Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Cultivators of the Soil

When the new-comers planted themselves on British soil, each group of families united by kinship fixed its home in a separate village or township, to which was given the name of the kindred followed by 'ham' or 'tun,' the first word meaning the home or dwelling, the second the earthen mound which formed the defence of the community. Thus Wokingham is the home of the Wokings, and Wellington the 'tun' of the Wellings. Each man had a homestead of his own, with a strip or strips of arable land in an open field. Beyond the arable land was pasture and wood, common to the whole township, every villager being entitled to drive his cattle or pigs into them according to rules laid down by the whole township.

The population was divided into Eorls and Ceorls. The Eorl was hereditarily distinguished by birth, and the Ceorl was a simple freeman without any such distinction. How the difference arose we do not know, but we do know that the Eorl had privileges which the Ceorl had not. Below the Ceorls were slaves taken in war or condemned to slavery as criminals. There were also men known as Gesiths, a word which means 'followers,' who were the followers of the chiefs or Ealdormen (Eldermen) who led the conquerors. The Gesiths formed the war-band of the chief. They were probably all of them Eorls, so that though every settler was either an Eorl or a Ceorl, some Eorls were also Gesiths. This war-band of Gesiths was composed of young men who attached themselves to the chief by a tie of personal devotion. It was the highest glory of the Gesith to die to save his chief's life. Of one Gesith it is told that, when he saw a murderer aiming a dagger at his chief, he, not having time to seize the assassin, threw his body between the blow and his chief, and perished rather than allow him to be killed. It was even held to be disgraceful for a Gesith to return from battle alive if his chief had been slain. The word by which the chief was known was Hlaford (Lord), which means a giver of bread, because the Gesiths ate his bread. They not only ate his bread, but they shared in the booty which he brought home. They slept in his hall, and were clothed in the garments woven by his wife and her maidens. A continental writer tells how a body of Gesiths once approached their lord with a petition that he should take a wife, because as long as he remained unmarried there was no one to make new clothes for them or to mend their old ones.

No comments:

Post a Comment