‘Lower status’ covers "the rest of society" - anyone who is not higher status, 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.
Who is lower status
Lower status characters include:
- 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.
Who is not lower status
'Higher status' characters, the wealthy and their retainers, 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, 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.
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 lower status kit. It does not replace the separate kit guides, but gives an idea of what we would like to see:
- Lower status male characters may be combatants, but should have a primary weapon that is cheap and keeps the enemy at a distance (preferably a spear, but bow, javelins, sling are all good alternatives) and a simple secondary weapon (hand axe, seax or no side-arm at all). Helmets should be concealed or else obviously old and battered.
- Lower status combatants should be the first to run when things go wrong – if your unit commander is killed and your shieldwall breaks, you should try to flee the field.
- Lower status characters should have decently-made kit. Fabric was generally woven by families, and clothes represented a significant investment of time, so nothing should be wasted. All garments must be well finished and neatly hemmed. Any rips or tears should be mended or patched. Fabrics should not be in bright or strong colours – they should be relatively pale or washed out, since cheap vegetable dyes lose their colour quickly. Clothes should ideally have a very well worn and ‘lived-in’ feel to them.
- Lower status characters may have modest decoration on the hems, neck and/or cuffs of overtunics. Decoration does not need to be complicated or detailed, since leisure (and daylight) was limited.
- Lower status characters should have relatively little jewellery and other decorative metalwork – though equivalents in cheaper materials are encouraged. Crosses and pendants may be made of wood, bone or pewter, while pins, belt fittings and strap-ends may be bone or pewter
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