Medeman mannum': Middling Sorts and Social Mobility in Early Medieval England, c.900-1100

UoM administered thesis: Phd

  • Authors:
  • Stuart Pracy


The peasant of early medieval England has long been treated as an agent without agency. Whispers of change can be discerned in recent years, but these efforts have overwhelmingly discussed peasants' abilities to affect their primary means of production: agriculture. So, too, has the historiography of social mobility long ignored the ignoble elements of tenth- and eleventh-century England; the purview of such studies beginning in earnest in the twelfth century. The embedded narrative remains: the successful peasant had little agency in locating themselves in the social hierarchy and were reliant on avenues that were left open at the discretion of the nobility. This thesis addresses this dearth and aims to relocate the early medieval peasants of England as active agents within their social landscapes. This is achieved by establishing the means by which social boundaries are constructed and conceptualised. A handful of texts have driven historians' understanding of rank, the most notable of which have been the Gethynctho and the Northleoda lagu. These propose a seductive image of the thegn as a wealthy warrior who owned bookland to the amount of five hides. Yet, following the frameworks of Maurice Halbwachs and Jan Assman, I argue that these texts, most likely produced by, or at the request of, Archbishop Wulfstan of York, first and foremost objectivise his own conception of society. In this way they tell us more about the way in which he and other elites saw their world or, as may equally be the case, as they wanted it to be. Indeed, by borrowing from the philosophical framework of Edouard Machery, I theorise that defining exactly what a thegn was or was not remains remarkably difficult. The probabilistic mode of conceptualising ideas suggests an individual only had to fulfil one or more measures to be considered a thegn. Yet, successful peasants fulfilled many of those same criteria. I argue that defining the boundaries between ceorl and thegn became increasingly difficult across the course of the tenth and eleventh centuries. A long-overdue reassessment of the heriot, a form of death duty long seen as a marker of the martial nature of the nobility, in Chapter Two illustrates that many seemingly clear displays of rank may well have served to indicate status instead. This highlights one of the underlying themes of this thesis; that historians have, and continue to, conflate rank and status. I argue that rank was merely one of many factors that contributed to a person's status and position in society. To bypass the objectivised cultural memory propagated by Wulfstan and his ilk and their attempts to impose order based on rank, we must take the less travelled road and turn to other source types. I analyse the witness-lists of manumissions and attempt to reconstruct a landscape of local legal proceedings in which ceorls became increasingly important. Institutions in the south-west acknowledged the growing influence of successful peasants, naming them as individual witnesses to the manumission of slaves. Similarly, I reconsider the role of the guild in early England and its function as a venue for the expression and manifestation of social status. These were social spaces that controlled movement but also afforded opportunity; a space in which thegns and ceorls rubbed shoulders. Lastly, given the constraints of space, I briefly reconsider the Domesday evidence and suggest these records, long mined by historians to understand tenurial arrangements, obscure the day-to-day communicative experiences of status. Together, the spokes of this argument suggest that the tenth and eleventh centuries bore witness to the rising importance of local peasant elites as they gained increasing agency over the path their lives took and the ways in which their status was manifested.


Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date1 Aug 2021