By Emma Day
PhD Dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2011
Abstract: The dissertation is an investigation into sokemen and freemen, a group of higher status peasants, in tenth- and eleventh-century East Anglia (hereafter and throughout the dissertation referred to as less dependent tenants). The study considers four themes. The first concerns the socio-economic condition of less dependent tenants. Previous commentators have focused on, for example, light or non-existent labour services and a connection with royal service and public obligations, but the reality may have been more complex. The second theme considers the distribution of the group across East Anglia. The third and fourth themes consider, respectively, the reliability of the Domesday evidence for less dependent tenants and how far the eastern counties differed from the rest of England. It has been argued that the significant number of less dependent tenants recorded in the eastern counties in Domesday Book indicates that region’s unique social structure. This view increasingly has been questioned.
The dissertation uses a partially retrogressive approach, combining pre-Conquest sources with Domesday Book and manorial sources from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It argues that less dependent tenants formed a varied group, including both smallholders (probably constituting the greater part of the group) and prosperous landholders defined by high-status service. These individuals were not always clearly distinguished from those immediately above and below them in the hierarchy. There was no intrinsic connection between less dependent tenants and royal service. Less dependent tenants experienced upward and downward social mobility in the tenth and eleventh centuries, affected by the land market and the influence of lordship. The group’s local distribution, and, by implication, the extent of manorialisation, could vary widely and was influenced primarily by the strength of lordship. There were longstanding and important differences between East Anglia and counties elsewhere in England. But these differences also were exaggerated by the Domesday evidence.