Medieval England: History, Society and the Old English Language #3


Welcome back!

In this part, I will talk more about Anglo-Saxon society including the three estates, government and culture. I will also talk some more about the Vikings, this time about the Viking legacy.

As usual, I will add the link to a website or video when I think it is useful, or simply a nice addition if you are interested. Again I have my tutors to thanks for most the information and if I use another source I will mention this in the text.


Anglo-Saxon society

  • Government
    • national government
    • local government
  • Culture
    • social structure of society
    • magic
  • King Alfred the Great
    • revival of learning
  • Viking legacy

Anglo-Saxon society

(If you’re interested: here is the link to an episode of Time team about an Anglo-Saxon cemetery. This episode will mostly focus on the Anglo-Saxon attitude towards death, burial and cremation…. and just because I can: here’s another one about nearly the same thing, but on a (not all too) different location).


  • National government
    The King of one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms would have had a counsel, called a Witan, who gave counsel on laws and important matters in times of crisis, and existed out of the people most trusted by the king. These people were often clergy and higher ranking noblemen, and they also elected the king because kingship wasn’t hereditary (though usually the eldest son was elected to become king). When the Witan came together it was called a Witana gemot, meaning a meeting of wise men.
    (For a bit more background information about the Witan, click this link).
  • Local government
    It is impossible for a king to rule the whole kingdom by himself, because of that the kingdom was divided into smaller units such as earldoms and shires. An article about the history about local government on mentions the following:

    Below the Shire the land was subdivided into Hundreds (ten groups of ten households [Tithings]) who individually survived off a piece of land considered large enough to support a single family (a Hide). Members of Tithings and Hundreds were held responsible for their members’ behaviour thus creating a very decentralised administrative system.


(Bamburgh excavation Time Team about Northumbrian society/history).

  • Social structure of society
    The Germanic social structure was based on a bond between a (war)lord and his retainers/warriors. There was a mutual understanding between the two, where the lords grant lands and riches, and his retainers serve him loyally.
    Furthermore, the Anglo-Saxon society was mainly divided into those who were free and those who were not free. Other divisions in society were made by the three estates. Those who work (peasantry), pray (clergy) and fight (nobility). There were many laws and customs within the Anglo-Saxon society, if you want to know more about those you can visit this website.

    One of the main threats to the society were feuds. These were disagreements between two families and were often caused by murder or severe harm. Feuds were settled through revenge, intermarriage and compensation (wergild became the standard for other crimes as well. The wergild was dependent on rank, and circumstances of the victim. The rules about wergild were actually quite explicit).

  • Magic
    So, perhaps I should have put this in the previous post about religion, but I think that Anglo-Saxon attitude towards magic says more about the society than it does about religion. It is evident that religion was very important during that time and that, even though magic was supposed to be a pagan thing, Christianity played a role in this.
    Magic is a case of syncretism, where two identities overlap with each other, here is it the Germanic religion and Christianity. The Germanic religion was polytheistic (meaning that there is more than one god), had no dogma’s and was above all an oral society (not everyone was literate, for that matter). There were rituals and customs passed on, but there was nothing stable.  There was no real organisation of the Germanic religion and because of that, it was easier to take over the Christian system. Do keep in mind that the words that describe magic were created after the Anglo-Saxon conversion, this means that most of these words are negative towards magic.
    It is actually quite amusing that, even though Christianity disapproves of magic, that Latin and Christian items/phrases are used in the charms that would i.e. prevent a person from bleeding, or that would save a horse that has been attacked by an elf.
    (If you want to know more about Anglo-Saxon charms click here).

King Alfred the Great

(If you click on the link above, you’re redirected to another episode of Time Team. This one is about King Alfred the Great and his hideout in the marsh: Athelney, where he stood against the Vikings. And yes, I want you to fall in love with Time Team. Here is the link to the biography of Alfred the Great on

We know much about King Alfred because of Bishop Asser of Wales, who wrote his biography.
Alfred, 849-899 CE, was the youngest son of Aethelwulf of Wessex and so he was meant for an ecclesiastical carreer, he even went to Rome on a pilgrimage. In truth he ruled from 871-899 CE, after the death of his father and four older brothers. He was not a healthy man, it is said that he suffered from illnesses, and since he was educated for an ecclesiastical carreer, he was not trained to be a king. I already mentioned his victory over the Vikings at Edington in 878 in the first post on this series. In that post I also mentioned that he opposed the Vikings by creating a new navy and the Burgh system. These two points, however, haven’t had such a great impact on the Anglo-Saxon society as his third military move: Creating a standing army.
You see, normally, there would be a call to arms once another army threatened the Kingdom. The noblemen would call upon the fyrd (the freemen)  to protect the lands.
However, Alfred created two units. While one unit would protect the farms and farm the land, the other unit was always ready at arms.

  • Revival of learning
    The military and naval reforms were not the only changes under Alfred’s rule, Alfred also revived learning. He recruited foreign scholars such as Asser, Grimbald and John the Saxon. He also founded a court school and translated book which were useful for men to know. These books were about leadership, theology, history, and because of their translation into the vernacular, English became a language of learning.
    This revival of learning, at court,  continues even after his death because of the Benedictine reform. (Here’s the link to a website that explains the Benedictine reform).

Viking legacy

After Alfred won at Edington, the Vikings were given an area of land called the Danelaw. However, even after the Vikings stopped raiding, they had left their marks on the Anglo-Saxon way of life.

  • Economical
    York had been taken by the Vikings, and they made it a thriving economical capital. York became a huge, thriving, city that was involved in a worldwide trading network.
    (Here is, again, the link to the Time Team episode about a dig in York).

  • Cultural/linguistic
    The Vikings adapted to the Anglo-Saxon society, but in the north there are still a lot of Scandinavian artefacts (probably the most Scandinavian artefacts/runes outside of Scandinavia), such as the Gosforth Cross and hogbacks (grave markers) .
    The Old English language also adapted Scandinavian loanwords.
  • Political
    It’s probably ironic, but if the Vikings had never attacked Britain in the first place, the seven kingdoms that were founded after the Anglo-Saxon invasion would never have become one England. This political unification would never have happened.


Next time:

Anglo-Saxon poetry and manuscripts



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