The Golem Speaks

The Anglo Saxons, from Mainland to Conquest

Published by Peter Mains on December 16, 2012 at 12:21 PM

This is a continuation of my series of posts, where I blog William Stubbs' The Constitutional History of England. This post, part 3, covers Volume 1, Chapters 3 and 4.

Our mental image of medieval society is of kings, princes, princesses, dukes, knights and so on organized into a feudal order. The truth is, though, that not everyone in the Middle Ages assumed that absolute monarchy was the best way to organize society. As Stubbs points out, the Anglo-Saxons did not know "high kings" until the invasion of Britain. Representative assemblies had been in continuous existence for hundreds of years.

Tacitus mentioned, "reges," or kings, as Stubbs noted in the last chapter. Stubbs does not dwell on what a rex would do, how many reges were there, and so on. The title appears and then it disappears, leaving the impression that, perhaps, Tacitus was trying to impose a Roman paradigm on Germanic peoples.


One disconcerting thread in Stubbs' account (disconcerting because we know how a certain mustachioed megalomaniac would use this concept in the 20th century) is the constant reference to purity of people and language. German is not exactly a language isolate, but the Germans, unconquered by the Romans, did not become another nation speaking a "Vulgar Latin," evolving into a Romance language. Purity in this sense is a matter of degree and it is relevant to Stubbs insofar as it indicates the cultural and political distinctiveness of the Germans and, in particular, the Anglo-Saxons.

So, while one can (and I do) quibble about how "pure" the German language is, it is true that Anglo-Saxons did not intermarry with the Britons they conquered. Modern English did not absorb Celtic vocabulary, which it certainly would have had Anglo-Saxon conquerors taken wives from among the conquered Britons. Instead, the Britons were simply pushed out of the areas conquered by the Germanic invaders.

For the Anglo-Saxons, national purity was not the only concern. The schematized society comprising nobles, freemen and slaves could not be maintained very long if people from different castes were marrying each other. So strict were the Saxons on this point that the penalty for marrying outside your caste was death. Different castes had different legal rights. Only the nobles could become magistrates, for example, and only freemen could vote in the assemblies. Being from a higher caste also meant paying higher penalties under the law.

Mark System

This caste system affected and was affected by the economic system of the Anglo-Saxons, known as the Mark System, discussed last time. The "mark" was a tribally owned territorial unit, with the dwellings and other buildings at the center. Pasture and woodland were held in common, but cultivated land was apportioned. Freeman and nobles would have land apportioned to them, but their servi would not. The mark would have an assembly made up of every freeman in the village.

What caused the Mark System to break down was improvement in agriculture. Actually, the causality may go the other way. Common ownership means a lessened incentive to improve land that you may not be cultivating next year. As agriculture improves, Stubbs tells us, freemen want to have tenure -- to hold the land as their own rather than in common. On the other hand, it is possible that improved agriculture happened because the economic system was reformed to allow for private land ownership.

Even after the marks had ceased to be part of the "Mark System," they served as political units. Stubbs gives examples of post-Mark System societies -- Frisians, Saxons -- where marks would have set populations, much like the English Hundred or Irish Fine. Saxon marks in the eighth century would send a delegation of twelve "consules" to a common council. Whether these delegates were freemen or nobles is not mentioned.

The nobles would frequently be those descended from the founding family of the Mark. This is a departure from Tacitus and Caesar's description of nobles descended from kings, great warriors and gods. That tradition would be regained in part with the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Briton, when invading kings would declare themselves the sons of Woden.

The Anglo-Saxon Conquest

The conquest of England by the Anglo-Saxons happened over many years and was not the result of a coordinated strategy of various Germanic tribes. Rather, waves of invasions by different groups of Angles and Saxons led to the creation of Mercia, Northumbria, East Anglia (all Anglian kingdoms), Kent, Wessex, Sussex (all Saxon kingdoms) and so on.

The Angles did go en masse, though. All of the invaders -- whether Angle, Saxon or Jute -- uprooted their families as they intended to stay. Given their unwillingness to intermarry with conquered peoples, their kingdoms would not last long without German women to propagate the race.

And these were kingdoms. Germanic "magistrates" had been selected from the noble class, but they were elected by the freemen. In times of war or other crisis requiring national unity, Germans would select a ruler -- whether he was called a dux (duke) or a rex (king) by historians writing in Latin -- to be a commander in chief until the crisis had passed. In contrast, invading Angles and Saxons came to Britain under the command of such rulers, and those kings did not relinquish their authority once the conquest was over. These kingdoms were absolute monarchies, though. The king's power was "co-ordinate" -- equal, or nearly so -- to that of the national council of his kingdom.

These kings were still kings of people, not territory. The king gave the kingdom a sense of national identity that tribal Germanic peoples had previously lacked. If the Mark grew too big and had to divide, they would still be under the same king. Stubbs makes the dubious argument that these kings were more caring for the well-being of their people than elected magistrates because their interests were the interests of the kingdom. Regardless, having kings makes it possible to unify larger groups of people under common leadership than had been the case under political orders inspired by the Mark System.

Word Mania

Here, for the first time in Stubbs, we see Germanic names for German things. The nobles, or nobiles are identified as Edhilingi. The freemen or ingenuiles are the Frilingi. The slaves, serfs, serviles, servi or coloni are the Lazzi. Confusingly, we get another Latin word, litus (also rendered "letus"), to describe the Lazzi class.

In chapter 2, we saw that there were different classes of Lazzi. Here, we see that someone of the litus class can be treated differently based on the time and which Germanic society they were living in. In Saxony, they tended to be free except in their obligations to their lord. Under the Salian law, a letus would be more like what we think of as a slave.

The multiplicity of names gets confusing at times. For example, litus is Latin for coast. The Litus Saxonicum was the Saxon Coast. Not many Germanic words have the -us suffix, which rules out a German etymology. So, the question arises if, perhaps, the liti were descendants of people conquered from the coastland, or perhaps from other regions bordering Saxon territory. On the other hand, maybe a Germanic root was affixed by a scribe to a Latin suffix.

King Alfred the Great rides to the rescue to clear up some word confusion. Bede, writing in Latin, talks about Anglo-Saxon satraps, villici and vici. Satrap has a very oriental feel to it, but Alfred interprets Bede as meaning Ealdorman, which we would know better as Aldermen or Earls (from the Danish, "Jarl"). The villicus is a "tungerefa," or "town reeve", which, as we learned of the assessors last time, was the ancestor of our sheriffs. The vicus is a "tunscipe" or "township."

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