Posted by: kljolly | May 29, 2020


In the previous post I alluded to Easington as an “estate” transformed into a women’s religious community under Aldred’s mother Tilwif and sister Bega, and also that it had turned to growing flax for linen production.

My efforts to describe the household and its dependent vills led into an excursus on terminology, coincident with reading Rosamond Faith and John Blair’s recent works (see bibliography at end). “Estate” and “manor” are anachronistic terms I would prefer to avoid, but vill and tun have specialized meanings in early medieval texts that may be opaque to modern readers.

Easington and its dependent vills are described in the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto (HSC) 22 as granted to one Alfred, whom I fictitiously identified as Aldred’s father.  They are listed and identified by Ted Johnson South as:

  1. Easington Esingtun NZ4143 primary vill of composite estate.
  2. Monk Hesleden: Seletun earlier a primary vill of a composite estate. OE sele+tun = tun with a hall.
  3. Little Thorp: Thorep NZ4242.
  4. Horden Hall: Horedene/Hortun NZ4242, dependent of Monk Hesleden before Easington.
  5. Yoden: Iodene (now Peterlee) NZ4341. HSC 19 Geodene,dependent of Monk Hesleden before Easington. Others identify with Little Eden; some call Yoden Eden Hall.
  6. Shotton: Scotun/Sceottun I NZ4139.
  7. Shotton [Colliery?]: Scotun/Sceottun II NZ3940 tentative.
  8. Castle Eden: Iodene Australem also Geodene. dependent of Monk Hesleden before Easington.
  9. Hulam: Holum NZ4336, dependent of Monk Hesleden before Easington.
  10. Hutton Henry: Hotun/Hotoun NZ4236, dependent of Monk Hesleden before Easington.
  11. Twilingatun: Twinlingtun uncertain identity; guesses south of Hutton Henry; dependent of Monk Hesleden before Easington.
  12. Sheraton: Scurufatun/Scrufatun NZ4435.

Easington vill crop

As you can see on the map, all are south of Easington, clustered along the coast.

In this section of the chapter on Aldred becoming a deacon at Easington in 941, I describe the household and vill management.  Probably some of these details will be spread out in the chapter, but for now I wrote it all in one place:

            For the women of Tilwif’s community, the mornings were devoted to the collective work on the looms.  Younger women and the children, fatherless orphans, shared labor customarily done by slaves, the unfree, but here freely or freed by Tilwif and Bega and dependent on the hall for their daily bread while apprenticed in a craft in the household, on the farm, or in the grain fields. Under the supervision of the beekeeper, dairywoman, shepherd, and cowman, some of these household dependents learned to care for the farm animals, bees, pigs, laying hens, cows, and sheep.  Less for meat, the dairy animals provided excellent cheeses that were the main source of protein through the winter months, along with bread. They were self-sufficient at a subsistence level, if it came to that.

            But Easington, a tun with a lord’s hall, also oversaw eleven other vills within six miles to the south that paid feorm, each with about a dozen households.  The composite vill at Easington was granted by St. Cuthbert and the bishopric of Lindisfarne to Aldred’s father Alfred 27 years ago.  This rich resource area along the coast of Northumbria included a mix of ploughlands, meadows, woodland for pigs, grazing pasture, fisheries, mills, and dairies. Collectively, they had 45 ploughteams of four oxen each tilling and cultivating land to produce grain for bread and fodder for the traction oxen and other beasts essential for survival and the basis of thegnly landed wealth. Beyond sustaining the farm households of each vill, the surplus was uplifted to support Alfred’s noble warrior household at Easington and its ecclesiastical patron, St. Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street.    

            No wonder that at Alfred’s death at Corbridge in 918, these fertile Northumbrian vills were a prime target for viking invaders turned settlers, the infamous Onlaf and Scula.  Only through the divine intervention of St. Cuthbert, was most of the land, the twelve vills of Easington without Billingham, restored to Alfred’s family.

            With his only son Aldred in the church, Tilwif and her daughter Bega turned the Easington “tun” into a religious community, supported by its dependent vills.  Unusually, Tilwif had appointed as reeve a woman, her friend Ælfwaru widow of reeve Rædwulf; their son Nothwulf, acolyte at Aldred’s baptism, had gone a-viking and been killed, so she only had her daughter Wulflæd who was in charge of the dairying.  Ælfwaru supervised Easington and kept the accounts for the production and distribution of goods across the eleven other vills with their respective reeves.

            However, the main enterprise at Easington itself was no longer grain but the production of flax for the making of linen cloth.  The free farmers (geneat, boarders, cottagers) and tenants (geburas) who lived in the nearest vills of Thorp and Horton tended the tall flax in the fields, harvested it in the spring while it was still tender, soon now.  Then they would be retting the stalks in water to loosen the fibers, a smelly business going into early summer, and then scutching the rotting mess to separate the soft fibers from the woody stems and seeds (for linseed oil?).  The women and children did the heckling, combing the long fibers out to be spun by the young women, and finally woven into fabric by the senior women of the household on large looms.

            Most of this linen, like the wool they spun from from the sheep on their vill and surrounding vills, was left undyed, a creamy color sometimes whitened for chrismals and shrouds, rituals for birth and death.  However, one of the women formerly enslaved in a Scandinavian workshop in York was expert in dyes, so she was helping them develop a small industry in brightly colored linen.  Mostly his mother preferred to supply linen to churches for vestments, altar cloths, and wall hangings, but they subsidized this charitable but not very profitable work by selling some rich linens to traders for export.

I have tried to use pre-Conquest terminology without the post-Norman feudal tenurial connotations, following Faith’s Moral Economy argument.  An Old English “tun” (sorry, no long mark) is basically an enclosed household “estate,” not a “town.”  A Latin “vill” is an agricultural resource unit, not to be confused with modern “village” as a residential zone

Blair in Building Anglo-Saxon England tends to use “tun”  almost always with the qualifier “functional” preceding it, to indicate documented place names in the landscape.  He uses “vill” exclusively to refer to a “royal vill,” although vill is the operative Latin term in the HSC, and in Domesday Book’s post-Conquest assessments (not Northumbria, though, since DB only goes through Yorkshire).

I am avoiding “hide” and using “ploughlands” as a unit of measure in terms of the number of plough teams available for grain field production, the monetary unit of measuring land productivity and wealth in terms of cattle.  My guesstimate of 45 plough teams  in the 12 vills may be wildly inaccurate.  Ted Johnson South estimates, based in part on the 12th century Boldon Book, that each vill had 12-24 households, with an average of 4 carucates.  A carucate in Domesday Book is based on what a team of 8 oxen could plough in one season, but plough teams varied in size and probably had less oxen in this era.

The latter part of the section above also gets into the making of flax, relying on the work of Banham and Faith with some recourse to Wikipedia.  A later section attempts to describe spinning, right before the section on Tilwif’s sewing of the garments in the previous post and using Gale Owen-Crocker’s work:

            Bega knew [the proverb of 3 strands] well from the craft of twisting already spun flax or wool to make a three-ply thread for a stronger weave.  Even as they sat with Chad, she had her long distaff and spindle, spinning flax into thread as she listened.  Like most women, she carried distaff and spindle, sometimes tucked in her belt, to be brought out whenever they had time and hands free, since making thread was the longest task, and once made, quickly used up in the weaving into fabric.

            Frith [a catechumen for baptism] found the rotating spindle calming, taking him back to childhood with his mother.  Watching Bega’s thread form helped him learn the words Chad recited, since as an illiteratus he must learn by ear. Bega spinning the words taught him the Creed, since he already knew the Pater noster in English from Aldred.  He was also quite adept at catching her spindle whorl, the weight that caused the thread to spin faster, when it dropped to the ground.

Thoughts, comments, corrections, and suggestions more than welcome, especially from the experts cited or misused here!

FYI:  Rosamond Faith’s book is excellent for both pre- and post-Conquest rural life and for its application of the concept of “moral economy.”  I highly recommend it.


Banham, Debby and Rosamond Faith.  Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Blair, John. Building Anglo-Saxon England.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Faith, Rosamond.  The Moral Economy of the Countryside:  Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman England. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Historia de Sancto Cuthberto: A History of Saint Cuthbert and a Record of His Patrimony. Ed. and trans. Ted Johnson South. Anglo-Saxon Texts 2 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002).

Owen-Crocker, Gale R. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. Revised Edition. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2004.

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