05 March, 2006

Why were folk-moots held outdoors?

This question was prompted by a recent edition of Time Team, an archaeology programme on UK TV in which a team of experts have to solve an archaeological puzzle in three days. Last Sunday they were at Eastry in Kent looking for the site of a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon royal hall. Documentary evidence records that Eastry was an administrative centre for the early English kingdom of Kent. Highborough Hill near the present-day village of Eastry has produced high-status (posh) finds such as high-quality jewellery of the right period. Aerial photography showed traces of some sort of enclosure on the hill. It was considered a likely site for a royal hall or settlement, because it was on a south-facing slope near a Roman road, which would have meant the inhabitants had easy communications, a good view for defence, and were in the sunshine and out of the wind. At this point a tingly feeling went down my spine, because in one of my novels I placed a royal settlement on a south-facing slope near a Roman road (for just those reasons) and called it ‘Highbury’. Had I inadvertently based ‘Highbury’ on a real place?

Excavations on the hill turned up a fragment of a high-status silver and garnet brooch dating from the right period, and some pottery from a cooking pot dated 450-850 AD. Plus later medieval finds. But no signs of any structures except a medieval windmill and a metalled road leading to it. (So ‘Highbury’ remains a figment of my imagination. Pity. But I was pleased that a group of professionals had come up with the same logical reasons for the site as I had).

The experts thought that the royal hall of Eastry was probably on the site of the present-day village, either under the existing buildings of Eastry Court (a manor house quite big enough to have covered the site of even a big royal hall like Yeavering in Bernicia), or in the part of the village where they were not permitted to investigate. They suggested two hypotheses for the finds on Highborough Hill. It could have been a ritual site, where offerings were made to Woden (a nearby village is called Woodnesborough, which they thought could derive from Wodensborough), or it could have been the site of the local folk-moot. The folk-moot or local assembly was an early English institution. It was held at regular intervals on a specific open-air site, and people from a defined area met there to settle disputes, debate important issues, show off, perhaps look for a marriage partner and generally interact and exchange news and gossip. The functions and workings of the early English folk-moot prior to the conversion to Christianity are not recorded, so it is not completely understood. I think of it as a cross between a parliament or local council, a county court and a fair. The Icelandic Althing, which is much better documented, is likely to be a close relative derived from the same sort of tradition, so I feel it is probably a reasonable model.

I thought the ‘ritual site’ hypothesis was the less convincing of the two, because they never mentioned any finds of weaponry. I would have expected that a site dedicated to Woden, god of war, would have had offerings of weapons deposited there. But perhaps one went to the ritual site and asked for the god’s blessing on one’s weapons, in exchange for an offering of food or drink that would leave no archaeological trace, or in exchange for the wife’s brooch? Who knows?

I preferred the folk-moot hypothesis. The descriptions of the Althing in the Icelandic sagas make it clear that people attended wearing their best clothes, and that accommodation was in temporary structures called booths. This seems to me exactly the sort of event where someone could drop a cooking pot or lose their best brooch, and where there would be no permanent structures visible on excavation.

But it made me wonder why folk-moots were held out of doors. It seems quite clearly established that they were open-air events. Why? Why not hold the assembly in the comfort of the king’s hall (which in the case of Eastry might have been just at the bottom of the hill)? I tend to the view that human behaviour usually has some sort of reason behind it, rational or otherwise, so what might it be? We discussed it over dinner and the washing-up, like you do, and came up with two ideas:

1. Perhaps it was thought important that laws were made and applied in the sight of the gods? This was a pre-literate society and laws, property rights, settlements, agreements all depended on a verbal oath sworn before witnesses. Perhaps the gods were considered to be witnesses too, and this gave the oath a special significance? There is some support for this in Bede’s story of King Aethelbert of Kent, who insisted on receiving St Augustine’s Christian missionaries in the open air because he feared that their magic could overcome him if he met them in a house (Bede, Book I Ch. 25). This might reflect a simple belief that magic could be ‘diluted’ in the open air (like smoke). It could also be interpreted as an idea that Aethelbert wanted to be outside where his gods could see him and perhaps use their power to protect him against magic.

2. Perhaps it was thought important that the folk-moot should be held on neutral ground, where the attendees were not under obligations of hospitality to a host? Hospitality was a powerful concept in early English society and conferred obligations on both the guest and the host. Perhaps if the moot had met in the royal hall, it would have been under some obligation to the king in his position as host, whereas if it met in the open air it was independent and recognised as such? It may have been important that the king could attend the moot but not preside over it.

I don't think these are mutually exclusive; if the folk-moot was thought to be held in the sight of the gods it might also be that the gods were considered to be the 'host', and the site chosen for the folk-moot might be one that was already associated with the gods in some way and used for ritual purposes.

What do you think? Do these sound plausible? What other explanations could there be?


Bernita said...

Very plausible.
Further, you are correct to infer there is never just ONE single reason.
To me, the underlying and initial motivation is simply space/room for everyone.
Thought of the Althing at once, too.
Bit of a thrill to see validation of your logic.

Rick said...

Perhaps many reasons dovetailing together, as Bernita said. But I think the most fundamental is the one that she mentioned: space. Looking at the reconstruction of the Yeavering royal hall, I don't think it was big enough to comfortably hold a public meeting of the whole community.

Carla said...

Good point. I haven't found a record of exactly who was expected/allowed/required to attend a folk-moot or how big the assembly would be. Tacitus' description of tribal assemblies indicates that every adult male in the tribe attended, but that was from about the 1st century AD and may or may not have been true 6 centuries later.

There's a theory that the unique 'grandstand' at Yeavering (which looks like a segment from a Roman theatre built in wood) was intended for public meetings. I've seen a calculation that it could hold something like one representative from each village, though I can't remember what assumptions the author made about the size of the district and the population density.

Leads to another question; how do you suppose they managed a meeting that was attended by more people than would fit in a big royal hall? Must have been quite a challenge to arrange it so that everyone could hear, and everyone who was supposed to speak could do so. I was wondering if the moots might have been organised by fairly small districts so you got a manageable number of people at each local moot? Maybe either the king came round on circuit or there was some system of delegates (maybe the thane(s)?) to a bigger kingdom- or subkingdom-sized moot?

My instinct is that slow communications would make it preferable to do as much as possible at as local a level as possible so you don't have lots of people spending a week walking to the moot and a week walking back when they're probably needed on their farms.

Any thoughts?

Rick said...

I know nada, or close to, about the A-S period, but later medieval courts were itenerant, and so was Charlemagne's contemporary court. So I imagine that A-S courts were as well, at least in a larger kingdom. In which case moots would reasonably have been by districts. (Thinking of it, this idea is somewhat preserved by the US term "circuit courts" for appeals courts.)

If there were kingdom-wide moots, wouldn't they often also be military mobilizations, like the Frankish Mayfield? If you're basically assembling your army - even if not for an imminent campaign - surely it would assemble in some large open place.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Light may have been another factor. People in former times spend a lot more time outside than we.

Also, those meetings must have involved a different group of people compared to the retainers/household of a king who would meet in the Hall (see Beowulf, or the Norvegian kings).

Carla said...

As far as I know, the moot wasn't associated with military mobilisation. Although when the fyrd was called out, it would make sense for the units to assemble at the moot sites. Maybe John Peddie's book on Alfred's military organisation will say something about this, when I get that far.

Bede describes the king's council meeting in the king's hall (e.g the famous sparrow story), and there's a line in Beowulf that translates as something like 'counsellors in hall'. That's the sort of thing that made me wonder why the moot was different and whether there was more to it than light and space constraints. (Another thing to research. Or perhaps not, until I need a storyline that turns on the functioning of the moot. One can do this for ever :-)