- The World Before Domesday: The English Aristocracy 900-1066 by Ann Williams
With The World Before Domesday: The English Aristocracy 900-1066, Ann Williams provides an exceptional and accessible insight into the pre-Conquest development of the English aristocracy, an area of Anglo-Saxon history rarely addressed in academic scholarship. While acknowledging the lack of reliable written sources for the study of the early medieval period, Williams has nonetheless successfully used codes, charters, and Domesday Book to develop an understanding of the various levels of social standing within the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms prior to the Norman Invasion.
Unlike some other works on late Anglo-Saxon society, Williams does not concentrate on the most famous of earls, Godwine of Wessex. Instead, in her first chapter, she uses Earl Odda as the chief example by which to examine the characteristics, wealth, and careers of eleventh-century earls. Parts of the discussion seem under-developed, however, and it is not until the end of the chapter that Williams discloses to the reader that the rank of earl was a privilege reserved for the closest servants of the king, rather than a hereditary title.
In Chapter 2, Williams closely examines the contemporary written evidence to determine the place of stallers and thegns within Anglo-Saxon society. Like the earls, she suggests the fortunes of the stallers were closely related to their position in the king's service. Despite the security of holding land and wealth, displeasing the king could result in outlawry or exile, such as that experienced by Osgod clapa in 1046. [End Page 339]
In the third chapter, Williams uses surviving local community memoranda (most of which relates to Kent) in conjunction with Domesday Book, to construct an understanding of the extent to which the English thegns acted as a coherent group. She suggests that a recognizable county community administered the shire of Kent, with close links existing between the Kentish noble families. However, since, as Williams acknowledges, this same abundance of information is not available for other parts of Anglo-Saxon England, it cannot be asserted definitively that other regions also experienced similar community links.
The direction of the discussion then moves from an explanation on the types of aristocrats to a general discussion on their shared characteristics. Chapters 4 and 5 cover the relationship between lords and their entourages, along with the possession and transfer of land. The last chapters discuss how Anglo-Saxon aristocrats displayed status. Williams ascertains that nobles were recognizable by their appearance, language, and manner. A range of other topics, such as the development of manor houses and churches, personal possessions, including weapons and cloths, and the aristocratic pursuits of hunting, falconry and feasting are also covered. Overall, the discussion is enlightening, but while Williams has managed to cover a large amount of material in relatively few pages, the last chapters are unsatisfyingly short and lacking in depth.
Moreover, close to half of the book is devoted to the notes, appendices, and bibliography. While these pages complement the main text, I would have preferred fewer of them, and more space devoted to the investigation into Anglo-Saxon lordship. Considering the number of topics and terms covered within the book, the index also seems short. The omission of some page numbers in the appendices and the first few pages of the notes is also distracting. Nevertheless, none of this should prevent the reader from enjoying what is otherwise an interesting and well-presented book, now available in paperback, on the development of lordship in late Anglo-Saxon England.
University of New England