One of the features of the Anglo-Saxon social structure was its’ obsession with class. There were three basic classes, the ceorls or peasants, the theigns or landowners, and the eoldermen or nobility. These classes were further subdivided again creating a ladder for the socially mobile to climb.
The ceorls were the most numerous and, therefore, the lowest class. They lived and worked almost exclusively on the land although some also lived in cities like York and London. The ceorls were divided into smaller sub-classes again beginning with the geneatas who were usually the richest of the peasants. They were ‘free-folk’ who gave service to the fyrd, the Anglo-Saxon army on a regular basis, and could speak at public meetings.
The geneatas paid a rent to their lord for the land that they occupied but they could also receive land as a gift if they gave good service. Lords might also demand other services from their geneatas, such as maintenance work, carrying messages, supply carts for general usage and even entertain their lord. The geneatas were also expected to pay church tithes. They may also have been required to give their theign a percentage of any crops that they farmed or even one of their animals such as a pig. However, any profit that they did make they could keep.
Kotsetlas formed the second subgroup. They paid for their land through supplying their lord with labour whenever it was needed so avoided any levy of rent. Like the geneatas they could profit from their own hard work but how often they got to spend any time on their own land depended on how frequently they were called to work their lord’s land instead, this seems to have varied from one to three days a week and would probably have been more during harvest. They also paid dues to the church although it was acceptable to pay in produce rather than coin.
Finally came the gebur. Of all the classes of free folk they clearly had the hardest bargain as they were entirely dependent upon their lord for food and protection. They paid for everything with their labour and would not have had much free time with which to improve their lot.
The relationship between lord and coerl worked both ways, however. There was a prescribed duty on the part of the lord to ensure that each of his ceorls had enough land to work according to their class and they were even to supply the peasants with animals such as oxen and sheep.
The line of distinction between the three classes seems somewhat blurred to us now. Social progression was a fact of life for the Saxons and ability, as well as other such qualities as bravery and loyalty, were often rewarded; sometimes handsomely. It was a tradition in the shared culture of the various peoples that made up the different strands of the Anglo-Saxons for their lord, whether a chieftan or a king, to be a giver of rings. Ring giving dates back beyond the time in which the epic poem Beowulf is set and was considered an important aspect of lordship. It probably originally began as a means for a lord to reward his brave warriors after a battle, a means by which the booty could be shared out amongst the war-band. As the Saxon civilisation became more sophisticated ring giving also included the gift of parcels of land and the promotion of certain individuals to become companions of the lord (this being a companion in a military sense). Able ceorls could see themselves promoted by the recognition that their hard work earned them as a result, indeed if they owned enough property they could enter into the next class, the theigns, and enjoy their rights and privileges.
There was one class below the gebur but it was not strictly speaking a sub-division of the ceorls and that was the theow. Theow were not free-folk and lacked all of their rights as a result; they were slaves. No one was born into slavery in Anglo-Saxon England; it was a state a person entered into through misadventure in most cases. The commonest reason would be through being captured in war. Some people entered the estate of the theow in order to escape destitution; they were the bondsmen. Whatever the reason a free man or woman could sell their service to another Saxon for a fixed term agreed in bond. Although slavery seems objectionable to us now it was considered a normal part of life amongst the Saxons, so normal even that they even had laws governing the treatment of slaves including how much food they should receive and even an entitlement to a piece of land to plough for themselves. Theow could even own property and were allowed to earn money in any spare time that they might have. It was even possible for them to earn enough to buy back their freedom.
Life must have been hard for the peasant classes of the Anglo-Saxon world but they were also an important part of that world. They had rights and means to pursuing grievances under the king’s law. Although they paid much to their lords they did so knowing that they received something in return. The lords were obliged to keep the peace, enforce the law, and protect settlements against raiding parties, both Vikings and other Saxons. There was a tradition of charity so that even the poorest were looked after to some degree and when the great long hall was used for feasting there was even a system of feeding each class according to their rank so that no one was left out.
As the Saxon world progressed many ceorls took up trades rather than the usual working of the land and became successful traders or craftsmen. Indeed, the Saxons appear to have been wonderful workers of precious metals and produced some items of genuine beauty as seen in the recently discovered Staffordshire Horde. Their social world must have been vibrant and robust as people of ability worked their way up to the next class, sadly it was all to come to an end in October 1066 when the Normans effectively robbed the Saxons of their inherent freedom and reduced the peasants to little more than slaves through the imposition of serfdom.