'Anglo-Saxon' thegns - Power, Image and Spectacle
Updated: May 23
A dominant question in late 'Anglo-Saxon' history and archaeology is how and why the newly solidified thegnly class establish themselves, and what material culture we can use to track their presence. It is broadly agreed that 'thegnly culture' is a useful and meaningful term - why did a new way of living develop, and what did it constitute?
It is clear that, by the later tenth century, two substantial long-term evolutions in Anglo-Saxon society had largely come to fruition (Fleming 2001, 2). The first was the emergence of the first real wide-scale aristocracy in England. A broad shift from extensive to intensive lordship is suggested in the tenth century (Molyneaux 2015, 184), leading to the increased fragmentation of previous large-scale estates into smaller landholdings (Gardiner 2018, 88). The result was a new class of smaller-scale landowners, frequently identified as ‘thegns’, in possession of new land-units and capable of extracting a surplus (Audoy and Chapman 2009, 28). From this new social mobility, and the rising of new land owners, comes Gardiner’s suggestion that ‘social classes were becoming more permeable’ (Gardiner 2018, 94). A resultant anxiety over status is evident from frequent allusions in contemporary documentary evidence. The Rectitudines Singularum Personarum (hereafter RSP), with its deliberate compartmentalisation of obligation by rank, betrays an obsession with social position (Lemanski 2005, 32). Wulfstan’s Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, although nominally more aware of the abuses directed towards the lower classes, equally focuses on an ‘orderly arrangement of society’ (Ibid., 96). Rather than evidence of pre-existing rigid stratification, then, this textual obsession over social position would appear to be the opposite - an attempt to reinforce class-thinking in a period of flux. Geþyncðo is perhaps the prime example here, simultaneously bemoaning the loss of previous stratification and carefully delineating the criteria by which a thegn might be identified (Gardiner 2018, 94).
Simultaneous is an evolution in the monetary economy. The readjustment of estates to produce cash crops (particularly cereals) to supply geld money under Aethelred and later Cnut continued to provide a ready stream of income to estate owners down until the Conquest (Fleming 2001, 19). Fleming suggests that even small-scale landholding thegns would have produced a yearly profit of almost a pound’s worth of silver; extreme examples of aristocracy like the Godwinsone’s would have produced huge sums (Ibid., 16-7). On the one hand, an increase in cash wealth made ostentatious spending an increasingly viable option with which to express status. On the other, however, the dominance of this cash economy increased the atmosphere of social threat. Ideas of social ranking began to move away from proximity and access to the King, and towards the possessions of resources (Sykes 2010, 183). Fleming points towards the ‘commodification of political action’ in this cash economy (Flemming 2001, 20). Crucially Senecal makes clear that this wealth cut across notions of class: ‘the distinction between a wealthy peasant and a low-level thegn [...] [was] very blurred’ (Senecal 2001, 252). As a result of these two developments we see the emergence of a thengly class both keen to reinforce their differentiation from those below them, and capable of expressing that sense of status through increased spending. This appears to have manifested itself in a (surprisingly standardised) ‘thegnly culture’; a collection of performative tropes in architecture, fashion and diet chosen to reinforce an image of class separation (Senecal 2001, 252). We are left with ‘a class of landholders with a lifestyle and an ideology which separated them from those who laboured upon the land’ (Gardiner 2018, 89). It is to archaeology that we must turn to chart the extent of this culture.
Archaeologically speaking, three major trends to this presentation of prestige and status emerge - explore them below:
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Audouy, M. and Chapman, A., Raunds: The Origins and Growth of a Midland Village (Oxford, 2009)
Fleming, R., ‘Rural Elites and Urban Communities in Late-Saxon England’, Past and Present, 141/1 (1993), pp.3-37
Fleming, R., ‘The New Wealth, the New Rich and the New Political Style in Late Anglo-Saxon England’ in J. Gillingham (ed.), Anglo-Norman Studies XXIII. Preceedings of the Battle Conference 2000 (Woodbridge, 2001), pp.1-22
Gardiner, M., ‘Manorial Farmsteads and the Expression of Lordship Before and After the Norman Conquest’ in D. Hadley and C. Dyers (eds.), The Archaeology of the Eleventh Century: Continuities and Transformations (Abingdon, 2018), pp.88-103
Lemanski, S. J., ‘The Rectitudines Singularum Personarum: A Pre- and Post-Conquest Text’ (PhD thesis, University of Akron, 2009)
Lemanski, S. J., ‘The Rectitudines Singularum Personarum: Anglo-Saxon Landscapes in Transition’ (MA thesis, University of Akron, 2005)
Molyneaux, G., The Formation of the English Kingdom in the Tenth Century (Oxford, 2015)
Senecal, C., ‘Keeping Up with the Godwinesons: A Pursuit of Aristocratic Status on Late Anglo-Saxon England’ in J. Gillingham (ed.), Anglo-Norman Studies XXIII. Preceedings of the Battle Conference 2000 (Woodbridge, 2001), pp.251-266
Senecal, C., ‘The Regional Aristocracies of Late Anglo-Saxon England’ (PhD thesis, Boston College, 1999)
Sykes, N. J., ‘Deer, Land, Knives and Halls: Social Change in Early Medieval England’, Antiquaries Journal, 90/1 (2010), pp.175-93