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Change In Peasant Society In Tenth And Eleventh Centuries Essay

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

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In what ways and why did peasant society change in the tenth and eleventh centuries?
The story of the development of rural society in late Anglo-Saxon England is broadly but not uniformly that of the decline of the economic independence of the peasantry with the rise of the manor and a system of intensive lordship, a process that laid the foundations for the familiar system of feudal landholding that existed under England's Norman kings. Although the decline of the Stentonian 'free peasant' had its beginnings much earlier, the tenth and eleventh centuries saw an acceleration of the peasantry's subjugation. This was due on the one hand to the increased need to seek lords of a peasantry faced with grave social and economic problems, not least of which was the renewed threat of invasion from Scandinavia and the continent, and on the other hand to what Campbell and Loyn term an increase in activity on the part of the 'state'; the power of kings and their governments was increasing, and a system of intensive lordship over the population developed alongside stronger royal administration and served that administration's needs. The picture across England was far from regular, however: regional variations in landholding and society are very evident in the sources, and there is a particular distinction between the Danelaw and the rest of the country. The distinction between economic and legal independence is also one to bear in mind, for wealth and status were often not as reliant upon one-another as we might think, though arguably this was less so after the Conquest. It is worth mentioning that in any discussion of peasant society we are, of course, somewhat limited by the corpus of surviving evidence, particularly the primary narrative sources, which provide little insight into the lives of those not part of the warrior aristocracy. The legal evidence is far more illuminating, however, and it is to law codes, charters and wills that we turn to build a picture of agrarian society, albeit one that is perhaps overly schematic, given the tendency of legal sources to categorise and the vested interest of many of their authors in the promotion of a clear hierarchical structure. We are particularly fortunate in this regard to have the Domesday Book, which, though not without ambiguity, goes a long way towards filling in the highly varied socio-economic map of the country at the end of the Anglo-Saxon period. Placename evidence and archaeology help to complete the picture, the former speaking volumes for the extent of lordship and the latter for the types of specialised activity that might have taken place within the context of a wider agrarian community. To understand the nature and extent of the changes taking place in the tenth and eleventh centuries, we are hard pressed to find a better starting point than the work of Rosalind Faith, which it is convenient to use now in summary: Faith sees the crucial development of the period as the emergence of small, locally contained estates from the fragmentation of the so-called 'multiple estates' of the earlier period into their component parts. Among the best evidence for this is the body of place-names, which often display different personal elements in a small geographical area, together with the seigneurial 'tun' and 'burh' suffixes. The smaller size of estates allowed more direct control by the landlord who built on the increasing security of his tenure from charters, long monastic leases or inheritance to create a 'magnate farmstead', and brought peasants who had previously lived with relative independence on warland or 'sokeland'
- those areas removed geographically from the lord - into more direct involvement in the seigneurial economy. Farming memoranda, Domesday Book and documents such as
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