east anglia, kent and manorialism

here are a few excerpts related to east anglia and kent in the medieval period from from Sentiments & Activities: Essays in Social Science by george c. homans.

homans has a few interesting things to say about the east anglians and kentish people of the middle ages:

– that they had little to no manners manors in these regions versus central england which did
– that extended-families ruled the day in these areas versus nuclear families
– and he concludes that the germanic peoples that settled east anglia during the migration period had probably been frisians

east anglia is interesting because that’s where the puritan settlers in new england came from. here’s a little map from Albion’s Seed on the origins of new england’s placenames — i.e. they came mostly from east anglia:

anyway, here from homans [pgs. 147-49, 154, 162, 169]:

“[The] two main types of English social organization in the Middle Ages and their historical consequences, the two being the social organization of East Anglia and Kent, on the one side, and, on the other, that of central or open-field England….

“Central England is marked by large, compact villages, whose fields are managed according to customary rules binding on all villagers — one or another variety of the so-called open-field system or champion husbandry. In these fields, a villager’s holding lies in strips scattered all over the fields, with approximately equal acreage in each one. The holdings tend to be equal, class by class: there may be yardlands and half-yardlands, but each yardland is normally equal to every other one. A holding in villeinage or socage is commonly held by one man and descends to one of his sons. And many of the holdings are villein holdings, subject to heavy labor-services for the lord of the manor.

“Arrangements in Kent and much of East Anglia differ at almost every point from those just described…. Kent is marked by settlements smaller than the open-field villages, settlements I shall call hamlets. The holding does not originally consist of scattered strips. The earlier the date, the more often it appears instead as a compact body of land, the hamlet apparently lying close to the land. The holding is managed as an independent farming unit, not subject to many communal rules, though often following in fact a traditional rotation of crops. The holdings may once have been equal in size, but by the end of the thirteenth century such equality has degenerated, and irregularity is the rule rather than the exception.

“A husbandman’s holding tends to be in the hands of a group of men often called participes, sometimes called heredes, and it is often clear that these men are patrilineal kinsmen. The custom of inheritance in Kent is called gavelkind, and recognized by the lawyers as being different from most of the rest of England. Land descends to a number of heirs jointly…. It looks as if we had to do with joint-family communities like those Le Play described as still existing in the Auvergne in the nineteenth century: groups of men claiming descent from a common patrilineal ancestor, living in one house or a small group of houses, and managing in common a compact body of land, under the leadership of the oldest of ablest male of each successive senior generation….

“Again unlike open-field England, Kent by the end of the thirteenth century holds few villeins. Week-work for the lord of the manor is the badge of villeinage, and week-work is uncommon in Kent.

“The customs of East Anglia, including the villages on the southern shore of the Wash, are mixed, but in many places identical with those of Kent. The fact of gavelkins inheritance is certainly common, though not the name. Holdings seem at one time to have been fairly compact, but they have become much broken up by partible inheritance. The proportion of free socage to villein tenures is higher than in central England, though lower than in Kent. East Anglia differs from Kent chiefly in the fact that settlement seems to be in big villages rather than hamlets, but even here the two districts are alike in lacking strict two- or three-field systems of husbandry.

We have on the one hand a strong village community linked with what Le Play called in ‘Les ouvriers europeens’ a stem-family, and on the other hand a weak or nonexistent village community linked with a joint-family. Big village, small family or small village, big family — the contrast is oversimple but not fantastically so….

“[A] higher proportion of tenants in free socage to tenants in villeinage [is] obtained in Kent and East Anglia than in central England…. This was true at the time of Domesday, and by the end of the thirteenth century very little villeinage remained in Kent…. Nor was the phenomenon limited to England. One of the greatest of social historians, Marc Bloch, claimed that the full-blown seigneurie appeared in France ‘north of the Loire and on the Burgundian plain,’ that is, in the open-field part of the country. He argued that the feudal system itself developed its classic form only under these conditions….

In East Anglia as in Kent, the heirs often continued to hold and work it [the land] in common and undivided, forming what anthropologists call a joint-family or minimal lineage. Thus we hear of groups of brothers, of uncles and nephews, and of first cousins holding land jointly....

“Besides holding land in common, did a group of heirs ever keep on living together in one big family house, forming a house-community like those described in the sagas? All we have here are some curious East Anglian references to named ‘houses’ (domus), references that seem unlike any found in the records of other parts of England….

The final characteristic of East Anglia that sets it off at least from Wessex and Mercia is its weak, or perhaps late, manorialization…. Specifically, weak manorialism meant a large number of free tenants. ‘The free peasantry of East Anglia — that is to say of the two counties of Norfolk and Suffolk alone — formed approximately one half of the total number of freeman and sokemen recorded for the whole of Domesday England….'”

homans makes a long and fairly convincing argument (that i won’t go into here) that frisians settled in east anglia during the migration period and not so much angles. he draws a lot of parallels between medieval east anglian society and frisian society, so he may be right. but the interesting thing is, like east anglia, frisia never experienced manorialism either, so perhaps the similarities of the two regions are related to that (along with general common ethnic origins).

it’s interesting, too, to hear that as recently as the 1300s, east anglia and kent had community families whereas, according to emmanuel todd, they had absolute nuclear families by the modern period (1500s-1800s). the change to nuclear families (perhaps stem families as opposed to absolute nuclear families) probably came much earlier in the manor-regions of england since the manor system generally required nuclear families.

previously: family types and the evolution of behavioral traits

(note: comments do not require an email. east anglia.)



  1. How did Kent and East Anglia fare during the Norman Conquest? William the Conqueror brought a force over the Channel. He was of Norse descent but were all of his troops? Weren’t they settled in England, many of them? Maybe they were Frisian. It certainly doesn’t look like they had been conquered. Just a hunch.


  2. I wonder if malaria in Frisia and Kent might have delayed manorialism there?


    Often partial drainage made the problem worse.

    The elites might have had less immunity than common folk.

    East Kent is thought to have had more Jutish (Frisian?) settlers than the west…and are said to have resisted the Normans more robustly. Or maybe the Normans just ignored them for longer.
    The Men of Kent v Kentish Men, with the Medway as boundary.



  3. @luke – “Where are all the commenters?”

    dunno. spring break? march madness? (^_^)

    nobody’s emailed me to complain about any problems with commenting since the recent wordpress changes … and i have the usual number of visitors so … just a lull in the conversation?


  4. @svk – “I wonder if malaria in Frisia and Kent might have delayed manorialism there? … The elites might have had less immunity than common folk.”

    how interesting! i didn’t even know there were any problems with malaria that far north in europe. thnx!

    do we know of any northern european populations that have genetic resistance to malaria? like thalassaemia in the greeks? certainly could conceivably have made a difference if the native frisians/saxons had some resistance but the conquering franks/normans did not.


  5. “I wonder if malaria in Frisia and Kent might have delayed manorialism there?”

    I think it’s to do with something related to that i.e. East Anglia (like Frisia) used to be a giant swamp


    so it wouldn’t have been suited to manorialism until the Dutch (Frisia again) came with their windmills.

    I also wonder if that strange gavelkind system around London (square fields) had anything to do with the settlement of retired roman legionaries (whose pension was a farm).


  6. @g.w. – “I also wonder if that strange gavelkind system around London (square fields) had anything to do with the settlement of retired roman legionaries (whose pension was a farm).”

    that’s an interesting idea. i wonder. will have to keep an eye out for info on that!


  7. I’ve tweeted a Map to HBD about the boundaries of the Planned Countryside/Open Field System. The area from which the Puritans came is just outside it. In Ancient Countryside, also called Celtic elsewhere. Mostly its hillier and better watered.

    In Norfolk and Suffolk, fresh water supply would also have been an issue. East Anglia doesn’t get much rainfall, some soils are very sandy and there is not much surface water by way of streams. In AS times, sea level was higher and there was salt water around. Communities in East Cambridgeshire and the Western parts of East Anglia would have very different challenges to Essex.


  8. And yes, there was Malaria/Ague in the Fens until the 19th C. Global Warming enthusiasts predict its return.

    East Anglia was a major centre of resistance to the Normans. Hereward the Wake was based on the Isle of Ely and held William off for a while. Ely is no longer an island and Waterbeach near Cambridge is no longer a seaport but there are huge sand dunes around Bury St Edmunds. Water access was still possible in Viking times because they conquered EA easily. (AS and Vikings could land in an uninhabited region (no surface water for horses), group and march off to raid something. Harder in Essex and on the Suffolk coast.


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