In every society you have the elites and the rest. The percentage of people belonging to those two classes will fluctuate, and those broad categories are almost always broken down into further sub-categories, but in general, that’s how human societies tend to organize themselves.
The Anglo-Saxons were no different. The elites were made up of the Kings, Earldomen, and to a lesser extent, the thegns and the clergy. These were the powerful people, the ones with wealth and prestige. They owned the most land, and had the political power. The movers and shakers, as it were. It’s impossible to say exactly how many there were at that time, but suffice to say that they were not the majority. The majority of the people were the lower classes, those who were called the ceorls. We would call these the peasants.
The word ceorl is where we get our English word churl from, but that word has connotations that give us a false picture of this class of people in 7th century England. The ceorls were freemen who owned or rented land, or were the tradesmen who were the silversmiths, weavers, carpenters, etc. They would work the land cooperatively with their neighbours, often sharing the burden of planting and harvest. Which would mean they would live in close proximately to each other in order to accommodate this division of labour, and as well as for protection.
Often there was a lord, such as a thegn, to whom the ceorls would give either rent and/or labour to in exchange for protection. The thegn would also call on these ceorls as a fighting force, or fyrd, when needed.
That is the broad strokes. Looking more closely at the ceorls, you will discover that this class was further broken down into three sub-classes, divided up by how much land the ceorl owned and therefore how wealthy they were.
The highest class amongst the ceorls was the geneatas. These were the peasant aristocracy, who owned the most land, sometimes as much or more as a thegn. They might not have to work the thegn‘s land in exchange for his protection, but they would have to pay some kind of rent or payment for his services. This could be in the form of food or livestock, not just money. They also could be messengers for the thegn, or help build fences around his lord’s land, or even provide entertainment.
Below the geneatas were the kotsetla. They would provide labour on their lord’s land at least one day a week, and up to two or three days per week during harvest. The rest of the time they would work their own land. They could also do other work for the thegn, such as helping during the hunt or coast guarding duties. They could also be called up for duty in the fyrd.
The gerburas were the lowest class of ceorl. They owned the least amount of land, or none at all, and in order to survive had to depend on their lord for land they needed to produce the crops and livestock to feed themselves and their families. In exchange they would work the lord’s land, at least two days a week, and more during planting and harvest. They would not have much free time to improve their lot, and would have been the ones with the hardest lives in Anglo-Saxon England (excluding the slaves, whom I will write about in a future post).
It’s important to note that there was opportunity for movement between the classes. If one was born a gerbur, it didn’t mean you would necessarily be one for life, although, as I mentioned, the lower down you were the harder it was to move up.
But in Anglo-Saxons society, hard work and service to your lord, whether that be militarily or otherwise, could be rewarded with gifts of land or booty from the latest military campaign, so it was definitely possible for people to improve their lot in life–if not for them, at least for their children. A hard-working ceorl who fought valiantly at his lord’s side could find himself rewarded generously in land, bumping him up the social scale.
It was even possible for slaves to move up the social ladder, but that is a tale for the next post in this series! Stay tuned…
Note: this post is part of a series on the class levels that made up Anglo-Saxon society in 7th century Anglo-Saxon England. For other posts in this series, check out the links below:
Feature image is an artist’s reconstruction of Tintagel, off the coast of Cornwall, in 600 AD, from English Heritage
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