With the launch of Denny Bradbury’s highly anticipated second novel, Borvo II, it is worth taking the time to reflect back on what the ninth century was actually like for the people who lived during it.
Society was divided into three classes, with the top being the Thanes, the Anglo Saxon upper class who enjoyed feasting and hunting and was expected to give their followers gifts of weapons. Beneath them were the Churls of whom some were reasonably well-off and in the bottom tier were the Thralls for whom life was very hard. Some Churls were lucky enough to own their own land but many rented land from a thane. By renting it meant that they worked on the thane’s land for a part of the week and by also giving him a portion of their crops.
Unlike today where England is full of cars, houses, and buildings, Anglo Saxon England was covered by forest that was occupied by wolves that were a constant danger to domestic animals. The human population was also very small with roughly a million people in England at that time. Almost all of the population lived in tiny villages, each with less than 100 inhabitants, and was mainly self-sufficient with the villagers needing only a few things from outside like salt and iron as they grew their own food and made their own clothes.
By the 11th century this had begun to change and whilst a vast majority of the population still lived in the countryside, 10% – a significant minority – were living in towns. New towns had been created and trade was flourishing. Unlike the unrest of the 9th century when Britain experienced a great deal of unrest due to the influx of Viking people resulting in the invasion of East Anglia by the Danish army in 865, followed by the city of York and the kingdom of Northumbria and the western part of Mercia, leaving just the kingdom of Wessex to be safeguarded by Alfred the Great who also re-established his Anglo-Saxon rule over the western half of Mercia, in the 11th century England had grown into a civilised, stable state with an efficient system of local government, whilst learning and the arts flourished in the monasteries.
The Anglo Saxons also provided us with most of the English place names we have today, with Saxon place name endings including those such as ham, a village or estate, tun – which was usually changed to ton over time – , a farm or estate, hurst, a wooden hill and bury, derived from the Saxon word burh meaning fortress. The Anglo Saxons also called groups of Roman buildings a caster which in time would evolve into the place name ending in chester, caster or cester.
Family ties were very important in Anglo Saxon society; if you were killed, your relatives would avenge you and vice versa if it was one of your relatives that met a grisly end. However, the law did provide an alternative which meant if you did kill or injure somebody you could pay them or their family compensation a currency called wergild and varied in amount according to the person’s rank ie the wergild for killing a thane was much higher than that for killing a churl. Thralls and slaves had no wergild and if the wergild was not paid then the relatives were entitled to seek revenge.
Whilst at first Anglo Saxon society was relatively free, with the basis of society being the free peasant, over time the Anglo Saxon churls began to lose their freedom and became increasingly dependent on their Lords who wielded the control.
As the old Roman towns fell into decay and the Roman roads became overgrown, travel in Anglo Saxon times was slow and dangerous, with most people travelling only if it was unavoidable. For Borvo, it was just that. After ten years away from home, it was now time to go back and help his family….