The dark side of the Anglo-Saxons

The fantasy world created by JRR Tolkien in The Hobbit has contributed to a widely held image of Anglo-Saxon England as a lost rural idyll. Yet, says Ryan Lavelle, the reality was far less cuddly, blighted by slavery, sexism and great social inequalities.

This article was first published in the Christmas 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Readers of JRR Tolkien’s classic children’s fantasy novel The Hobbit have been enchanted as much by the cosy world of Bilbo Baggins as by the escapades that lead him from it. Bilbo’s “hole in the ground” and the green and pleasant land of the hobbits in which it is situated, the Shire, are shown in stark contrast to the dangers of the road that leads to adventure.

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Embodied in the imaginary figure of the hobbit, inhabiting a comfortable corner of ‘Middle-earth’ (later to be defended from evil in The Lord of the Rings), was Tolkien’s quintessential Englishman. Bilbo Baggins was portrayed as adventurous but not too adventurous, loving home comforts while able to make the best of uncomfortable surroundings, possessed of a good spirit, and ever resourceful, with a fierce loyalty where it counted.

The world through which the hobbit and his companions moved was the product of Tolkien’s deep knowledge and love of Anglo-Saxon culture. The Oxford professor of Old English shaped his fantastical landscape of Middle-earth with the myths of the northern world, such as the Old English epic Beowulf. But at the same time, we see Baggins leaving the comfortable surroundings of a place not unlike rural England; a place with an Anglo-Saxon name, and a past, ever intruding on the present, not unlike that of Anglo-Saxon England.

The Shire was not, of course, Anglo-Saxon England. It has been observed to have sat squarely in Tolkien’s own era, a mishmash of Victorian and Edwardian life, and closer to the early 20th century than the 10th.

But at the same time, Tolkien’s Shire, like his vision of England, was rural, with deep roots. This appealed to a British and American audience in the late 1930s, and it continues to do so around the world, not just to the young audience whom Tolkien’s publisher originally envisaged.

Imaginings of an idyllic rural age, informed by ideas of a lost medieval past, continue to make deep impressions, manifesting themselves, for example, in the vision of pre-industrial Britain realised so spectacularly in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. Such visions can be enchanting, and one cannot help but feel that is part of the appeal of looking at the Anglo-Saxon age. Unfortunately, from that enchantment also comes much idealisation.

Where Anglo-Saxons feature in popular consciousness, they are often portrayed, like Tolkien’s hobbits, as ideal country folk, rustic ancestors from a simpler age, versed in folklore, living close to the land in a society that was ‘tough but fair’, and with freedoms that later generations of English men and women strove to regain throughout the later Middle Ages and Early Modern period. (Paradoxically, these views do not exclude the spectacular treasures of Anglo-Saxon England, so the wealth of kings is seen to sit happily alongside ordinary people’s freedoms).

Some of these depictions can perpetuate Victorian readings of ‘Teutonic’ origins and racial supremacy but even when popular perceptions of ‘Anglo-Saxon identity’ avoid this, the idealism and hankering for a lost golden age show how history is often more about the ways in which we construct ourselves than about a past that is ‘real’.

There is nothing new in such a realisation, of course, but idealised Anglo-Saxons are as present in 21st‑century views of the past as they have ever been. Take the way that some members of re-enactment groups translate their recreation of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ culture into near ancestor-worship, or the manner in which the idealisation of the Anglo-Saxon past features in the interests of political groups – and not just those on the far right. Both cases show that an understanding of early medieval English history remains important, lest the romanticisation of the Anglo-Saxons becomes further entrenched.

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And, while it’s important that we understand how this romanticisation developed, it’s just as vital that we acknowledge that Anglo-Saxon society was less than egalitarian. In fact, it was about as far removed from the Tolkienesque landscape that is idealised by many, as Moria – Middle-earth’s vast, forbidding underground complex – is different from Bilbo Baggins’s Shire.

The Anglo-Saxons never were inhabitants of a rural idyll. Life in Anglo-Saxon society was tough but it was rarely fair. The Anglo-Saxons are often contrasted with their haughty Norman conquerors, but it is an irony that on the eve of the conquest of 1066, English society was as sharply hierarchical as that of Normandy, if not more so. Arguably, it was the acquisition of great swathes of landed wealth from a handful of very wealthy English landholders that allowed even the youngest of the Norman conquerors to become, as the Anglo-Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis observed, richer than their fathers in Normandy had been.

We often concentrate on the wealth of that new class of landholders and the dizzying spectacle of their grand building projects. In doing so, we lose sight of the nouveaux riches of previous generations: those who had accompanied and benefited from the conquest by the successful prince of Denmark, Cnut the Great, in 1016 (Danes, Anglo-Danes, but also those, such as the family of Harold Godwineson, who hailed from the English shires).

In earlier generations, there were other astoundingly rich magnates: Ælfhere, ealdorman of the Mercians, Æthelstan, ealdorman of the East Angles (later given the sobriquet ‘Half-King’), and Wulfric Spot, whose vast landholdings stretched from the Midlands to the North West. Such figures, appearing sporadically in surviving documents (and difficult to identify due to the Anglo-Saxons’ rare use of by-names), are often forgotten now but were no less important in
their own age – the decades of the 10th century prior to the height of the ‘Second Viking Age’.

The great magnates – related by degrees of kinship and, through marriage, to the royal family of the kingdom of Wessex – had flourished through their connections to one another and to a dynasty that steadily consolidated its hold over areas held by Viking lords in the Midlands and north of England during the early 10th century. Such figures as Ealdorman Ælfhere were at the forefront of the political machinations of the mid-10th century, a period that saw three different rulers in just over a decade, as well as considerable investment in religious patronage.

Early medieval bling

Despite their links with newly reformed monasteries, social elites defined themselves through their flaunting of material riches – as recent studies by Ann Williams of the University of East Anglia and Robin Fleming of Boston College in the USA have shown.

The gulf between the super-rich and poor was evidenced by the goods that Anglo-Saxons disposed of at death in a large (for this period) body of wills from monastic archives. In life, England’s nobility brandished their wealth through bodily adornments in precious silk and in jewellery, and in the vaunting of arms and armour. Little wonder, then, that their wills display an almost desperate wish to off-load the riches acquired in life, to ensure smooth entry to a heavenly hereafter. Other documents show how Anglo-Saxon authors were concerned with ensuring that people stuck to their social positions in a manner reminiscent of the ‘feudal’ society often associated with Norman England.

Classic medieval thinking on the ‘three orders’ of society – which played such an important role across high medieval Europe – had its origins in the Old English writing attributed to the court of King Alfred the Great of Wessex (reigned 871–99). Alfred oversaw the adaptation of the Consolation of Philosophy – a work first written by the late Roman thinker Boethius – into the English language of his court and kingdom. In a passage that is not in the original Latin version, Alfred referred to the tools available to a king. These included “praying men, fighting men, and working men”.

Alfred did not spell out that fighting men needed to have been affluent to do their jobs (just as the medieval knight of a later age needed a certain amount of wealth) but the implication was there: they were set apart from the labouring classes and those who fulfilled a religious role. Here was a social class, a social ‘order’ no less, whose position came from their specialist military role.

This was a far cry from the popular image of the defence of Alfred’s West Saxon kingdom by a nation in arms, an idea that owes more to a Victorian sense of state and nationhood than it does to the evidence of the late Anglo-Saxon period.
Wulfstan, archbishop of York during the reigns of Æthelred the Unready and Cnut (978–1016 and 1016–35), is the likely author of other texts on social status.

Looking wistfully to a time when people knew their station, he indicates that there was room for social mobility. A free landholder could become the equivalent of a knight – a thegn – if he had “five hides of land of his own” (along with other privileges linking him to the royal court), and a merchant might do so if he had crossed the sea three times.

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Wealth and favour

Evidently, if you were smart and lucky, you could prosper, but to do so you still needed wealth and favour. And, as with so many societies, the need to make important social connections – at best with the royal household or at least with the household of someone at court – lay at the heart of the aspiration.

But what of those at the very bottom of the social ladder – slaves? Slavery flourished throughout the early Middle Ages – thanks to the raiding activities practised by Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. And the slave trade wasn’t confined to times of war – the famines that blighted the country all-too regularly in peacetime were just as likely to drive free people to selling themselves or family members into slavery.

Slaves were freed regularly – in the terminology of the day, ‘manumitted’ – for the sake of the soul of his or her owner. Yet this didn’t give slaves much realistic hope of achieving earthly redemption for themselves. In fact, in a society that denied thousands of its members the right to legally own property, and forced them to do the dirtiest of jobs, such manumissions were a drop in the ocean.

In Domesday Book, by far the most detailed record of the Anglo-Saxon economy, slaves were recorded as making up between one tenth and a quarter of the rural population in some areas, especially in the west of England.

Precise assessments are impossible because of the ways in which Domesday Book was compiled, leading to such errors as the assumption that northern ‘Anglo-Scandinavian’ society was in some ways ‘freer’ than the south. It may be that some people were called slaves because they did particular tasks, such as ploughing, on a lord’s land, while other agricultural workers, known by titles such as coliberti or bordarii, lived in similarly oppressed states.

Nonetheless, Domesday Book does reveal the significance of slavery. We know too from other sources that slaves ran away – Archbishop Wulfstan complained that at the times of Viking raids slaves might join Viking war bands – and might be fettered.

From nuggets of evidence of a social class who made little impression on records, we can deduce that life for a slave was harsh. We therefore cannot talk of social equality within an early medieval society when so many members of that society were deemed to have been legally unfree, incapable of raising their position.
Yet slaves weren’t the only section of the population facing huge inequalities in Anglo-Saxon society.

It seems that injustice and inequality were a fact of everyday life for women.
The Anglo-Saxon period is often seen as a golden age for women, especially in the light of the enforced marriages to widows that took place after the Norman conquest.

Many Anglo-Saxon wills are those of women, suggesting that female property-owning was widespread. What’s more, historians have held up Æthelflæd, ‘Lady of the Mercians’ and King Alfred’s daughter, as an example of a powerful Anglo-Saxon political woman, as she ruled territory and won wars in her own right. But she was an exception.

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A woman’s status in law remained that of her father or husband, and, though there were legal protections for the disposal of property for women, its control within a family often appears to have been influenced by male family members. It was no coincidence that the Norman conquerors forcibly married English widows after 1066. Though allowing for escape from forced marriage, English law did not consistently prohibit such marriage, suggesting that social pressures often determined a woman’s fate.

Big man’s justice

And it is in law that the disparities in Anglo-Saxon society become most apparent. The ‘ceorl’ (the lowest of ‘free men’) is often held up as a figure representative of English freedoms.

A free man holding or even owning his own property is seen as the foundation of respectable Anglo-Saxon society. Such people had political voices at a local level, and could even appeal to the king (or at least his agents) but the basis on which this happened was not free or fair, and was certainly not meritocratic.

The ‘big men’ within local society had law on their side, as their legal protection (their ‘man-price’ or wer-geld) differed substantially, as did the value of their word. In one legal text on Mercian law, the oath of a thegn was reckoned to be worth that of six men of lower status, meaning that a thegn, likely to be a local bigwig, had far greater influence in law. Despite these inequalities, the foundations of English law can be traced to the early medieval period. They may have differed in West Saxon, Mercian and Northumbrian areas (the latter
being that most densely settled by Scandinavians) but legal representation was, nonetheless, available.

This mattered to later generations. Twelfth‑century authors such as Henry of Huntingdon and Orderic Vitalis, despite their Norman links, bemoaned the loss of land and freedom thought to have been possessed by the Anglo-Saxons. But it was in the 16th and 17th centuries, with historical debates on absolutism and (contrary to the evidence) a sense that the Anglo-Saxons had been separate from the Roman church, that an awareness of the power of the Anglo-Saxon past became a powerful force.

Some authors, such as the Cambridge historian Isaac Dorislaus, used the idea of ‘Saxon’ England’s Germanic links to emphasise the democratic freedoms thought to have been enjoyed in the pre-Conquest past. Such ideas, considered seditious by many, fed into the cauldron of political radicalism from which the Civil Wars emerged. The key belief was that the Anglo-Saxon freedoms had been taken away and a ‘Norman Yoke’ had been imposed, and that this was still held over the English people by despotic monarchs.

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The desire of more radical thinkers, such as the Leveller John Lilburne, to get back to a golden age was not far from the surface, too. The Norman oppression of the freeborn Englishman was cited frequently during the Civil War and its aftermath.
The legacy of the idea of a lost golden age and Norman oppression has remained a presence in British and indeed American society. Whigs and liberals in the 18th and 19th centuries loved what they saw as the constitutional monarchy of King Alfred, for example, and though the interest in Germanic culture dipped following the outbreak of the First World War, the sense of the Englishman defending his home soil continued to have resonance during the 20th century.

Across the Atlantic, Americans regarded the constitutional freedoms set out by the Founding Fathers as a renewal of ancient liberties enjoyed by ‘Teutonic’ ancestors, no longer sullied by an association with Norman monarchical despotism.

With so many levels of association to unpick, it is little wonder that our relationship with the Anglo-Saxons remains complex. Though it is unfair to treat Tolkien’s interpretations as historical, let alone socio-historical, one little hobbit’s appearance on a big screen will nevertheless add another layer to the Anglo-Saxons’ saga. If his previous Lord of the Rings films are anything to go by, Peter Jackson’s renewed vision of Middle-earth will have been informed, like Tolkien’s, by a web of fantasy, history and legend.

When a new generation of scholars comes to the study of the early medieval past through viewing the film and its predecessors, they will have already encountered much that will be familiar to them. That can only be a boon in bringing people to the rich seams of culture found in the study of Anglo-Saxon England and its neighbours. But it should not be allowed to overshadow the grittier realities of a period that was by no means a ‘golden age’. 

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Ryan Lavelle is lecturer in medieval history at the University of Winchester, and the author of Alfred’s Wars, published by Boydell.