One of the essential things to understand about any society or culture that an author wants to write about is how that society is composed. Who, exactly, are the broad groups of people who populate that society, and how to they interact with each other?
If you are making up a fantasy world, these are all elements that you need to figure out for yourself. Which can be very tricky, and I give full marks for those who attempt this. Especially in a short story! It’s hard!
However, if you write historical speculative fiction, you at least have something to fall back on when it comes to setting your characters in a real time and place. Which is one of the reasons I chose to write historical fantasy, besides the fact that I love it!
Along with food, clothing, and shelter, this was one of the first things I started to research when I began thinking about my book. And, as is the case with all things Dark Ages, it’s not as easy as you might think.
The usual caveats apply. There is a lot we simply don’t know about life in the Early Middle Ages, as there is very little written records which survive, nor is there much in the way of physical objects or even buildings. That means there is a lot of educated guessing that goes on. However, the more I research this fascinating era the more I see that there is perhaps more to be known about this culture than it might seem at first glance.
It is tricky, though. There’s more to be known about the last part of the 7th century, from about the 700s onwards to the Norman Conquest, in 1066 AD. The earlier part, which is where my book is set, starting in 642 AD, is murkier. So part of what you do is to examine what you know for certain about the later eras and extrapolate backwards.
The Domesday Book is a great help with this. This is a record of all the land held by people in Britain, commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1085 AD. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the book this way:
Then, at the midwinter , was the king in Glocester with his council … . After this had the king a large meeting, and very deep consultation with his council, about this land; how it was occupied, and by what sort of men. Then sent he his men over all England into each shire; commissioning them to find out “How many hundreds of hides were in the shire, what land the king himself had, and what stock upon the land; or, what dues he ought to have by the year from the shire.
In other words, it was all about taxes. The name Domesday came from the Middle English word for “Doomsday”, showing a distinct flair for the ironic. Just like at the Last Judgement, once recorded in the book, the judgements based on what was found there could not be appealed.
William’s commissioners fanned out across England and visited every city, town, and land owner, and recorded what they found there. This was the most extensive survey ever done in Britain, and indeed was the most extensive survey done up until 1873 when a similar survey gave an updated snapshot of the distribution of land in Britain.
So we know exactly who owned what land, and how much they had, and what classes of people the landowners belonged to, in 1085 AD. This has been an invaluable tool for historians to get a picture of what Britain looked like just after the Norman conquest. But, as I said, it also allows us to see a dim picture of what it might have looked like in the centuries before, as well, for you can compare town names with ones we know for sure that existed in the Early Middle Ages, for example.
And as I said, you don’t just get who owned what, the Domesday Book records what class of people owned what. So you get a list of the different classes found in Britain at the time, and again, you can compare that with what we know of the earlier era from Bede, or other poems or letters that have survived.
Of course, between the Domesday Book and the 7th century you have the little matter of the Viking invasions, which brought about some societal and cultural changes of its own.
So…educated guesses are what we have to work with, which I suppose is the case in understanding most of history, but especially so for this time and place. And, as I always like to remind you, I am an amateur historian at best! If you have more extensive knowledge on this era and see an inaccuracy in the information I present in this series or in any of the posts I write about the people, places and times of 7th century Britain, please let me know.
Just a word, however, about artistic license. In my books I present the setting, culture, and history of the mid-seventh century as accurately as I can, but there are times when I have to fudge a bit, simply because it works best for my story to do so. I try not to fudge too far outside the lines, but even so. And there are times when, because certain things are murky and there are various historians who might have some disagreements about one facet of the culture or another, that I choose one explanation over another. It’s a novel, not a historical textbook, after all.
Final caveat: for the purposes of this series, I am going to explain the society of the times from the Anglo-Saxon point of view. The native British Celts had a slightly different societal structure, which I can maybe explore in a different series.
I hope you will join me! It will be fun!
Feature image is an artist’s reconstruction of Tintagel, off the coast of Cornwall, in 600 AD, from English Heritage
Posts in this series: