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As Organisation Of Society Essay

History Notes > Anglo-Saxon History (Britain c. AD400-1100) Notes

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How much can be known about the organisation of Anglo-Saxon society before c. 850 AD?
The problem we face when trying to piece together the organisation of Anglo-Saxon society is in the scarcity and uneven distribution of surviving written sources from the period. Questions of rank structure, land-holding and individual rights and responsibilities are dealt with directly by only a handful of southern English law codes and charters (these largely surviving in later copies). Beyond this, we are left with little to go on other than incidental references in narrative literature. The law codes themselves are problematic, not least because they assume an understanding of the concepts being described (laws of the period generally only being issued as the need arose, to clarify a position on customary practice) but also because, as Campbell points out, they refer to only specific parts of a diverse and 'elaborately divided' land, and one that was, furthermore, being subjected to possibly radical social transformations. There is little, therefore, of which we can be fairly sure: there was certainly, by the ninth century, a complex system of rank being applied to Anglo-Saxon society, consisting broadly of the nobility at the top, with nominally free peasants below them and slaves or subject populations at the lowest level. Furthermore, the period as a whole was a dynamic one, in which traditional kin-group relationships and societal structures were diminishing in importance in favour of a system of subordination to a lord, a process probably spurred along in part by the adoption of Christianity from the seventh century. There is much more that we are unsure about. The relative sizes of and distinctions between various ranks of society are very difficult to discern from the sources, while the circumstances in which a person might have moved from one to another are ambiguous. The extent to which members of the peasant class were or remained "free" is also a major topic of debate, tied up closely with questions about the speed and significance of the spread of intensive lordship as an institution, about which we are equally unclear. Finally, there is debate about landholding practices, and particularly the prevalence of hereditary landholding by the lay nobility before the Norman Conquest, the first point that we can say for certain that it was the norm. It is clear, in short, that we have to resign ourselves to an imperfect and fragmentary understanding of the social organisation of most of England for most of the period. By extrapolating from the available contemporary sources and, where appropriate, classical and later material, and by making reference to the archaeological record, we can, however, begin to make some inroads. The rank structure of Anglo-Saxon society varied from kingdom to kingdom, and undoubtedly evolved over time. With reference to the law codes that survive from Kent and Wessex from the seventh century, we can create an accurate outline of the state of affairs in these two kingdoms. Given the apparent differences that exist even between these two contiguous realms, however, it is difficult to generalise with confidence about the rest of Anglo-Saxon Britain, particularly in the north, where Scandinavian influence was beginning to make itself felt by the ninth century, or to extend our conclusions significantly to later periods. The main discriminator of rank apparent in the law codes in both Kent and Wessex was the wergild, the fine to be paid for the unlawful killing of a member of that rank. Thus we know, because different wergilds are given for them, of at least three different ranks in each kingdom; noblemen (called earls in Kent and
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