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Chapter 1 sets out the project of the book: to understand how medieval lords came to be able to appropriate the labour of peasants, something that was not fully achieved until after the Norman Conquest. This chronology can partly be explained by the fact that the rural economy of Anglo-Saxon England, which produced little surplus, imposed restraints on the extent to which lords were able to exploit peasants. While those working on the ‘inlands’, the most highly exploited sectors of lordships, were virtual serfs, the peasantry of the ‘warland’ which owed public burdens, were free members of the polity. The book suggests that changes in this situation can be sought in the ‘moral economy’. This term, used by Edward Thompson and James Scott , stands for the structure of values which all members of a society believed should govern their dealings with one another. Rank, reciprocity and reputation are selected as particularly important values and the chapter outlines how they will be followed up. The concepts of ‘peasants’, ‘feudal’ and ‘feudal revolution’ are discussed with reference to the work of Susan Reynolds and Chris Wickham and the chapter ends with remarks on the cultural context of some of our most trusted works of reference: dictionaries.
The first part of this chapter draws attention to some largely overlooked passages in the early twelfth-century legal compilation, Leis Willelme. This largely consists of Old English laws but contains some additions which were designed to remedy the deficiencies of those laws when it came to disciplining the peasantry. They would also, if put into effect, have considerably undermined the traditional system of vouching to warranty. The second part of the chapter describes a late twelfth-century view of how matters were settled between the newcomers and the indigenous landholders in the aftermath of the Conquest. Richard FitzNigel’s ‘Dialogue of the Exchequer’ describes a fractured process, one of negotiation and re-negotiation before ‘lawful agreements’ were arrived at, conveying ‘inviolable right’. That this became an accepted narrative, justifying e social relationships throughout society appears in Bracton’s doctrine of villeinage in the thirteenth century and that of the author of ‘the Mirror of Justices’ early in the fourteenth.
Notions of a person’s ‘worth’ were socially created, This chapter looks for the notions of worth involved in the multifarious everyday transactions between people. As so much depended on others, peasant farmers could not afford to trust anyone who was not of good reputation. Fair dealing and the common good were important in the moral economy of working life not because transactions between neighbours were altruistic, nor even necessarily friendly, but because they were essential. Tenth century laws regulating the hundred built on a moral economy which valued good reputation and personal knowledge and in which co-operation mattered. Courts came to collective decisions, sworn oaths established truth and standing surety for another person meant that personal knowledge of the accused was essential. The witness of neighbours was vital when it came to questions of land: boundary clauses from the ninth and tenth century were based on detailed knowledge which only local people could provide. Peasant farmers became more formally part of the financial system when heregeld began to be levied.
Chapter 2 sets to exemplify the range of meanings of lordship, one of the most important ideas that structured how people in Anglo-Saxon society thought about their world . Lordship provided a vocabulary of power: the king is ‘lord’ of all free men,. The administration of justice and maintaining social order depended very largely on individuals being ‘vouched for’ by lords who were legally bound to speak on their behalf . Lordship was idealised as a personal relationship as well as an institutional one, and poeticised in the figure of Beowulf, surrounded by his faithful troop of men. Many inland peasants were highly exploited by their land-hlafordas, the lords of the estates on which they lived and ealdormen had authority over small regions, but political authority was not yet inherent in the ownership of land: in that sense, Anglo-Saxon England was not a ‘feudal’ society. Lordship embedded hierarchy in a much closer and more personal connection through the relationship known as mannrӕdenn, ‘manrent’, or commendation.
The first part of this chapter draws attention to the elements which show a concern for reciprocal entitlements and obligations in some works associated with Archbishop Wulfstan, arguing that these can more usefully be read as works of morality rather than as estate literature. The second part relates a little-studied remark in his ‘Sermon of the Wolf’ to a context of the proliferation of small lordships, bringing increased pressure on the local peasantry.
Domesday Book was linguistically speaking an Anglo-Norman record using Latinized versions of French, not English, terms. This chapter asks: did Norman Latin bring into England some Norman ideas about land and people? There was no Old English equivalent for manerium : ‘manor’ was a word which the Domesday enquiry itself made necessary. Domesday Book’s terms for the mass of people, such as villani , are also imports and reflect Norman views of peasants. Key terms in Domesday entries are those connected with holding land from another person: the debate about how we might interpret these is briefly visited before concluding that tenure itself was a Norman idea imported in Norman heads.
The values of the pre-Conquest moral economy had derived their strength from the fact that they were widely held across society and are best understood as the response of people to their circumstances and to their ideas about their own history. After 1066 what had been a largely free peasantry became drawn into the orbit of a new entity, the ‘manor’, and by the late twelfth century for many this meant an obligation to supply lords with labour. The chapter then turns to the nature of resistance, enquiring why ordinary uneducated English people so often and so persistently claimed to be free. One relevant factor is a longstanding acquaintance with, and veneration for, the law. It was because peasants had shown themselves to be litigants that the legal definitions of villein status and tenure were developed. Another factor, respect for the official written record was a feature of rural life throughout the middle ages. The Norman Conquest had brought profound social change which entailed not only a new form of social relations, those of feudal tenure, but also a new kind of moral economy, that of ‘feudal thinking’. If peasants in the later middle ages felt that they had lost the freedom their predecessors enjoyed, they had good reasons for doing so.
This chapter demonstrates how the idea of reciprocity: the idea of ‘what is owed in return’ permeated ordinary life. Wergeld was what a free man could honourably accept in return for an affront. Anglo-Saxon kings and their entourages were supported by a system of ‘uplifting’ resembling that of the Scottish clan chieftains, provided with food and drink and fodder collected from the farms of the districts they travelled through. The peasant families of the kingdom were expected to feed the king and his familia as if this remote group of high personages were literally their guests. It is suggested that the system may have originated in a period when the people of small regions were obliged to hand over produce to support a dominant figure with whom they felt a strong connection. The evidence suggests of later manorial custom suggests that hospitality continued to provide a language in which social relationships, even exploitative ones, might be expressed in a way which preserved people’s sense of worth.
This chapter questions whether FitzNigel’s account of negotiated agreements is a credible description of the situation of peasants vis-à-vis their lords. It does so by looking at estate policies. Pre-Conquest surveys show categories of people whose livelihood depended on their working on a landowner’s inland and whose forebears and descendants were similarly dependent. Twelfth-century surveys show landowners beginning to require a record of what they could expect from named individuals among the rest of the peasantry. These documents were frequently headed by the names of jurors who had sworn to their veracity so obligations were now legalised. The detail in which they were recorded show that ‘custom’ was not what had been the case ‘from time immemorial’, but what had been negotiated and agreed to be owed from what was now a ‘tenement’.
This chapter argues that reciprocity was built into the moral economy of the family farm. It is central to the moral economy of the peasant household that its members constitute the labour force for the farm. Without the produce of the farm the household would starve, without the work of the household the farm could not produce food. Households of all kinds centred on hearths. Having a hearth of one’s own was a crucial signifier of status: to be ‘hearth-fast’ entitled a person, however poor, to a place in the public world and subject to its obligations. The hearth, with its fire alight, was long taken to symbolise the ownership of land and to bring entitlement to a share in one of the most valuable resources of a rural community: rights to pasture and the family farm was the basis of the measuring unit the ‘hide’. The domestic economy had its own hierarchy in which a lord is a hlaford a ‘loaf-keeper’, a lady a hlædige , a ‘loaf-kneader’and to be someone’s ‘loaf-eater’ was to be their dependant, but one with an entitlement to protection: such people were the ‘boarders’, the bordarii , of Domesday Book. Passing on the farm within the family was as vital to peasant society as inheriting family land was to the elite.
This chapter looks at the belief, expressed in Wulfstan’s work Geþyncđu, that the public obligations inherent in the right order of society were closely connected with landholding. His concern that holding five hides should underpin the standing of those active in public life was part of a moral order in which for young nobles and peasant boys alike, acquiring land was the gateway to marriage and the establishment of a family . These should mark the beginning of a man’s life as a responsible and armed member of society. At the root of this concern is the lesson of the past expressed, and still read in Wulstan’s time, of Gildas’ narrative of the ‘Downfall of Britain’: England was vulnerable to invasion.
Chapter 3 argues that a particularly powerful ‘legitimising notion’ was that people’s rights, status, and even their ownership of property, derive from the remote past, even if this was often an imagined past. Anglo-Saxon conquest narratives played a very important part in forming an ‘imagined community’, a people’s sense of their common identity, invoked particularly when the country was under threat. The narrative of Gildas’ ‘Downfall of Britain’ recurs throughout the book as legitimising the association of freedom, land, and public obligation.
This chapter suggests that while the landholding elite had developed a strong sense of itself as a distinct social group with interests in common, peasants were slower to do so. Part of the explanation for this may lie in the fact that there were some obvious distinctions between those who worked in exchange for holdings on manorial inlands and those with independent farms on the hidated land of the warland. Reasons why collective action employed in resistance to landlord demands took a long time to build in England at a time may have included Norman violence, or the threat of it. Pressure on peasants after the Conquest could well have taken some time to build up, as new lords took time to consolidate, let alone increase, what they expected their tenants to provide. Many peasants in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries would have had no reason to regard themselves as members of an inferior class: feudal tenure did not distinguish peasants from the rest of the free: it took the work of lawyers constructing the law of villeinage, case by case, to do that. Only when the manor became fully effective as an economic unit would peasants would become capable of acting as a ‘political’ community with a common interest.