Thursday, October 20, 2005

Anglo-Saxon society

Subsistence farming'There is little evidence from which to reconstruct the daily lives and social structure of the early post-Roman peoples, but the evidence that does exist points towards a society reverting to subsistence farming within the context of an unpredictable political scene,' says Anglo-Saxon specialist Andrew Reynolds.
The typical subsistence farming family would have lived under the rules of their particular chief or king. The standard home appears to have been what archaeologists call a 'sunken featured building' (SFB), but there is also some evidence for the continued use of Roman buildings as well. SFBs used to lead archaeologists to believe that people lived in squalor (thus confirming popular misconceptions about the 'Dark' Ages) because they are usually found full of domestic rubbish. However, that is now considered unlikely and the current theory is that the sunken level is an underfloor cavity that would have been used for storage.
Social classesSociety was divided into several social classes with the king or chief at the top. Below the king were two levels of freemen: thanes and ceorls (pronounced churls). The division between these two was one of land ownership. Below the thanes and ceorls were slaves and tenant peasants.
ClothingIt appears that in these early times the robe or tunic, gathered at the waist, was the common garment for a man, together with hose and soft shoes. Women appear to have more commonly worn an extended robe or dress. Brooches were used for attaching clothing and the status of individuals has been reflected in the quality and richness of the brooches found with grave goods.
TradeThe average family would have required many items that could not be produced on the smallholding. Trade and markets played an important part in everyday life. Certain products like salt, iron, wine, stone, tools and weapons were traded over wide areas. Though coinage was used to some degree by ruling classes it was nothing like as prominent in society as it was during the Roman occupation. Many people would have existed by using a bartering system, exchanging their excess produce for the items they needed.
Crafts and skillsSome skilled people would have used their crafts to produce items that they could then exchange or sell in order to survive. An example would have been the metalworker who could produce and repair tools as well as make items of jewellery, charms and brooches to present at market. We know from archaeological finds that some of these people were very skilled and produced fine work.
The dedicated metal workshop would have contained a small stoking furnace (if working with bronze) or a large funnel furnace (if working with iron), an hearth for heating metal when shaping it, and a workbench with associated tools. Depending on the items being produced the whole operation might have been no bigger than a modern garden shed, or it could have been a larger affair with several people working at once. Other cottage industries would have contributed to the family economy. Textile production, leather working and even brewing were all popular skills employed by the Anglo-Saxons.
Belief systemsMany attempts have been made to understand the belief systems of the Anglo-Saxon peoples. Using place-name investigation, written evidence and archaeology a picture of Anglo-Saxon ritual and religious practice has been constructed. Archaeologists now understand that the Early Anglo-Saxons lived a Pagan life worshipping a range of gods that catered for different needs.Place-name evidenceMany of the towns, villages, fields and parishes that we know today still carry traces of their Pagan origins in their place-names. These can be good indicators for religious practice. The Anglo-Saxon word hearg, for example, means 'sacred grove' or 'idol'. Hearg has evolved through time to be known as Harrow today. We can identify the location of sacred Saxon sites by the names many places still carry today, such as Harrow in Middlesex, Harrow Hill in Sussex and Harrowden in Bedfordshire.
Other names relate directly to those of Pagan gods, such as Woden (Wodnesfeld in Essex means Woden's field) and Thunor (Thursley in Sussex means Thunor's grove). We also know the gods of Tiw, Thor and Friya in our days of the week (Tuesday, Thursday and Friday respectively).
Written evidenceThere is no written evidence directly from this early period that relates to Pagan practice. In effect we are dealing with a 'prehistoric' period – a time before written history. Archaeologists have had to draw on sources from both before and after the period to try to understand how people lived. It seems that religion was not a source of spiritual revelation, but more a means of insurance for one's worries. People would create charms or invocations to different gods to ensure success in material things such as good crops or success in battle.
Archaeological evidenceExcavation has presented the largest body of evidence for Pagan practice, including temples, shrines, burials and cremations. The varying status of burials indicates the different strata of a chiefdom society and the presence of grave goods is good evidence for the early Anglo-Saxons believing in the afterlife. Some multiple burials have hinted at the possibility that female servants (or slaves) may have been sacrificed on the death of their male owner to accompany them in the next world.
Law and orderAgain, much of what we know about Anglo-Saxon law and order comes from sources later in the period because there is limited evidence from the earlier times. We do know that the popular image of unruly groups dealing out their own brand of retribution whenever they saw fit is not very accurate. Anglo-Saxon chiefs and kings operated a fearsomely efficient judicial system, which included drowning, decapitation, hanging, stoning, burning and mutilation as punishments for different crimes. In their pursuit of law and order the ruling classes could be ruthless and fully understood the political mileage to be obtained in the punishment of criminals.
Execution sites would have been a common sight at many settlements, prominent boundaries and road junctions. A passing traveller would have been under no illusion about the need to behave in any given district. Some crimes carried set punishments. Swearing false oaths (lying), for example, would carry a sentence of 40 or 120 days confinement. The crime of minting forged coinage was punished by cutting off the offender's hands and nailing them to the door of the illegal premises.
A judicial ordeal would take place if any doubt surrounded a person's guilt. Ordeals took place at sacred sites or (later in the period) in prominent churches. The ordeals would take different forms, including hot irons, cold water and stones drawn from boiling water applied for set periods until a confession was obtained or innocence confirmed.


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