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Lecture 2 Early Britain.

1. Germanic Settlement of Britain.

a) Arrival and Distribution of Germanic Tribes over the New Territory.

The Romans protected their province of Britain against the barbarian tribes until they left the isles, which was at the beginning of the 5th century. In the middle of the 5th century the Anglo-Saxons, Germanic tribes, invaded Britain.

The Anglo-Saxon conquest is regarded as the beginning of medieval history in Britain.

The Anglo-Saxons were the ancestors of the English. As a result of the conquest they formed the majority of the population in Britain.

After the Roman legions left Britain the Celts remained and had to defend the country against the attacks of Germanic tribes from the Continent.

In the 5th century, first the Jutes and then other Germanic tribes — the Saxons and the Angles began to migrate to Britain. The Saxons came from the territory lying between the Rhine and the Elbe rivers, which was later on called Saxony. The Jutes and the Angles came from the Jutland Peninsula.

In 449 the Jutes landed in Kent and this was the beginning of the conquest. The British natives fought fiercely against the invaders and it took more than a hundred and fifty years for the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes to conquer the country. Other Germanic tribes conquered the Roman provinces on the Continent without any serious resistance as the bulk of the population in the provinces occupied by the Romans welcomed the Germanic conquerors as their liberators. But the British Celts were free at the time and their resistance was often stubborn and prolonged. In the Southeast the Celts were soon overwhelmed, but in the western parts of the country they offered stout resistance for many years. It was only by the beginning of the 7th century that the invaders managed to conquer the greater part of the land.

Celts were still living in tribes and, later on, some independent states were formed. The Celts of Ireland remained independent too. In the course of the conquest many of the Celts were killed, some were taken prisoners and made slaves or had to pay tribute to the conquerors. Some of the Celts crossed the sea to the North-West of France and settled in what was later on called Brittany after the Celtic tribes of Britons.

As a result of the conquest the Anglo-Saxons made up the majority of the population in Britain and their customs, religion and languages became predominant. They called the Celts "welsh" which means foreigners, as they could not understand the Celtic language, which was quite unlike their own. But gradually the Celts, who were in the minority merged with the conquerors, adopted their customs and learned to speak their languages. Only the Celts who remained independent in the West, Scotland and Ireland spoke their native tongue.

Descendants of the ancient British Celts can be found in Brittany today.

b) Anglo-Saxons and Their Mode of Life.

Arable Farming.

Most of the Anglo-Saxons settled far away from the Roman towns. They would find a suitable place in the valley of some river, where the soil was good and there was a good water supply. They often used the lands round the Roman villas, but as a rule they lived neither in the villas themselves nor in the Roman towns — they were essentially an agricultural people.

The Anglo-Saxon villages were small. A village that had twenty-five families was considered a large one. Nearly all the villagers were engaged in cultivating the land. Over large areas of unbroken forests roamed the deer, the boar, the wolf, the bear and other wild animals. In other parts great swamps stretched for miles and miles. The Anglo-Saxons had to do a great deal of pioneer work in clearing the forests and breaking up the land for agriculture.

Thick forests separated one village from another. Each village with the land belonging to it was surrounded by a thick hedge. When the hedge was well grown it kept wild animals out of the village, and in those parts of England that were fully inhabited the hedge separated the land of one village from that of the next. The names of the Anglo-Saxon villages meant as a rule either their new "home" or a "protected place". A great number of village-names in England today are of Anglo-Saxon origin. Many English towns are called by the old Anglo-Saxon names too. For example, the word ton was the Saxon for "hedge" or a place surrounded by a hedge. Thus there are Northampton, Southampton, Brighton, Preston and others. Burgh or bury was the Saxon for "to hide". There are many village- and town-names derived from these words. Such as Salisbury, Canterbury, Edinburgh, Middlesbrough. The Anglo-Saxon ham, another form of the word "home", can also be found in such names now as Nottingham, Birmingham, and Cheltenham. The same is true of the word field meaning "open country", in names such as Sheffield, Chesterfield, Mansfield, etc.

Corn was grown on the arable land — that is ploughed land. There was a great stretch of land that was not cultivated. This was called wasteland and was always covered with trees and bushes, and it surrounded the village on every side. In those times there was more wasteland than cultivated land. There was also a large stretch of pastureland for cattle and sheep as well as a meadow where grass was grown and cut for hay.

All the arable land of the village was divided into two or, sometimes, three very large fields. The Anglo-Saxon villager had no fertilizer, but he knew that he must not grow the same crop year after year in the same field. If he did, the land would become exhausted and his harvests would be poorer every year. In most places land was cultivated under the two-field system so that it did not lose its fertility. In a few villages the Anglo-Saxons used the three-field system.

Under the two-field system the land was given a rest every second year—crops were grown on one field, while the other field lay fallow; in the following year crops were grown on the second field, and the first field had its turn of fallow. The most common crops were wheat and barley.

Round the field in which crops grew the villagers placed rough movable fences made of wattle. That was to keep out the cattle. After the harvest the fences were removed and the field became common grazing ground for the sheep and cattle. The fallow field had no fence round it and the cattle and sheep grazed there all year round.

The Anglo-Saxons knew already the heavy plough that was used in cutting up land that had not been tilled yet. The plough was made of wood, but the cutting part, known as the coulter and the share, which slices the soil from beneath, were covered with iron. Oxen in teams of two or four drew the plough. Possibly two animals were used when land that had been ploughed before was being turned over, while a heavier plough with four oxen was used in breaking up virgin land. Since it was not easy to turn the heavy plough, for convenience in ploughing the large fields were divided into long narrow strips. Each strip measured about an acre. It was 220 yards long as a rule—the distance the ox-team could pull the heavy wooden plough without stopping for a rest.

Every villager held several strips in each big field and they alternated with those of his neighbours. Nobody had all his strips together in one place, they were scattered over the fields. This was because the soil in the big fields varied a good deal and one man's strips lay in different parts of each field so as to give him a share of both good and bad land. The strips were separated from one another by low banks of earth that were not cultivated and were covered with weeds, or, in most cases, by drains or furrows made by the plough to carry off the water. This system of land cultivation is known as strip farming. The strip-owners cultivated their fields in a certain order according to the custom of the village. There were fixed dates for ploughing, for sowing, and for harvesting. It was the custom for every strip-owner to grow the same crop as others grew in the big field. One year, for instance, the north field was sown with wheat and each strip-owner had to sow wheat on his strips at the same time with the others. He could not choose for himself what crops to plant on his strips. This method of land cultivation, known as forced rotation of crops, made it possible to grow the same crop in a big field divided into hundreds of narrow strips belonging to many people. In this way crops ripened simultaneously and could be harvested at the same time. After the harvest the plough-land would become a common pasture where all the villagers grazed their cattle.

The system of crop rotation became known in Britain as the Open Field System.


Besides arable farming, the Anglo-Saxons continued their old occupations of cattle breeding, hunting and fishing. Oxen, sheep and goats belonging to the villagers grazed on the common pastures, and poultry (hens, geese, and ducks) would feed there also. Pigs were turned into the woodland to feed on nuts and acorns.

The animals were much smaller than those of today, and they did not weigh as much. They lived by grazing during the summer, and after the harvest they were allowed to roam over the arable land also. But in winter they could get little from the common pasture (nothing at all when it was covered with snow). The Anglo-Saxons had no root crops and the only fodder in winter was hay, which was obtained from the meadow during the summer. The crop of hay was divided among the villagers. As a rule there was not very much hay, and it was not easy to keep the animals alive and healthy throughout the winter. In autumn the Anglo-Saxons had to kill most of their animals and salt the meat.

Natural Economy.

Each village was self-sufficient, that is, most of the necessities of life were produced in the village itself. The needs of the villagers were few and simple. Food, clothing and shelter were their basic needs. Arable farming and cattle-breeding satisfied the needs of the people in the way of foodstuffs, clothing and footwear. Wool from the sheep was spun into yarn and woven into rough cloth in the peasant's hut. The hides of the cattle were made into leather for shoes and harness. The trees provided wood that was used in the building of houses and in making furniture and wagons. Smaller branches from the trees were cut and used as firewood.

In the village there was a forge where a blacksmith made and mended tools and weapons. There was also a wheelwright's workshop and a mill. Nearly every village had a stream that worked the mill and gave the people water.

There was very little trading at that time. There were no shops—the village artisans produced goods only to order; the farmers were not skilful, their crops were very poor, and they had not much to sell. The villagers had little or no money, and very little need for it, since they themselves produced most of what they wanted. Yet there were some things that the villagers could not produce. Iron and salt had to be brought in from outside.

Roads were very poor; there was seldom anything better than a muddy track between one village and the next. If goods had to be sent from one part of the country to another, they were carried on packhorses or pack-mules. People did not travel very much. It is very likely that a person born in a village, lived in it all his life and died in it without ever having once left it. They knew nothing of what was going on in the world. To them the village was the world.

An Anglo-Saxon Free Community.

The peasants of the village formed a little society—a community. The land of the village belonged to the whole community and each villager had a right to a share of it. From the village meadows the members of the community had a share of hay to feed their cattle in winter-time, in the common forests they cut branches for winter-fuel; they grazed their cattle on the common pasture and fished in the rivers and lakes. Harvest, cattle, the house with a garden round it was the villager's private property.

Arable land was held by separate families. It was passed by inheritance to the members of the family but it could not be sold or handed over to another family. The free peasants lived in big families in which the brothers, their sons and grandsons worked jointly. Each family had a necessary team of oxen. They had to share and borrow and help each other by agreement.

At the moots presided over by the elected elder they settled disputes between one village and another and they also administered justice.

The community united the peasants as they used the pastures, meadows and forests in common, cultivated the land in one and the same way according to the old customs and tackled all other problems in common.

Peasants Begin to Lose Their Freedom.

But not all the members of the community were equal. Inequality had already appeared among the Anglo-Saxons before the conquest of Britain. The tribal nobility, that is, military leaders and elders, possessed more land and cattle than other tribesmen. Their land was cultivated by prisoners of war who were their slaves.

However, the bulk of the Anglo-Saxons were made up of free community members. These free peasants worked for themselves and had enough land and cattle to feed their families. The prisoners of war the Anglo-Saxons had were given small plots of land for their own use.

The effect of the conquest of Britain was to increase the wealth of the Anglo-Saxon nobility. The elders and military leaders distributed the land and cattle among the tribesmen in the conquered country and they got more land and cattle than the rank-and-file members of the tribe. The tribal nobility took possession of large tracts of land and became great landowners. The nobles were better armed than the rank-and-file tribesmen. They went to war wearing helmets and coats of mail, bearing swords and axes. A rank-and-file warrior had only a spear and a round shield.

The actual graves found by archaeologists show how rich the tribal chiefs became in the course of the conquest. The graves contained many things used for feasts, ceremonies and entertainment. There were numerous silver vessels for food and drinking-horns, gold jewellery, an iron standard, a small six-stringed harp and many other things. The harp is of great interest since it is often mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon legends. The legends tell us that at the feasts after great battles, songs glorifying great heroes and their exploits were sung to the accompaniment of the harp.

A constant and bloody struggle went on among the tribal nobility for power. The kings became the greatest landowners and they granted lands in the conquered country to their warriors. For his military service the king's warrior would get 5 hides, that is, about 250 hectares of land. Following the king's example the Anglo-Saxon nobility recruited warriors for themselves too. They also gave pieces of land to their warriors who under their command had to fight for the king when called upon to do so. Those tribesmen who owned the largest amounts of land gradually formed a permanent group of men-at-arms. The Anglo-Saxon laws of the 8th-9th centuries reflected the growing inequality.

The tribal nobility and king's warriors owned such large estates that they were unable to cultivate them by themselves. First they made their slaves work their fields. Gradually the position of the slaves changed. Since slave labour was of very low productivity, their owners gave them small plots of land for their personal use. Now the slave was more interested in his labour because, though he had to spend much of his time working for the lord he could cultivate his own plot the rest of the time.

In the 7th-9th centuries gradual changes were taking place among the members of the community too. The arable land that had been held by separate families now became their private property. It could be not only inherited by the members of one family as before but it could be sold or presented or given in return for debts to another owner. As a result inequality among the members of the community was becoming more pronounced.

Frequent wars and crop failures ruined many peasants. Nearly every year some peasants had to give up farming because they were recruited into the army. Most of the community members were becoming poorer and poorer. Those few members of the community who had grown rich took advantage of the hard conditions of the impoverished peasants. A poor peasant had to ask a rich man for a loan. If he failed to pay his debt back in time, the rich man took his cattle or his plot of land in payment for the debt. Thus, some rich community members enlarged their land possessions at the expense of their impoverished neighbours and became great landowners. Those poor peasants who had lost their land were obliged to ask the rich landowners for a plot of land. The land they were given never became their property. The peasants only used or held these plots of land that were called "land-holdings". In return for the land these peasants would work a part of their time on the landowner's estate and would give him a certain portion of the corn they grew on their holdings. In this way many peasants fell into bondage.

There was another way in which peasants were losing their land and freedom. Frequent raids and wars caused the peasants great suffering. Raiders would come and burn their houses, trample over the peasants' crops, drive away their cattle and even kill the peasant himself. The unarmed peasants had no one to protect them and nobody cared if they were robbed, wounded or murdered. They would, therefore, go to some great lord in the neighbourhood and hand over their land to him for "protection". The land then would be given back to these peasants to live on and the landlord would promise to defend them. But now the peasants did not own their land, they merely held it. In return for their land-holdings they had to cultivate the lord's field and give him a part of their harvest and promise to follow him in battle.

Besides, the Anglo-Saxon nobles with the help of their warriors began to seize the land of the free communities to make the free peasants work for them. The noble would raid a village and proclaim the village land his private property. The peasants usually went on farming the plots of land, but they were not owners of the land any longer. The noble would keep a considerable number of the strips for himself and the peasants would be given small land-holdings.

The royal power helped to place the free peasants under the power of the rich landowners. The kings had the right to collect dues from the whole population of the country. Quite often they granted this right to their warriors. The kings also granted them the right to administer justice in the neighbourhood. As a result many free peasants found themselves in the power of the neighbouring landowner. Though they lived on their own land, quite often they had to work for their powerful neighbour. A considerable number of peasants became semi-bondsmen in this way and gradually lost their freedom.

Thus, in the 7th-9th centuries feudal relations were beginning to develop among the Anglo-Saxons, that is, a class of rich landowners was forming and the free peasants were gradually losing their land and freedom. But it was a slow process in Britain. Though some peasants were already in bondage and others had plots of land too small to live on, the majority of the population in the 8th-9th centuries consisted of free peasants who cultivated their own land.

Changes in the Administration.

By the beginning of the 9th century changes had come about in Anglo-Saxon society. There were now big landed estates with bond peasants working on them for the owners. With the development of feudal relations great changes were taking place in administration too. Rich landowners were given great power over the peasants.

The hundred-elder was now one of the royal officials, a representative of the central power in a hundred, and the sheriff became the king's chief official in the shire. The sheriff was responsible for justice and he presided over the shire-moots on behalf of the king. The king himself became the supreme judge.

Soon afterwards the moots lost their importance and now it was the great council of the most powerful men in the country, known as the Witenagemot (council of the wise men) that gave advice to the king on all important matters. The Anglo-Saxon kings declared war and made peace, they passed laws and imposed taxes. But they always consulted "the wise men", that is, the greatest landlords of the country.

Thus, with the development of feudal relations, with the growth of big landed possessions all the important problems in the country were decided by the big landowners. The status of a man in society depended on how much land he possessed. It also depended on the man's rank and his relation to the king. The king's warriors and officials held more land and they ruled the country.

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