DARK AGE LONDON contd.

Another in the  series of posts taken from  my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” …

Social History

Everyday life would have continued to revolve around the requirement and search for sustenance for body and soul.

Saxon  women were granted some not inconsiderable freedoms in law, and although their principal responsibilities were household, they also held the rights to own land.

Religion

The early Saxons were pagan, but they later began to become Christianised from around the turn of the sixth and seventh centuries onwards.

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In 597, Pope Gregory I sent a mission from Rome to attempt their wholesale conversion, one of the members of which was Augustine, and another Mellitus, which latter went on to become the first Bishop of London in 604, and the third Archbishop of Canterbury in 615.  In 616, the previously converted East Saxons temporarily  reverted to paganism, after the death of their King. As the Venerable Bede put it in 731, in his “Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum” (“Ecclesiastical History of the English People”): “In the year of our Lord 616 … the death of Sabert [Sebert], King of the East Saxons … left three sons, still pagans, to inherit his … crown.  They immediately began openly to give themselves up to idolatry, … and … granted free licence to their subjects to serve idols.  And when they saw the bishop [Mellitus] … celebrating Mass … , filled, as they were, with folly and ignorance, they said unto him … ‘We will not enter into that font, because we … do not stand in need of it, and yet we will be refreshed by that bread’.  And being … earnestly admonished by him, that this could by no means be done, nor would any one be admitted to partake of the sacred Oblation without the holy cleansing, …  they said, filled with rage, ‘If you will not comply with us in so small a matter as that which we require, you shall not stay in our province’.  And they drove him out … and his company … from their Kingdom [Essex] … ”.

The early Vikings were pagan, but they later began to become Christianised from the ninth century onwards.

Food and Drink

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Evidence from finds from Saxon rural occupation and riverside fish-trap sites in the Greater London region, within a 25 kilometre  (16 mile) radius of the City,  indicates that the  agricultural economy centred on the production of cereal crops, including  wheat, barley, oats and rye, and of cattle, presumably for milk as well as meat. Pulses, nuts, fruit and berries were also produced and consumed.

Note in this context that plant- and animal- based remedies featured prominently in early Medieval medicine.  The Old English text in the mid tenth-century “Bald’s Leechbook” describes, among other things, how  salves  and potions were used to treat not only injuries and infections, but also, rather wonderfully, visitations from elves (aelfcynne), night goblins (nihtgehgan) and devils (deofol).   And the Old English and Latin text and accompanying illustrations in an anonymous early eleventh-century herbal indicate that both parsley (peterslilie) and sweet basil or “snake plant” (naedderwyrt) were used to treat snake bites.

Population

The population of Saxon London is estimated to have been at the most several thousand (that is, significantly less than that of Roman London).

Administration and Governance

Saxon London was for the most part only a  regional rather than a national administrative centre, as the “Seven Kingdoms” only finally  united to become England under Alfred’s grandson Athelstan in 924 (the “Seven Kingdoms”, also known as the  “Heptarchy”,  comprised East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex; of these, Essex, Mercia and Wessex in turn held  sway over London).  Nonetheless, it was the site of both the folkmoot, or outdoor assembly, thought to have been on a site near the Medieval (St) Paul’s Cross;  and the husting or indoor assembly, thought to have been on a site near the Medieval Guildhall.  Saxon society was comparatively democratic, and any free man  was entitled to voice his opinion at the folkmoot (and, as noted above, Saxon women were also granted some freedoms in law).  However, only a noble  ealdorman, or earl, appointed by the King could attend the husting,  and only Kings, greater nobles and bishops the peripatetic Witanagemot or Witan.    Saxon Society was also comparatively meritocratic,  and permissive of a measure of mobility, albeit within an overall  hierarchy (note that although Kings were elected, they  were elected from  within the ranks  of the nobility).  The highest among the free men were the thanes, or knights, the lowest the various classes of ceorls, or peasants (whence Cerle-ton or Charlton in south-east London).  Below them were the theows, or slaves.

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Perhaps the most famous law-giver of Saxon times was Alfred, who in the late 880s or early 890s established a new code of law, based on Christian principles, and enshrined in the so-called  “Domboc”.  The code established  folk-rights and privileges.  Judicial  courts ruled  on cases of alleged breaches, and meted  out such fines or corporal or capital punishments as were deemed appropriate.  Some of the punishments appear barbaric by modern standards, such as the possible judicial  drowning of a  Saxon woman whose skeleton has recently been excavated  at Queenhithe (by the mid-tenth century, a woman could be punished by drowning either for  theft, according to laws laid down between 924-39, or for witchcraft, as mentioned in a charter of 963-75).  That is not to mention the supposedly “oath-helping” Ordeals by Fire, Iron or Water!  Athelstan passed laws relating specifically to the governance of London in the succeeding early tenth century (he reigned from 924-39).  His “Judicia Civitatis Londoniae” makes explicit reference to a governance structure comprising a single governor, or in effect a mayor (in place of a bishop and port-reeve), “eorlish” aldermen, and “ceorlish” commons.

Trade and Commerce

Foodstuffs continued to be brought into Saxon  London from the immediate hinterland.  Other goods continued to be  brought in    by boat from all around northern Europe, including the Low Countries and Scandinavia, and also, in the case of precious stones, gold, silk and other luxuries, even further afield.

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