Review: The Moral Economy of the Countryside; Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman England by Rosamond Faith (2020) Assessment 8 out 10

A Moral Economy is the web of shared values within an economy which is based on justice, rather than untrammeled markets. Faith describes the shift from an unfeudal Anglo-Saxon (AS) to a feudalised Anglo-Norman countryside, less based on the moral economy.

The AS position was complex. On inland the primary aim was to supply the lord’s table. On warland obligations were reciprocal. Peasants had only to provide “boom” labour on certain days and provide hospitality, “feorm”, to the lord. The Wessex King Ine’s Law details what feorm to provide in fodder for horses, loaves, cheese and beer. Oxen were for ploughing; sheep provided milk and cheese.

Bookland, grants of land to minsters supporting communities of monks and nuns cut across the moral economy of inheritance rights. Kings gave up the feorm they would have received. Minsters recorded and collected supplies, but still in terms of hospitality.

There was appropriation of labour within the AS economy but it was one where the essential nature of freedom was recognised. This involved participation in society through tithings (of ten), vills or townships, which became sub-units of hundreds. Commendation, an obligation of loyalty in return for protection from a lord, cut across ties implied by land ownership.  The administration of justice and maintenance of social order depended on individuals being vouched for by lords. A witness was not someone who had seen something but a surety of a man’s worth.

In the peasant’s moral economy all freeman were entitled to a living; common rights were restricted to commoners. Status was given by having hearth and home and freedom of succession. Before chimneys, people sat, ate, drank and slept around the fire. Fires were kept alight, banked up at night and uncovered in the morning.  There was an increased emphasis on enclosures on farm sites which had not been apparent in earlier scattered settlements, keeping livestock and poultry in, but also providing privacy.

 In the early AS period large cemeteries served a scattering of small settlements. By the mid AS period Faith suggests the smaller cemeteries nearer to individual settlements may indicate changed attitudes either to death, to land or both. A possibility is that it reflected a shift from early AS cremation to mid AS burial. Cremation could occur on one site and the urn was then taken to the cremation cemetery. By contrast inhumation would have to take place locally before the body deteriorated.

Compurgation, an oath supported by members of the community proving non liability was restricted under Norman Law.  In the Peasants’ Revolt country dwellers sought its reinvigoration. It was only finally abolished in 1833.

The concept of freedom contrasted the free with slaves, the unfree.  The reputation of a slave was not something the wider community could swear to. Ten percent of the population in 1086 were slaves. Need, debt, being born to slaves, criminality or capture in war could all result in slave status. In Somerset it is thought those whose forbears had been slaves under Rome continued as slaves under the local tyrants occupying hillforts.

Hundreds and townships were institutions suited to a peasant economy based on custom and community. Communal control of grazing gave rise to early territories some of which became hundreds. Hundreds in particular in Wessex met at traditional assembly points, which functioned as market places.

The payment of geld was an indication of freedom. Hides were a measure of value rather than area, sufficient to support a family and owed war service. Members of a township were collectively responsible for paying geld. Kings held kingdoms, bishops bishoprics, earldormen, ealdormanneries. Holding office involved service, supported by land grants but these weren’t feudal holdings.

There may have been a reduction in freedom. Cottagers owed weekly labour and more at harvest. They had small plots. The gebur was provided with six oxen, two sheep and seven acres, but when he died property reverted to the lord, a step on the road to serfdom. If this was happening as a result of late AS expansion of cereal farming, cultural change under the Normans was on quite a different scale.

In Normandy feudalism was appearing, peasants holding from a lord. Domesday is organised by manors, a new institution. Domesday introduced an element of tenure into Bookland which wasn’t there before. AS lords were dispossessed. The North was wasted in ethnic cleansing. The Normans used the threat of violence to bring about change. The first Norman generation granted land to Norman Abbeys in their homeland. Land was initially “farmed”, later demesne was brought in hand. Freemen who had held land by free service or custom were thrown out. Returning they took the same holding subject to villeinage.  Social relations were based on standardised tenure rather than old notions of rank, reputation and worth. Feudal impositions in particular supported cereal production with ploughing at its core, lords having access to peasant labour and peasant capital, the use of oxen for ploughing.   Hidated and geld paying land were now the basis of labour obligations. Manorial courts operated in parallel with public courts. Norman legalists were surprised by peasants’ willingness to challenge lords in the courts for instance under disseisin when lords had impinged on common pastures.

 Anglo-Norman Law was based on what it inherited from AS practice but amended to restrict villeins’ freedom to move from one manor to another. By the 13th Century un-freedom had expanded from inland to warland. Peasants lost status by no longer participating in communal organisation. Heavy labour rents were charged on workland. Heriots were originally the equipping of a warrior by a lord returned to him at the end of service. Heriots were later charged to tenants, his best animal, a horse or ox, on transmission of a holding, reducing the hereditability and certainty of tenure of land.  

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