THE AUGUSTAN AGE AND THE LATER ANGLO-SAXON CIVILISATION.
The slight pause in the long course of Danish warfare which occurred during the vigorous administration of Dunstan, affords the best opportunity for considering the degree of civilisation reached by the English in the last age before the Norman Conquest. Our materials for such an estimate are partly to be found in existing buildings, manuscripts, pictures, ornaments, and other archæological remains, and partly in the documentary evidence of the chronicles and charters, and more especially of the great survey undertaken by the Conqueror's commissioners, and known as Domesday Book. From these sources we are enabled to gain a fairly complete view of the Anglo-Saxon culture in the period immediately preceding the immense influx of Romance civilisation after the Conquest; and though some such Romance influence was already exerted by the Normanising tendencies of Eadward the Confessor, we may yet conveniently consider the whole subject here under the age of Eadgar and Æthelred. It is difficult, indeed, to trace any very great improvement in the arts of life between the days of Dunstan and the days of Harold.
In spite of constant wars and ravages from the northern pirates, there can be little doubt that England had been slowly advancing in material civilisation ever since the introduction of Christianity. The heathen intermixture in the North and the Midlands had retarded the advance but had not completely checked it; while in Wessex and the South the intercourse with the continent and the consequent growth in culture had been steadily increasing. Æthelwulf of Wessex married a daughter of Karl the Bald; Ælfred gave his daughter to a count of Flanders; and Eadward's princesses were married respectively to the emperor, to the king of France, and to the king of Provence. Such alliances show a considerable degree of intercourse between Wessex and the Roman world; and the relics of material civilisation fully bear out the inference. The Institutes of the city of London mention traders from Brabant, LiŤge, Rouen, Ponthieu, France (in the restricted sense), and the Empire; but these came "in their own vessels." England, which now has in her hands the carrying trade of the world, was still dependent for her own supply on foreign bottoms. We know also that officers were appointed to collect tolls from foreign merchants at Canterbury, Dover, Arundel, and many other towns; and London and Bristol certainly traded on their own account with the Continent.
As a whole, however, England still remained a purely agricultural country to the very end of the Anglo-Saxon period. It had but little foreign trade, and what little existed was chiefly confined to imports of articles of luxury (wine, silk, spices, and artistic works) for the wealthier nobles, and of ecclesiastical requisites, such as pictures, incense, relics, vestments, and like southern products for the churches and monasteries. The exports seem mainly to have consisted of slaves and wool, though hides may possibly have been sent out of the country, and a little of the famous English gold-work and embroidery was perhaps sold abroad in return for the few imported luxuries. But taking the country at a glance, we must still picture it to ourselves as composed almost entirely of separate agricultural manors, each now owned by a considerable landowner, and tilled mainly by his churls, whose position had sunk during the Danish wars to that of semi-servile tenants, owing customary rents of labour to their superiors. War had told against the independence of the lesser freemen, who found themselves compelled to choose themselves protectors among the higher born classes, till at last the theory became general that every man must have a lord. The noble himself lived upon his manor, accepted service from his churls in tilling his own homestead, and allowed them lands in return in the outlying portions of his estates. His sources of income were two only: first, the agricultural produce of his lands, thus tilled for him by free labour and by the hands of his serfs; and secondly, the breeding of slaves, shipped from the ports of London and Bristol for the markets of the south. The artisans depended wholly upon their lord, being often serfs, or else churls holding on service-tenure. The mass of England consisted of such manors, still largely interspersed with woodland, each with the wooden hall of its lord occupying the centre of the homestead, and with the huts of the churls and serfs among the hays and valleys of the outskirts. The butter and cheese, bread and bacon, were made at home; the corn was ground in the quern; the beer was brewed and the honey collected by the family. The spinner and weaver, the shoemaker, smith, and carpenter, were all parts of the household. Thus every manor was wholly self-sufficing and self-sustaining, and towns were rendered almost unnecessary.
Forests and heaths still also covered about half the surface. These were now the hunting-grounds of the kings and nobles, while in the leys, hursts, and dens, small groups of huts gave shelter to the swineherds and woodwards who had charge of their lord's property in the woodlands. The great tree-covered region of Selwood still divided Wessex into two halves; the forest of the Chilterns still spread close to the walls of London; the Peakland was still overgrown by an inaccessible thicket; and the long central ridge between Yorkshire and Scotland was still shadowed by primæval oaks, pinewoods, and beeches. Agriculture continued to be confined to the alluvial bottoms, and had nowhere as yet invaded the uplands, or even the stiffer and drier lowland regions, such as the Weald of Kent or the forests of Arden and Elmet.
Only two elements broke the monotony of these self-sufficing agricultural communities. Those elements were the monasteries and the towns.
A large part of the soil of England was owned by the monks. They now possessed considerable buildings, with stone churches of some pretensions, in which service was conducted with pomp and impressiveness. The tiny chapel of St. Lawrence, at Bradford-on-Avon, forms the best example of this primitive Romanesque architecture now surviving in England. Around the monasteries stretched their well-tilled lands, mostly reclaimed from fen or forest, and probably more scientifically cultivated than those of the neighbouring manors. Most of the monks were skilled in civilised handicrafts, introduced from the more cultivated continent. They were excellent ecclesiastical metalworkers; many of them were architects, who built in rude imitation of Romanesque models; and others were designers or illuminators of manuscripts. The books and charters of this age are delicately and minutely wrought out, though not with all the artistic elaboration of later mediæval work. The art of painting (almost always in miniature) was considerably advanced, the figures being well drawn, in rather stiff but not unlifelike attitudes, though perspective is very imperfectly understood, and hardly ever attempted. Later Anglo-Saxon architecture, such as that of Eadward's magnificent abbey church at Westminster (afterwards destroyed by Henry III. to make way for his own building), was not inferior to continental workmanship. All the arts practised in the abbeys were of direct Roman origin, and most of the words relating to them are immediately derived from the Latin. This is the case even with terms relating to such common objects as candle, pen, wine, and oil. Names of weights, measures, coins, and other exact quantitative ideas are also derived from Roman sources. Carpenters, smiths, bakers, tanners, and millers, were usually attached to the abbeys. Thus, in many cases, as at Glastonbury, Peterborough, Ripon, Beverley, and Bury St. Edmunds, the monastery grew into the nucleus of a considerable town, though the development of such towns is more marked after than before the Norman Conquest. As a whole, it was by means of the monasteries, and especially of their constant interchange of inmates with the continent, that England mainly kept up the touch with the southern civilisation. There alone was Latin, the universal medium of continental intercommunication, taught and spoken. There alone were books written, preserved, and read. Through the Church alone was an organisation kept up in direct communication with the central civilising agencies of Italy and the south. And while the Church and the monasteries thus preserved the connection with the continent, they also formed schools of culture and of industrial arts for the country itself. At the abbeys bells were cast, glass manufactured, buildings designed, gold and silver ornaments wrought, jewels enamelled, and unskilled labour organised by the most trained intelligence of the land. They thus remained as they had begun, homes and retreats for those exceptional minds which were capable of carrying on the arts and the knowledge of a dying civilisation across the gulf of predatory barbarism which separates the artificial culture of Rome from the industrial culture of modern Europe.
The towns were few and relatively unimportant, built entirely of wood (except the churches), and very liable to be burnt down on the least excuse. In considering them we must dismiss from our minds the ideas derived from our own great and complex organisation, and bring ourselves mentally into the attitude of a simple agricultural people, requiring little beyond what was produced on each man's own farm or petty holding. Such people are mainly fed from their own corn and meat, mainly clad from their own homespun wool and linen. A little specialisation of function, however, already existed. Salt was procured from the wyches or pans of the coast, and also from the inland wyches or brine wells of Cheshire and the midland counties. Such names as Nantwich, Middlewych, Bromwich, and Droitwich, still preserve the memory of these early saltworks. Iron was mined in the Forest of Dean, around Alcester, and in the Somersetshire district. The city of Gloucester had six smiths' forges in the days of Eadward the Confessor, and paid its tax to the king in iron rods. Lead was found in Derbyshire, and was largely employed for roofing churches. Cloth-weaving was specially carried on at Stamford; but as a rule it is probable that every district supplied its own clothing. English merchants attended the great fair at St. Denys, in France, much as those of Central Asia now attend the fair at Kandahar; and madder seems to have been bought there for dyeing cloth. In Kent, Sussex, and East Anglia, herring fisheries already produced considerable results. With these few exceptions, all the towns were apparently mere local centres of exchange for produce, and small manufactured wares, like the larger villages or bazaars of India in our own time. Nevertheless, there was a distinct advance towards urban life in the later Anglo-Saxon period. Bæda mentions very few towns, and most of those were waste. By the date of the Conquest there were many, and their functions were such as befitted a more diversified national life. Communications had become far greater; and arts or trade had now to some extent specialised themselves in special places.
A list of the chief early English towns may possibly seem to give too much importance to these very minor elements of English life; yet one may, perhaps, be appended with due precaution against misapprehension.
The capital, if any place deserved to be so called under the perambulating early English dynasty, was Winchester (Wintan-ceaster), with its old and new minsters, containing the tombs of the West-Saxon kings. It possessed a large number of craftsmen, doubtless dependant ultimately upon the court; and it was relatively a place of far greater importance than at any later date.
The chief ports were London (Lundenbyrig), situated at the head of tidal navigation on the Thames; and Bristol (Bricgestow) and Gloucester (Gleawan-ceaster), similarly placed on the Avon and Severn. These towns were convenient for early shipping because of their tidal position, at an age when artificial harbours were unknown; They were the seat of the export traffic in slaves and the import traffic in continental goods. Before Ælfred's reign the carrying trade by sea seems to have been in the hands of the Frisian skippers and slave-dealers, who stood to the English in the same relation as the Arabs now stand to the East African and Central African negroes; but after the increased attention paid to shipbuilding during the struggle with the Danes, English vessels began to engage in trade on their own account. London must already have been the largest and richest town in the kingdom. Even in Bæda's time it was "the mart of many nations, resorting to it by sea and land." It seems, indeed, to have been a sort of merchant commonwealth, governed by its own port reeve, and it made its own dooms, which have been preserved to the present day. From the Roman time onward, the position of London as a great free commercial town was probably uninterrupted.
York (Eoforwic), the capital of the North, had its own archbishop and its Danish internal organisation. It seems to have been always an important and considerable town, and it doubtless possessed the same large body of handicraftsmen as Winchester. During the doubtful period of Danish and English struggles, the archbishop apparently exercised quasi-royal authority over the English burghers themselves.
Among the cathedral towns the most important were Canterbury (Cant-wara-byrig), the old capital of Kent and metropolis of all England, which seems to have contained a relatively large trading population; Dorchester, in Oxfordshire, first the royal city of the West Saxons, and afterwards the seat of the exiled bishopric of Lincoln; Rochester (Hrofes-ceaster), the old capital of the West Kentings, and seat of their bishop: and Worcester (Wigorna-ceaster), the chief town of the Huiccii. Of the monastic towns the chief were Peterborough (Burh), Ely (Elig), and Glastonbury (Glæstingabyrig). Bath, Amesbury, Colchester, Lincoln, Chester, and other towns of Roman origin were also important. Exeter, the old capital of the West Welsh, situated at the tidal head of the Exe, had considerable trade. Oxford was a place of traffic and a fortified town. Hastings, Dover, and the other south-coast ports had some communications with France. The only other places of any note were Chippenham, Bensington, and Aylesbury; Northampton and Southampton; Bamborough; the fortified posts built by Eadward and Æthelflæd; and the Danish boroughs of Bedford, Derby, Leicester, Stamford, Nottingham, and Huntingdon. The Witena-gemots and the synods took place in any town, irrespective of size, according to royal convenience. But as early as the days of Cnut, London was beginning to be felt as the real centre of national life: and Eadward the Confessor, by founding Westminster Abbey, made it practically the home of the kings. The Conqueror "wore his crown on Eastertide at Winchester; on Pentecost at Westminster; and on Midwinter at Gloucester:" which probably marks the relative position of the three towns as the chief places in the old West Saxon realm at least. Under Æthelstan, London had eight moneyers or mint-masters, while Winchester had only six, and Canterbury seven.
As regards the arts and traffic in the towns, they were chiefly carried on by guilds, which had their origin, as Dr. Brentano has shown with great probability, in separate families, who combined to keep up their own trade secrets as a family affair. In time, however, the guilds grew into regular organisations, having their own code of rules and laws, many of which (as at Cambridge, Exeter, and Abbotsbury) we still possess. It is possible that the families of craftsmen may at first have been Romanised Welsh inhabitants of the cities; for all the older townsóLondon, Canterbury, York, Lincoln, and Rochesterówere almost certainly inhabited without interruption from the Roman period onward. But in any case the guilds seem to have grown out of family compacts, and to have retained always the character of close corporations. There must have been considerable division of the various trades even before the Conquest, and each trade must have inhabited a separate quarter; for we find at Winchester, or elsewhere, in the reign of Æthelred, Fellmonger, Horsemonger, Fleshmonger, Shieldwright, Shoewright, Turner, and Salter Streets.
The exact amount of the population of England cannot be ascertained, even approximately; but we may obtain a rough approximation from the estimates based upon Domesday Book. It seems probable that at the end of the Conqueror's reign, England contained 1,800,000 souls. Allowing for the large number of persons introduced at the Conquest, and for the natural increase during the unusual peace in the reigns of Cnut, of Eadward the Confessor, and, above all, of William himself, we may guess that it could not have contained more than a million and a quarter in the days of Eadgar. London may have had a population of some 10,000; Winchester and York of 5,000 each; certainly that of York at the date of Domesday could not have exceeded 7,000 persons, and we know that it contained 1,800 houses in the time of Eadward the Confessor.
The organisation of the country continued on the lines of the old constitution. But the importance of the simple freeman had now quite died out, and the gemot was rather a meeting of the earls, bishops, abbots, and wealthy landholders, than a real assembly of the people. The sub-divisions of the kingdom were now pretty generally conterminous with the modern counties. In Wessex and the east the counties are either older kingdoms, like Kent, Sussex, and Essex; or else tribal divisions of the kingdom, like Dorset, Somerset, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Surrey. In Mercia, the recovered country is artificially mapped out round the chief Danish burgs, as in the case of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, and Leicestershire, where the county town usually occupies the centre of the arbitrary shire. In Northumbria it is divided into equally artificial counties by the rivers. Beneath the counties stood the older organisation of the hundred, and beneath that again the primitive unit of the township, known on its ecclesiastical side as the parish. In the reign of Eadgar, England seems to have contained about 3,000 parish churches.