Feudal Britain: The Completion of the Medieval Kingdoms, 1066-1314

By G. W. S. Barrow | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI
ENGLISH SOCIETY IN THE TWELFTH CENTURY

1. The Classes of Society

THE conventional division of medieval society was into those who worked, those who fought, and those who prayed, or in twelfth- century terms, into peasants and labourers, knights and serjeants, and priests and monks. The description may have been very broadly true, but any attempt to apply it in detail breaks down at once. Nevertheless, our review of twelfth-century society may conveniently take this analysis as its starting point, dealing first with the military order, secondly with certain groups, such as townsmen, who fall outside our threefold classification, thirdly with the peasants, and finally, in a later section, with the Church and clergy.

The generation after 1066 had planted across England a landholding aristocracy of knights, most of them tenants of the two hundred or so barons who were the natural leaders of this small but dominant class. But within this group there was room for much variety of status, while as we have seen there were many knights who had no land at all. Among these landless knights the military temper of the Conquest generation doubtless remained strong. The knights who had been enfeoffed with small landed estates, on the other hand, tended to lose the character of professional cavalry soldiers, and became, like the thanes whom they had replaced, country gentry, developing local interests in their manors and tenants. They remained, it is true, closely attached to their lords by the accepted feudal ties; but the feeling, which must have been strong in the eleventh century, that all the Normans formed a self- contained group united under the king in a common military enterprise, was confined thereafter to the great barons. The end of the "pioneer" days of Hastings was signalised, c. 1100, by an important change in the way in which the king obtained the feudal military service of his barons and knights. Normally every knight had to serve the king at his own expense for forty days 1 a year, any longer

____________________
1
Two months in time of war.

-84-

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