In early English society, a distinction was made between the Freeman and the Slave. However, within these two categories multiple ranks existed and the differences between them were unclear. Some Freemen could be Lords, whilst other Freemen could be the followers of a Lord.
In ancient Germanic societies, a powerful chief would surround himself with followers, presumably to reinforce his status and for the purposes of protection. It is from this rough format, that the ideas of Lords existing and the importance of having a Lord to follow developed.
Within the category of Freemen, a ceorl was a freeman of an ordinary sort. An eorl was a freeman by virtue of noble birth and our modern day earls can trace the origins of their office back to this early start. A gesid was a well-born man that was specifically in service to the King in some capacity.
A thegn was an important officer within the household of an important man. The different ranks had social importance but also carried legal importance. For example, a thegn’s wergild (the price of a man’s life) was six times more than a common man’s wergild. Moreover, a thegn’s oath for himself or as an oath-helper carried six times the power of a common man’s.
Other ranks of distinction include being a twelf-hynd, six-hynd or twy-hynd man which meant your wergild was set at 1200, 600 and 200 shillings respectively. A twelf-hynd man was also generally a thegn but the other two ranks were usually not.
In terms of the other category, there was a large population of Slaves in England until the 12th Century and a roaring Slave trade was carried out at English ports until an ordinance of Æthelred forbade it. Slavery was distinct from serfdom which was an attachment to the land, whereas slavery was an attachment to a person. Interestingly, a Freeman sometimes enslaved himself if he had fallen on hard times and had no other way to survive.
Several of these ranks form the basis of distinctions between people to this day and the determining of the precise legal status and implications of these ranks caused a great deal of confusion throughout the ancient and medieval times.
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