick and thin, although by the 9th century, royal laws were attempting to limit this somewhat. A man without kinsmen was in a very vulnerable position, like a man without a lord.

Now for a look at the social ranks in some detail, starting at the bottom and working up. Our best source for the status of the lesser members of society is the 11th Century ‘Rectitudines Singularum Personarum’ but other evidence shows that similar social divisions were in existance by the 9th century.

The Theow is a slave. He/she can be bought, sold or given. They cannot contract a legal marriage and any children are the property of the owner and can be sold seperately. What very few rights the theow had were probably due to the church. Slaves can be born (of slaves), be captured in war, become slaves as punishment for crime or because of inability to pay legal fines, or in hard times the poor might sell themselves into slavery to avoid starvation. Anyone killing a slave only had to pay his market value to the owner; no wergeld went to the slaves family. A slave could be bound, beaten, perhaps even killed by his owner with no fear of any legal retribution. However, it was possible for slaves to work for themselves during what little spare time they had and perhaps earn enough to buy their freedom, or they could be freed as an act of Christian piety, particularly in the wills of rich people.

The Cotsetla is a freed man (ie a former slave or perhaps descended from freed slaves) but he is legally free and has a freeman’s rights and obligations. He owes considerable labour services to his lord. According to the Rectitudires, he should have at least five acres of land to farm himself but note that he does not own this, it is land belonging to his lord that he has the use of.

The Gebur is likewise a freed man or the son of one, but rather better off. The gebur owes his lord less work but also has to pay rent (in cash or in kind). He is provided with land, tools and stock by his lord but these revert to the lord on the gebur’s death. In the Rectitudires, his normal holding was a quarter of a hide.

The Gafolgelda or Ceorl is essentially a gebur holding more land from his lord, for which he pays rent in cash or kind. If he does well, he may be able to buy himself out of being a gebur and become fully free – able to go where he pleases, rather than being tied to his lord’s estate. Gafolgelda means ‘rent
payer’.

The Geneat is actually fully free. Geneat means ‘companion’ and pobably reflects the status of a priviledged class of noblemen’s retainers. He still owes labour services to his lord (possibly not performed in person but by his servants) and rent as well. The geneat is also known as ‘radman’ or ‘radcniht’ (hence ‘knight’ after the Norman Conquest). He is expected to own a horse and arms and to serve as a mounted messenger. A number of sources mention geneats performing millitary service, probably as retainers of noblemen. Sometimes the sources refer to the ‘kings geneats’ who may have had superior status

A Thegn is a noble man. It seems to have been accepted that a thegn held at least five hides of land. By the 9th century nobles held their land by charter and so it did not revert to the king on the thegn’s death but passed on to his heir. The Rectitudires states that the thegn owed three things in respect of his land: military service, fortress building and bridge building; the ‘Trimoda Necessitas’ that were usually reserved for the king’s dues in charters. As for the geneat, the sources sometimes refer to the king’s thegns and later evidence make it clearthat these were men of superior status to the other thegns.

The Ealdorman is a governor of a shire. In the 9th century this pst was not hereditary (in theory if not in fact) but a royal appointment. Ealdomen wielded considerable power – they were responsible for administering justice and in times of war, calling out the fyrd of the shire and leading them into battle.

An Aetheling is a male relative of the king and hence a possible heir to or rival for the throne. Brothers, sons, nephews, cousins and uncles could all class as aethelings. They often served as royal deputies or ealdormen and were also known to go into revolt.

The Cyning is the king. In the 9th century, kings seem to usually have been selectedfrom amongst the various aethelings available. It was not always the eldest son of the last king, by any means. This allowed for the best man for the job to be picked but could also cause the dynastic wars that were common in Anglo-Saxon England. The Cyning was head of state, chief justice and commander in chief: an absolute ruler if strong enough, or capable of being pushed around if weak. Weak kings tended not to last very long!

Social mobility. It was possible to rise in social status; A ceorl could takeon more land and become fully free and even in some cases actually gain five hides, in which case if he performed the royal dues, he came to rank as a thegn. If this was kept up for three generations, the rank of thegn became hereditary, even if the land-holding later fell below five hides. Such impoverished nobles seem to have been fairly common by the Norman Conquest but were probably quite rare in the 9th century.

Downwards mobility was also possible as explained previously. The Ceorls, although not free by modern standards (the word ‘serf’ comes to mind). were free by Anglo-Saxon standards; unlike a slave, nobody owned him and he had the full legal rights of a freeman, as well as the duties. Alfred’s laws and earlier archeological evidence imply that ceorls owned weapons but these were probably restricted to spear and shield: the spear of course was not only used in war but also for hunting.

Most Ceorls do not seem to have been very wealthy however and so would be very unlikely to own expensive military equipment such as horses, helmets, swords or mail shirts.

Lordship. The bonds of lordship, a two-way relationship, were universal. Every man save the king had to have a lord: the king himself, an earldorman, a wealthy thegn or a wealthy clergyman. Alfred’s laws clearly display the horror that was felt at treachery to one’s lord. The lord had to protect and to support his follower and vice versa. This included seeking vengeance for wrongs, just as a man was expected to uphold his kinsmen.

The Fyrd was a levy of men liable for military service from the kingdom to repel invaders. Thegns were certainly liable for military service and geneats and ceorls were also liable for some sort of military service. As most ceorls would not have been able to afford much in the way of military equipment, it is probable that they served as part of a wealthy nobles personal retinue. The size of the retinue depended on the size of the nobles estate, probably at the rate of one man per five hides.

To sum up, Michael Wood says in his book on Doomsday ‘Anglo-Saxon society was hierarchical, aristocratic and militaristic’. One of the classical works translated at Alfred’s command, stated that a kingdom needed three types of men: to work, fight and pray, and Anglo-Saxon society seems to have been organised to fulfil this view.

[back to top]

Viking

This article is for the viking warrior classes, ie. male vikings! For the female, class distinction was much simpler: low, middle and high status pretty much covers it! A very low-status female would have likely been a slave or other desperate creature, probably working the farms and homes of the free middle-status women.
For the higher-status ladies, there would be little work to do once the many lower-status people had done it for her! Anyway, here is the male class system, starting at the top with leadership…

King: A King can be either national, local or a ‘sea’ king. The amount of wealth and number of followers needed to reach this elevated status would suggest that there is no one within the society that could effectively pass themselves off as someone with this amount of control and power.

Earl or Jarl: a Jarl would be the chief man for a region and whilst he would have a large amount of independence he would still owe his allegiance to the king. The officership of Viking units within the society will probably fit into either this category or the next.

Hersar (Norse term): a minor nobleman, individual clan chieftain or simply a ‘pirate’ boss in charge of a small fleet or single ship. Whether a leader was the sole man in charge or one of many, his prestige would depend to a great extent on his own personal behavior, especially in battle, and his nobility of birth and may well have been hereditary. This does not mean however that a young and ambitious warrior could not, over a period of years, elevate themselves with the support of their family or clan to a higher social status.

Royal Dignitaries: In addition to the above there would also be various positions appointed by the King or local leadership. These would include tax collectors, standard/shield bearers, scalds, clerics and law speakers. There are many names for these roles including bryti, armadr and especially lendermen
(meaning: ‘men worthy of honour’).

Bodyguards: Whilst all landowners would have a personal household retinue in the shape of farm workers, tenants, neighbours, family and slaves that could be converted into a small personal army or ships crew, at higher social levels these people would be more specialized and could be classed as personal
bodyguards. They may well fit into two categories i.e. standard-bearer and bodyguard and would be totally trusted and loyal subjects. At the highest levels these men would come close to a military elite and were known as Hirdmen or Housecarls.

Warriors: In many of the sagas there is reference to warlike fighting men known as berserks (berserkir: ‘bearshirts’ or less commonly ulfhednar: wolfskins). It has been suggested that these men were capable of great feats of bravery and would have no need of Armour whilst fighting due to their ability to ignore injury and pain. In reality I would suggest that these folk were nothing more than groups of accomplished warriors who fought together and possibly wore
animal skins as a sign of their prowess.

Freemen: Below the level of Housecarls and Berserkir would come the majority of the Viking forces known variously as Bondi, Drengs or Hauldr. These would be free men who either recognized a legal obligation to military service or voluntarily joined a crew to go ‘a Viking’. The vast majority of society members will fit into this category and will come under the control of one of the above roles. The importance of this ‘majority’ should not be over looked, these people were the main stay of the Viking world and would have attended the ‘Thing’ and dominated the local courts and assemblies.

Slaves: Despite our modern day repulsion at the idea of slavery, this was commonplace during the Dark Ages and should not be ignored. I am not suggesting that we actively encourage any member to portray this role, however, played well in ‘one off’ scenarios this can be an entertaining addition to a
script.

In addition to the above there would have been numerous other ‘free enterprise’ followers to any campaign and settlement, these would include traders, blacksmiths and carpenters to name but a few.

Obviously a mans clothing and equipment should reflect his status; how a Viking looked, what clothes he wore and weapons he carried, made a statement to the outside world. As individuals we should strive to accurately portray our chosen character, there is a wealth of information both on the net and in the printed word to help the interested.[back to top]


Cyning

Aetheling

Ealdorman

King’s thegn and Thegn

Eorlisc menn (nobles) The King

Male member of the royal kindred – possible heir or rival to the throne

Senior noble governing a shire

Lesser nobles holding
estates by charter and liable for military service


King’s Geneat and Geneat

Gafolgelda

Ceorlisc menn (non-nobles) Probably non-noble freemen of superior status to the ceorls

Rent paying tenant farmer


Gebur

Cotsetla

Freemen Freedman

Unfree or half-free cottager


Theow Slave A chattel

Sources: Anglo-Saxon Class Structure by Herewulf, DASmag Spring 2001 and The Viking Warrior Classes by Anlaf Olafsson, DASmag Winter 2003

This entry was posted in 9th Century History. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.