Growth and Innovation - 650 to 1050 A.D.

A variety of initiatives were undertaken in the period between the 7th and 11th Centuries with the result that by 1050 AD, the structures of production and social organization were established – villages, towns, class hierarchies – which were to provide the framework for succeeding centuries.

Both the small kingdoms of the period before the Danish invasion and the later English state made some contribution to economic development. Kings minted coins to enable them to collect taxes in convenient and portable form and to assert royal rule in the manner of the Roman emperors and rulers on the Continent. They produced small silver coins (called ‘sceattas’) from the 7th Century which were replaced by the larger silver penny in the late 8th. In this way, kings provided a convenient medium for commerce. They also developed centers at which traders and craftsmen settled. The first of these towns in the period before 900 AD were usually called ‘wics’ and were sited strategically to serve as trading places. The people of these settlements traded in goods such as wool, cloth, wine, millstones and crafted objects of metal, bone and stone. Kings encouraged the development of trading centers around major settlements such as castles, churches and centers of government.

This first phase of town settlement tended to be transient and the inland centers were of modest size. More permanent and large-scale developments came around 900 AD when the rulers of Wessex and the Scandinavian states founded centers of government and defense known as boroughs. Large numbers of immigrants were attracted to them as they were well protected. This provided a steady flow of customers who came to visit courts, pay taxes, attend church services and go about the daily rituals of life. These towns were settled intensively with houses packed together and accumulated rubbish had begun to cause major pollution hazards by the 10th Century. By the late 11th Century more than a hundred towns had developed with a combined population approaching 200,000.

In the 9th and 10th Centuries the aristocracy became more numerous and more demanding with their burdens of taxation and tithes upon the local populace. The companions, servants and officials of the nobles required a stable landed endowment and as government and warfare became more complex, the rulers wished to reward and sustain a larger body of these supporters (called ‘thegns’). Thus the estates of the nobles began to be divided and distributed in small shares among these thegns. The peasant population provided the labor on each plot of land and thus the first fifedoms were created. A peasant living on the land of a local lord would work for his master and pay rent in the form of barley, hens, sheep or coinage. To provide these terms, the peasant had to sell goods and produce or items they manufactured on their own.

The formation of nucleated villages and the laying out of large tracts of open fields represent great creative achievements of this period. Before 900 AD most people lived in small farms or hamlets. By the end of the 11th Century hundreds of thousands of peasants abandoned their hamlets and congregated in villages. These settlements were planned and split into rectangular blocks. They were always central to the fields and farmlands that sustained them.

The system used was a collective management of the land by the village. In a two-field system only one field would be planted and tilled while the other would be left as fallow for grazing and gave the land time to recover from continuous cropping. The system was a compromise between individual intiative and governed law.

While ‘village-belts’ began to appear, systems of protecting, governing and maintaining the important crop fields became a practiced way of life. The people represented an independent collective and through their growth and innovation, managed to establish a system of commerce and trade revolving around their successful agriculture. Thus by 1050 AD, the basics for an economic system had been laid.