18 November 2010

Anglo-Saxon Freedom by Carolyn Schriber

INTRODUCTION: Carolyn Schriber is a historian by training and profession.  Here she raises an interesting question about freedom in Anglo-Saxon society.

Anglo-Saxon Freedom

Here's a semantics problem for your debate blog, Helen.  Did the Anglo-Saxons have any concept of freedom?  Before you answer, let me give you some background.

I'm currently working on the history of a group of Northern Abolitionists who traveled to South Carolina during America's Civil War, ostensibly to  help the newly-freed slaves.  They all agreed that the institution of slavery was wrong, and that the slaves had to be given their freedom.  They were less clear about what they meant by "freedom." A few believed that the slaves only needed to be set free; what they did after that was up to them.  Others understood that people who had been slaves their entire lives would need to be taught how to be free. Some meant economic freedom; some meant religious freedom; others meant political freedom.

And if the Abolitionists were confused, imagine the poor slaves.  In November, 1861, a combined Union  Army and Navy Expedition had sailed into a vast South Carolina anchorage, so terrifying the plantation owners who lived along the South Carolina coast that they simply grabbed what they could carry and fled to the interior of the state. Almost to a man, they abandoned their slaves to their own resources.  The slave reactions were varied, but predictable.

When slave women were told they were "free," the idea frequently sent them into fits of weeping and wailing.  To the women, it meant they were being turned out of the only homes they had ever known.  Where should they go?  What would they do?  Who would take care of them?

To the men, particularly the field hands, being free meant no one was going to make them work ever again. They freed themselves from their hoes and their plows and sat down, waiting to see what would happen next -- unable to make the leap of understanding that they were still going to have to work if they wanted to eat. 

And the youngsters? They took the word free to mean something even more literal.  Many of the young men went on a rampage, breaking into the plantation houses to liberate the goods therein.  They tore up carpets to make suits, donned clothing left behind by fleeing masters, ate and drank whatever they could find, and smashed the items for which they had no use. For them, freedom meant complete release from all the rules.

Thus is freedom a particularly difficult concept.  To ancient cultures, particularly the Greeks and Romans, libertas or eleftheria implied a condition of citizenship.  A free Roman held the liberty of the city, which entitled him to all the privileges and obligations of citizenship.  In medieval France, liberté had more to do with the possession of land, while in Germany, Freiheit had slightly different economic implications. 

Where I get stuck is with the Anglo-Saxons.  Old English has the word Liesing which seems to describe a freed man -- someone who has been freed FROM something.  But there doesn't seem to be a word for what we think of as "freedom."

Why is that?  Did the Anglo-Saxons even recognize  the concept of freedom?  And if they did so, did they see it as a good thing or something to be feared?

CLOSING NOTE: Carolyn Schriber now writes Civil War novels.  Her latest release, Beyond All Price, is available fromAmazon.com or from  Katzenhaus Books You can also find her on Facebook   Twitter   and  LinkedIn or Email Carolyn  


  1. In the clearcut and most notable sense of fighting the Normans in 1066, yes, for hearth and home.

    If we're talking about how Anglo-Saxon nobles amassed great personal wealth, also yes- on the backs of 'slaves'/serfs who toiled their vast lands.

    Ordinary people could sell themselves or their families into slavery of a lord during desperate times (famine etc), so from top to bottom, I think they understood the concept of freedom and Bondsmen.

  2. Freedom is a difficult state to understand - I was listening to John Humphries of Radio 4 Today interviewing a group of Chinese students. They were all highly intelligent, sensible young women - yet they insisted they were free - while those of us in the UK (and US) were not.
    "You do not have freedom to vote," they said. "You can only vote for the people you are told to vote for - candidates are selected, not elected." She had a point.
    "You are not free to live where you choose because you have to live where you must work and in accommodation you can afford. How many people in the UK & USA can decide I want to live in XXXtown in a big house with a big garden?" She had a point.
    "How many people are free to go into any country they want without having to fill in forms, apply for citizenship, be 'approved'? That is not freedom of choice." Another point.

    On the other hand - we are not told who our Prime Minister or President is going to be. We ARE allowed to apply to live in another country, or move to another town, or have more than one child.

    So "freedom" actually means "choice". To be able to choose what to do brings freedom. To be told what to do - and not have the choice to do it or not is not freedom.

    The American Civil War gave the slaves no choice either. As slaves they had a home, work, protection, food, as non slaves they had nothing. Was it the same here in Anglo Saxon England? As serfs they had the security of an overlord, a place to live, a field to plough. A pig, a cow. The freedom to marry whom they chose.
    And how much changed after the Norman Conquest?

    Black slavery is frowned upon and almost a taboo subject. I do get annoyed that it is usually forgotten that the black Africans were originally captured and sold into slavery by black Africans, and that the first Caribbean slaves were white people - mostly Irish (enslaved during the aftermath of the English Civil War & running on into the "conquest" of Ireland by William of Orange - the Jacobite Rebellions) and convicts.

    Were the Anglo Saxons more "free" before or after the Norman Conquest?

  3. Good points Helen. It is a shame that people as a whole also have no idea that in the middle eastern world of the 16th and 17th century it was quite fashionable for them to have European slaves. Captain John Smith, famous here in the US for the Pocahontas tale, was a slave to a Turk for a year or so after being captured in the Balkans, I believe.
    When we talk of freedom, we have personal freedom and the freedom of a folk. Personal freedom encompasses all that was mentioned above and is coloured by modern experiences. Freedom to move, freedom to work as one wishes, freedom to speak an opinion. However, when people talk about 'a free people', I think it really means self determination. That a people rule themselves as opposed to being ruled by someone else.
    By this logic, if it is logic in it's simplicity, the Englisc were free as a folc before the Normans and not free as a folc again until Runnymeade. Or thereabouts.
    As individuals though, we certainly know women lost a devastating amount of freedoms(ie power) once the Normans arrived and that life became harder for the common Englisc person. The disenfranchisement of The English nobles also meant the common person was disenfranchised. At least in former days the rulers and the ruled had a mutual contract with each other as a folc. There was even the option for a man or woman to rise above their previous station and be upwardly mobile, just as a person could fall by their own misdeeds. Once the Normans arrived, it changed as the new ruling class had to exert control over the commoners. Limiting those economic freedoms.

    In a roundabout way i am trying to say that from what i have learned, the Englisc folc lost their freedom by loosing their self determination and the individual English person also lost many personal freedoms by similar reasoning.

  4. They were as I under stand it first called Anglo Saxon around the 5th century. "The Benedictine monk, Bede, writing three centuries later, identified them as the descendants of three Germanic tribes! In The History of Wales, John Davies says "The indigenous British people, who wrote in both Latin and Welsh, referred to these invaders as Saxones or Saeson! but they also included Frisians and Franks some historians claim.

    So there was a lot of invading and resettling.

    During all these periods of invasion wouldn't freedom have been re-adjusted according to who won or loss? Then during the invasions did they bring in their own class system? I don't know how much feast or famine they had during all these battles? And did the Germanic tribes as they were originally... fight as a tribe or separate out the Warriors?
    I had assumed in the conquering they came in as a horde to invade and then set up who would be working the land and who would hold the higher positions through former Leadership!
    17th and 18th century is my area but I remember a story a history Professor used to tell us..he said the Angles were considered barbarians and were on the slave block in Rome and one of the Popes passed by and asked about them. He looked at them and said "they are as beautiful as Angels" because they were so blonde I assume and then he said that's how they were called Anglo or Angles!
    So in freedom do we look at it through a class system eyes or through War and re-adjustment and a kind of economics? which tribe and which time would have decided on the concept of serf with all these different tribes? Or the ability to sell another? I know it would have been settled long before 1066... And then when they were invaded by Normans I think there was a stronger division of class. The Buildings tell us that. The remaining Anglo Saxon Buildings are one great Hall are they not?
    So less freedom after the Norman invasion but whether they had more freedom at different periods before and after the 5th century I don't know but I do feel there is an inherent knowing of freedom. It may not be called that but its an instinct sometimes it just comes in the need to roam to look for better food, better land, better conditions!

  5. Adding to what Marilyn has said - the "Wealas" (Welsh) were Britons, or maybe Roman Britons - Wealas is an English (i.e. Anglo Saxon) word meaning foreigner.
    The old idea that the Britons fled westward before the invading Saxon hoards is now discounted; it is more likely that the English came and settled more or less peacefully along the coast and rivers over several generations, gradually moving inland, living side by side and intermarrying with the population who were already here. So the idea that present day English people are a pure Anglo Saxon race is utter nonsense - strictly speaking, they too are the foreign incomer who emigrated to Britain and dominated enough to change the name from Britannia to Engla-lond. (Note: Britain then did not include Wales, Ireland and Scotland) There was some localised fighting - but not as much as subsequent historians would have us believe. (ditto with the Viking invasions)
    All this had previously happened when the Romans came and dominated the Celts. Did the Celtic tribes dominate whoever was here before them?

    But how much each race of people was 'free' we will never know.


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