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How coherent a social group were landowners in late Anglo-Saxon England?
It is much easier to define and delineate groups of landowners in the earlier part of the Anglo-Saxon period than it becomes from the ninth century onwards. From the time of Danish settlement, economic developments and political upheaval, together with the consolidation of West Saxon royal power that was the result, meant that the legal basis and popular understanding of nobility was altered, becoming less dependent on landholding and more on service to a lord. The same factors, and the growth of intensive lordship itself, contributed to an increase in the possibility of social and economic mobility - in either direction - amongst the peasantry. The result was the greater stratification of landowning groups of society: the emergence of wealthy peasants as well as minor gentry. The characteristics that had once defined men, birth and landed wealth, could no longer be taken as reliable indicators of social status. Greater fluidity did not by any means amount to a wholesale restructuring of landholding or of social structure, although what Sir Steven Runciman called the 'irritatingly imprecise' terminology of rank in the sources of the later part of the period does indicate a more heterogeneous, less coherent social, and literal, landscape. It would be misleading to suggest that landowners in the earlier period formed a coherent social group: landowners in England had never belonged to a single rank. Nevertheless, Stenton's view that the free peasant was the basic economic unit in the early period still holds water, and forms the basis for our understanding of landholding in the early period. The seventh century Laws of Ine and Kentish law codes of the same period make it plausible for us to see landholding as divided between two strata of society, free peasants (ceorls) and the nobility (gesithcund men, or eorls), the latter of which was small in number. The majority of landowners, then, fell into the category of the free peasant, and although there was certainly variation in wealth and status within this class, reflected for example in the differences of the wergilds of various ranks of ceorl within Wessex and Kent, and the higher worth of a Kentish ceorl over his West Saxon counterpart, their common designation in the law codes points to a popular conception of them as part of the same social group. Nobles of this period, when kingdoms were smaller and more numerous, were still closely and personally associated with the king. To suggest that they remained little more than his personal retinue is perhaps pushing the case for continuity from the time of Tacitus too far, and we must appreciate that limited institutional administrative functions were beginning to be assigned to the nobility from an early date, however their designation in Wessex as gesithcund men (literally 'men of companion rank') points to the personal nature of the relationship, while the portrayal of this relationship in epic poetry shows that the ideal was still one of personal loyalty in return for good lordship. Thus, a small number of major landowners flourished, having been richly rewarded by their lords for their service with estates across the realm, from all but the closest of which they were able to exact some form of tribute in cash or kind, but not labour service. As the practice of granting land by charter became more common, first monastic institutions and then lay nobles gained perpetual control over these large landholdings. This picture was to change in the ninth century, however, when the political and economic situation led to an increase in the size of the nobility and the stratification of
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