Life in Anglo-Saxon England

1. Introduction

The Anglo-Saxon period lasted for some six centuries, from the arrival of Germanic invaders from the continent during the early fifth century AD to the Norman Conquest of 1066. This was a time of immense political and social upheaval which saw major changes in almost all aspects of everyday life. The early pagan settlers lived mainly by farming (see Unit 9, Farming), and formed a number of separate — and warring — kingdoms. By around 700 AD, there appears to have been a ‘Heptarchy’ of seven kingdoms (Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Wessex, Essex, Sussex and Kent), while the main four in the ninth century were Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. The boundaries fluctuated, and later divisions between England and other parts of mainland Britain were not yet in existence. Hence the Mercian kingdom included parts of what is now Wales, and the Northumbrian kingdom extended into the border counties of present-day Scotland. Conversion to Christianity took place mainly during the seventh and eighth centuries, leading to the introduction of Latin literacy and to the founding of monasteries as centres of learning and culture. From the late eighth century onwards, the Anglo-Saxons suffered repeated attacks by Danish invaders from the continent, sometimes referred to as Vikings. They began by plundering the wealthy monasteries, which often occupied isolated and vulnerable positions, and moved on to a serious plan of invasion. The only effective defence was offered by the king of Wessex, Alfred ‘the Great’ (871–899), who succeeded not only in establishing a treaty with the Danes but in uniting the Anglo-Saxons themselves into a single nation under his rule. Mindful of falling standards of literacy and learning partly resulting from the Viking invasions, he also initiated a plan of educational reform which focused on the production of manuscripts written in English rather than Latin. The treaty established by Alfred allocated the north and east of the country to the Danes — the area known as the ‘Danelaw’ — and the south and west to the English. Even today, the variety of English spoken in the former Danelaw contains traces of Scandinavian vocabulary, and the area is demarcated by a large number of Scandinavian place-names, characteristically ending in -by or -thorpe. During the reigns of Alfred’s successors, the Danelaw was gradually reconquered, and the Scandinavian settlers were integrated into Anglo-Saxon society. However, Danish attacks began again during the late tenth century and continued with increasing ferocity throughout the reign of King Æthelred ‘the Unready’ (978–1016), culminating in the accession to the English throne of a Danish king, Cnut, in 1016.

2. Law

Anglo-Saxon kings were prolific legislators, and a number of law-codes survive from the seventh to eleventh centuries. The earliest have much in common with continental Germanic law, including a ‘personal injury tariff’ or schedule of compensation for various kinds of bodily injuries. Under seventh-century Kentish law, for instance, the sum of 12 shillings was payable for cutting off an ear, 30 shillings for disabling a shoulder, and 50 shillings for putting out an eye. Knocking out a front tooth was assessed at a higher rate of compensation than knocking out a back tooth, while a finger was worth twice as much as a toe. Homicide required payment of the wergild, literally ‘man-price’, a sum which varied according to social class (see below, section 5). The Anglo-Saxon settlers had brought with them the Germanic system of blood-feud, whereby the relatives of a murder victim were expected to avenge him, and one of the aims of the early laws was to reduce the number of revenge killings by substituting a scale of financial compensation. Later laws reflect the growing influence of the church, as for instance with the introduction of fines for offences against ecclesiastical officials, and a preference for mutilation over the death penalty in order to give the offender time to repent. Laws were also issued to enforce religious practices such as infant baptism, fasting and Sunday observance; and practical benefits can be seen in the granting of religious festivals as holidays. The church’s influence was not always benevolent, however. Laws on marriage were fiercely regulated to forbid unions between distant relatives or those connected through god-parents; and whereas a woman who committed adultery during the seventh century suffered only financial penalties, Cnut’s law-code directs that she was to lose her nose and ears.

3. Life expectancy

Life was more dangerous in Anglo-Saxon England than in modern times; and in addition to the hazards of war, feud, and capital punishment, Anglo-Saxons could be at risk from famine and epidemics, as well as from a range of endemic diseases including degenerative arthritis, leprosy and tuberculosis. Life expectancy appears, from archaeological evidence, to have been in the thirties (although there are many instances of people living much longer), and infant mortality was high. Nevertheless, it was possible for children to survive to adulthood despite severe disabilities. Archaeological evidence has revealed burials of adults with congenital defects such as a missing arm, and one of Alfred’s laws makes a father responsible for crimes committed by his deaf and dumb son.

4. Literature

A substantial literature survives from Anglo-Saxon England in both Latin and Old English. Some Old English texts represent translations from Latin, as for instance those produced or commissioned by Alfred as part of his plan of educational reform (see above, section 1). An example is the Old English translation of the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ written in Latin by the English monk and historian Bede (c.673–735), which is the source of much of our knowledge about the early Anglo-Saxon period. Another important source of information is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an original historical work in Old English probably also instigated by Alfred. This takes the form of an annalistic record of events from the invasion of Britain by Julius Caesar in 55 BC (incorrectly dated 60 BC) to the end of the Anglo-Saxon period and beyond. The first version was apparently drawn up retrospectively in the early 890s, with copies then being distributed to different parts of the kingdom to be continued as local records. Seven manuscripts of the Chronicle survive, presenting similar information in the early entries but diverging considerably in the later sections.

Other original writings in Old English include sermons, saints’ lives and wills. Anglo-Saxon law-codes (see above, section 2) are unusual in being written in Old English rather than in Latin, the language used for continental Germanic legislation. Other legal documents, such as charters recording land transactions, tended to be written in Latin, but often included ‘boundary clauses’ setting out the boundaries of estates in Old English (see Unit 11 Landscape). Medical texts were written in both Latin and Old English. and focus mainly on herbal remedies.

About 30,000 lines of Old English poetry survive, representing a range of genres including elegies, heroic verse, love poetry, dream vision, narrative, religious poetry and riddles. Most are preserved in four manuscripts dating from the late tenth or early eleventh centuries. These are known as the Exeter Book (now in Exeter Cathedral), the Vercelli Book (now in the town of Vercelli, Italy), the Beowulf Manuscript (now in the British Library, London) and the Junius Manuscript (now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford). A smaller amount of poetry survives in other sources, including the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, where some of the entries are in verse rather than prose.

5. Social class

The main division in Anglo-Saxon society was between slave and free. Both groups were hierarchically structured, with several classes of freemen and many types of slaves. These varied at different times and in different areas, but the most prominent ranks within free society were the king, the nobleman or thegn, and the ordinary freeman or ceorl. They were differentiated primarily by the value of their wergild or ‘man price’, which was not only the amount payable in compensation for homicide (see above, section 2), but was also used as the basis for other legal formulations such as the value of the oath that they could swear in a court of law. Slaves had no wergild, as offences against them were taken to be offences against their owners, but the earliest laws set out a detailed scale of penalties depending both on the type of slave and the rank of owner.

A certain amount of social mobility is implied by regulations detailing the conditions under which a ceorl could become a thegn. Again these would have been subject to local variation, but one text refers to the possession of five hides of land (around 600 acres), a bell and a castle-gate, a seat and a special office in the king’s hall. England had trading connections with the continent, and a merchant who had travelled overseas three times at his own expense could similarly be raised to the rank of thegn. Loss of status could also occur, as with penal slavery, which could be imposed not only on the perpetrator of a crime but on his wife and family. Some slaves may have been members of the native British population conquered by the Anglo-Saxons when they arrived from the continent; others may have been captured in wars between the early kingdoms, or have sold themselves for food in times of famine. However, slavery was not always permanent, and slaves who had gained their freedom would become part of an underclass of freedmen below the rank of ceorl.

6. Women and children

Anglo-Saxon women appear to have enjoyed considerable independence, whether as abbesses of the great ‘double monasteries’ of monks and nuns founded during the seventh and eighth centuries, as major land-holders recorded in Domesday Book (1086), or as ordinary members of society. They could act as principals in legal transactions, were entitled to the same wergild as men of the same class, and were considered ‘oath-worthy’, with the right to defend themselves on oath against false accusations or claims. Sexual and other offences against them were penalised heavily. There is evidence that even married women could own property independently, and some surviving wills are in the joint names of husband and wife. Marriage comprised a contract between the woman’s family and the prospective bridegroom, who was required to pay a ‘bride-price’ in advance of the wedding and a ‘morning gift’ following its consummation. The latter became the woman’s personal property, but the former may have been paid to her relatives, at least during the early period. Widows were in a particularly favourable position, with inheritance rights, custody of their children and authority over dependants. However, a degree of vulnerability may be reflected in laws stating that they should not be forced into nunneries or second marriages against their will. The system of primogeniture (inheritance by the first-born male) was not introduced to England until after the Norman Conquest, so Anglo-Saxon siblings — girls as well as boys — were more equal in terms of status. The age of majority was usually either ten or twelve, when a child could legally take charge of inherited property, or be held responsible for a crime. It was common for children to be fostered, either in other households or in monasteries, perhaps as a means of extending the circle of protection beyond the kin group. Laws also make provision for orphaned children and foundlings.

7. Work and leisure

Because of the importance of farming in the Anglo-Saxon economy (see Unit 9 Farming), a high proportion of occupations were to do with agriculture and animal husbandry. Male slaves in particular often worked as farm labourers. Skilled artisans were also needed, and the high quality of surviving metalwork, art and sculpture testifies to the level of craftsmanship that could be attained. Fine embroidery was carried out by ladies, the most famous example being the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the events leading up to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

An eleventh-century text concerned with estate management discusses a number of occupations, including bee-keeper, cowherd, forester, goatherd, granary-keeper, shepherd, swineherd and cheese-maker — the latter the only female worker mentioned. Early laws concerning slaves suggest that the grinding of corn and serving of drink were also female occupations, while female slaves bequeathed in wills and mentioned in manumissions (documents giving freedom) include a weaver, a seamstress, and a dairy-maid. A Latin dialogue, devised by Ælfric of Eynsham in around 998 AD as a teaching tool for monastic pupils, casts the boys in the characters of working men, and thereby preserves information on a range of occupations including those of baker, carpenter, cobbler, cook, fisherman, fowler, huntsman, merchant, oxherd, ploughman, salter, shepherd and smith.

Information on leisure activities has to be pieced together from incidental references within written sources, combined with evidence from archaeology and place-names. Upper-class pursuits included falconry and hawking, feasting and music-making. The latter two were also popular at the lower end of the social scale, as is clear from a miracle story told by Bede. He relates how Caedmon, an illiterate lay worker on a monastic estate, was granted the divine gift of poetic inspiration after leaving a drinking-party early because he was unable to entertain his fellow-labourers in the customary way by singing and accompanying himself on the harp. Both Latin and vernacular poetry were performed to music, and there is also evidence for dancing, acrobatics and theatricals. Competitive games included water-sports, dog- and horse-racing, dice-games and board-games, with chess being introduced in the eleventh century. Children played with balls, hoops and whipping tops, and no doubt participated in some of the above pursuits.

Further Reading

Bassett, Steven. 1989.The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. London: Leicester University Press.
Blair, Peter Hunter. 1984. Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. London: Variorum.
Blair, Peter Hunter. 2003. An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England. 3rd edn. Cambridge:
        Cambridge University Press.
Bradley, S. A. J. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. 1982. London: Dent. (in translation)
Campbell, James (ed.). 1991. The Anglo-Saxons. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Crawford, Sally. 1999. Childhood in Anglo-Saxon England. Sutton: Stroud.
Crawford, Sally. 2009. Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England. Westport: Greenwood.
Crossley-Holland, Kevin (ed.). 1982. The Anglo-Saxon World. Woodbridge: Boydell.
Fell, Christine. 1984. Women in Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Blackwell.
Gelling, Margaret. 1992. The West Midlands in the Early Middle Ages. London:
Godden, Malcolm and Michael Lapidge (eds). 2012. The Cambridge Companion to Old
        English Literature
, 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hyer, Maren Clegg and Gale R. Owen-Crocker (eds). 2011. The Material Culture of Daily Living in the Anglo-Saxon World. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.
Keynes, Simon and Michael Lapidge. 1983. Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred
        and other Contemporary Sources
. London: Penguin.
Lapidge, Michael, John Blair, Simon Keynes and Donald Scragg (eds). 2013.
        The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England
, 2nd edn. Chichester: Wiley.
Page, R. I. 1970. Life in Anglo-Saxon England. London: Batsford.
Pelteret, David A. E. 1995. Slavery in Early Mediaeval England. Woodbridge: Boydell.
Pulsiano, Phillip and Elaine Treharne (eds). 2001. A Companion to Anglo-Saxon Literature.
        Oxford: Blackwell.
Stafford, Pauline. 1985. The East Midlands in the Early Middle Ages. London: Leicester
        University Press.
Swanton, Michael (ed.). 1975. Anglo-Saxon Prose. London: Dent (in translation)
Treharne, Elaine (ed.). 2010.Old and Middle English, c.890–c.1450: An Anthology,
        3rd edn. Oxford: Blackwell.
Whitelock, Dorothy. 1952.The Beginnings of English Society. Harmondsworth: Penguin.