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The social order
The Normans inherited the Anglo-Saxon framework of shires and hundreds as the basis of their administration. This provided a structure through which the King could maintain administrative control. The courts in the hundreds met every four weeks while those in the shires met twice a year. The Norman manor, an economic, political and judicial unit, was introduced in England. It became the basic unit of the Domesday survey. The manor was controlled by a ‘lord’, which might be the King, a baron, a bishop or religious house. Manors varied in size, ranging from just a couple of farms to vast estates.
What was to become known much later as the feudal system is reflected in the arrangement of Domesday Book, which groups holdings, manor by manor, under the main landholders, the tenants-in-chief. The medieval manor often contained two elements. The demesne land was held by the lord, the tenant-in-chief. In return for their lands all tenants-in-chief, including churchmen, owed the King military service. This meant providing trained and equipped knights or a cash payment in lieu of this support. In turn, the tenants-in-chief leased land to lesser tenants, either Norman or Anglo-Saxon nobles, who also paid a military or financial payment in return.
The system of land holding and taxation set out in Domesday Book was in some ways similar to that which had operated in Anglo-Saxon England. The Anglo-Saxon Kings had needed to raise their own armies and finances at times of external threat. Anglo-Saxon thegns, like Norman knights, gave military service in return for land that had been distributed among them by the lord.
The peasant tenantry was land rented out to peasants who were either free or unfree. Rent would have been paid in cash, labour or produce. There were four main groups who comprised the peasant tenantry. The freemen and sokemen, both free peasants, formed about 12 per cent of the recorded population. The land held by a free peasant could be considerably large or very small. Their distinguishing characteristic was their freedom, rather than their economic status. Villans, about 40 per cent of the population, were the wealthiest and most numerous of the unfree peasants. Villans could hold substantial areas of farmland, often between 30 and 40 acres, but had to work on the lord’s land for two or three days each week. Bordars and cottars, who owed a greater burden of service to the lord, could have smallholdings of just a few acres of land. On days when they were not working for the lord, peasants could work their own land or participate in other activities, such as carpentry. Unfree women might have produced items of clothing for the lord. The lord exercised other controls over unfree peasants. He could move them between estates and had the power to approve or prevent a marriage.
Sokeman, villans, bordars, cottars and slaves are included in this entry for Broadwater Hundred in Hertfordshire. Domesday suggests an uneven distribution of peasant tenantry across England. Free peasants seem to predominate in the north and east of England. Sokemen, rather than free men, are recorded in Hertfordshire.
In most Domesday manors the more specialised workers, such as millers and swineherds, are included in the totals of villans, bordars and cottars, constituting in total about 72 per cent of the population. At the bottom were slaves, perhaps 10 per cent of the population, although numbers varied regionally, with a higher proportion in the west and south west. Slaves had no property rights and could be bought and sold by the lord.
Peasants work the land in this image of eleventh century England. The peasant usually occupied a house on the lord’s manor, with land and animals. This was in return for working the demesne land and providing other services a number of days of the week.
Each manor had its own customs, but in a peasant family property was usually passed from father to son. The lord would repossess it if there were no heirs. The lord could raise taxes from his villagers and demand rents of corn, meat and fish. If he had a property in town he might receive rents from houses and market stalls as well as taxes on market goods.