‘Higher status’ covers the military aristocracy, including rulers and commanders (kings, ealdormen, jarls) and their principal fighting men (thegns, geneats, hirdmen, milites, serjeants, teulu, toisech) who either held land in return for service or were retained at a lord’s hall. The category also includes wealthy traders, moneyers, craftsmen and prosperous farmers.
Who is higher status
Higher status characters include:
- Any character who would spend most of their time giving other people orders is probably higher status.
- The reeve of an estate, a craftsman owning a workshop with half a dozen apprentices and artisans, a farmer with a large household – all are higher status.
- The warrior-retainers who accompany an important man, acting as his companions and bodyguards, feasting in his hall, drinking his mead, rewarded by him with arms, horses and rings, are higher status.
- Anyone owning 3 or more hides of land (90+ acres) is higher status.
- Anybody who has men commended to them (i.e. holds bonds of lordship) is higher status.
- Anyone likely to be on friendly speaking terms with their ealdorman and bishop (or with the king) will be higher status.
- Anyone who doesn’t have to grow, catch or buy their own food (i.e. who has people to do that for them, or who eats at a lord’s table) is higher status.
- Anyone who can spend their time hunting, training for warfare, embroidering, or praying without starving is probably higher status.
- Finally, any warrior with a sword should be higher status and any warrior who has a mail shirt is unquestionably higher status.
Who is not higher status
Lower status covers the rest of society, i.e. those who follow orders, do the work and have to give up some of their produce to someone else. Early medieval society had numerous ranks and grades, so a tenant farmer might have some independence from his lord or be closely tied – but in either case would be superior to a slave.
- Farm workers, farmers with small plots of land, artisans and craftsmen, slaves – all of these are lower status.
- Anyone who can expect to be told what to do is probably lower status.
- Anybody who has to grow or catch their own food, or else makes and sells/barters goods or services for food is lower status.
- Anyone who has to give up a proportion of their produce to a lord in rent is probably lower status.
- Anyone who cannot afford to waste money on something that can only be used for war (e.g. a sword or helmet) is lower status.
These are guidelines for a continuous social scale, so a high/low split will inevitably leave some questionable cases in the middle. A typical example would be a farmer who owns a modest amount of land and, in a time of conflict, has a sword (probably a gift from his lord, perhaps as spoils of war). This could mean a ceorl who is doing very well and may eventually reach the higher status of thegn, or a thegn who is facing financial collapse through taxation, poor harvests or plain bad luck, but still has his inherited sword and sense of honour. Both are perfectly authentic and well known from the turbulent England of Æthelred ‘Unraed’. In such cases, a bit of judgement will be needed based on the quality of fabrics, decoration, accoutrements etc.
The following gives a very general indication of what we would expect to see as part of a set of higher status kit. It does not replace the separate kit guides, but gives an idea of what we would like to see:
- Higher status male characters should be professional warriors, well equipped with a sword as their primary weapon, though they may carry a spear, javelins and/or Dane axe and/or appropriate side-arms (seax, hand axe, langseax); bows are discouraged. Higher status warriors should have a metal helmet and (optional but encouraged) mail shirt.
- In the later period (1050+ higher-status Viking, English and Norman warriors should have the latest form of shield (kite shield) and may have long-sleeved mail shirts with optional padding, plus mail coif and arming cap under their helmet.
- Higher status warriors are professional fighters whose reputation and honour is worth more than life – they may not leave the battlefield unless their lord permits it; if their unit commander is killed, they should fight and die around his body.
- Higher status characters should have well-made, well decorated kit. The hems, neck and cuffs of overtunics must be decorated with good embroidery (or, if appropriate, tablet braid) and undertunics may be similarly decorated. All kit should be properly finished and hemmed, and any rips or tears neatly mended – or else the garment replaced and given to someone less important.
- Higher status characters may have fabrics in colours that are fresh and clear – i.e. not washed-out.
- Higher status characters should always have jewellery and other decorative metalwork (e.g. belt fittings and strap-ends) appropriate for their racial type. Silver (and for exceptional status, gold) may be used for decoration. Silver arm-rings are a good addition to warrior kit.
- Higher status characters should have people to do things for them – we would prefer not to see an obviously important person spending hours tending a fire. If you’re going to do extensive manual labour, please dress appropriately (i.e. dress down!).