[ANSTHRLD] Re: Use of "Thane"

C. L. Ward gunnora at vikinganswerlady.com
Mon Dec 29 10:37:23 PST 2003

Just for some further confusion in the mix, the term exists in most if not
all of the Germanic languages: Old Norse þegn, Old English þegn, Old High
German degan, with correct modern English spellings of thane or thegn.

The Cleasby-Vigfusson Old Icelandic Dictionary (Cleasby, Richard and
Guðbrandr Vigfusson. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford:
Clarendon. 1957.) defines this word like so:

I. (1) a thane, franklin, freeman, man; (2) a husbandman, good man; II. as a
law term, a liegeman, subject.

Of this title, Foote and Wilson say in The Viking Achievement pp. 107-108,
"Another name that is found in Rígsþula for a member of the free landowning
class is Þegn, cognate with English 'thane'.  In Norse this word is commonly
used of the mature man, the veteran.  It may, for example, be applied to a
father in a runic inscription where drengr is used of his son, and it is
probably safe to believe that it generally implied settled status as the
head of a household (and generally married).  It has been suggested that the
thegns and drengs of Norse society rerpesented different classes in the
Viking Age. The evidence for this has been found in the fact that in the
Danelaw the two names are applied to men of different status.  They were
both a cut above the ordinary but were distinguished from each other by the
fact that drengs normally possessed something less than half as much land as
the thegns did.  This fixed nomenclature, however, is probably purely
English, although it may go back to individual distinctions made between the
fresh young recruit and the experienced soldier at the time when the Danish
leaders parcelled out the conquered land.  Thegn and dreng are like English
'gentleman' in the variety of their connotations. They are used of free men
of a recognizable but ill-defined rank; the name dreng may sometimes imply
an occupation -- as long as the Viking Age lasted -- but not a career; and,
as we shall see, both terms came to be applied to men with admired personal
qualities that are again recognizable but also ill-defined." (Foote, Peter
and David M. Wilson. The Viking Achievement. London: Sidgewick and Jackson.

Looking at Anglo-Saxon contexts, C. Warren Hollister's Anglo-Saxon Military
Institutions on the Eve of the Norman Conquest (Oxford: Clarendon. 1962)

p. 63 mentions a "select-fyrd duty", "... an obligation incumbent upon all
thegns to serve in the royal army as a consequence of their rank." [Which
implies a status like an SCA knight] The text goes on to say: "... the very
existence of a five-hide recruitment system implies the military service of
peasants, for there were innumerable five-hide units throughout England
which cannot possibly have been represented by thegns.  For one thing, the
unit might forms only a part of a much larger estate held by a single thegn
who had to find warrior-representatives for every five hides within his
tenement." [Which suggests a much larger landowner owing service to the
king, more along the lines of an SCA baron]

p. 64 "Numerous Domesday thegns held estates that were much smaller than
five hides..." [Here we're looking at something much less than an SCA baron,
more along the lines of a free-born farmer.]

pp. 65-66, quoting from Stenton's The First Century of English Feudalism:
"The thegn's obligation was of no less ancient origin [than that of the
peasants], but its basis was different. There is no doubt that in the
eleventh century a king's thegn, when summoned to an expedition, must obey,
under penalties which might amount to an entire forfeiture of his land. The
same service was demanded from thegns who held of other lords than the king.
In either case, so far as we can see, the obligation was purely personal.
There is nowhere any suggestion that a thegn's military service was due in
respect of an estate which the king or any other lord has given him. It is a
duty which follows from his rank, the expression of the traditions of an
order which, as a class, represented the military companions of a lord, the
gesithas, of ancient times. These traditions were still strong in the
century before the Norman Conquest. They are nowhere more clearly brought
out than in the poem which relates the death of Byrhtnoth at Maldon in 99 I.
The men who are most prominent in the poem are naturally the companions, the
personal following of the earl, but they included landed Essex thegns and
their close kinsmen. The ideas which moved these men must have been common
to the whole class from which they sprung (sic). It is more than probable
that many thegns of the eleventh century were country gentlemen, with no
special aptitude for war. In most cases, tlle estates of a thegn of 1066
must have come to him by inheritance, and not by the gift of a king or any
other lord. But his obligation to military service represented the ancient
duty of attending a lord in battle." [Here we're back to something like an
SCA knight again]

p. 67 has "...I cannot discover in these Domesday passages the slightest
suggestion that every landed thegn owed military service or that the thegn's
military obligation was personal rather than territorial. Nor is there
evidence that every thegn possessing jurisdictional rights was subject to
the military summons. The Worcestershire passage, which is the only one that
refers to jurisdictional rights, merely states that if the man who had been
summoned to the fyrd and defaulted possessed rights of jurisdiction, he was
to forfeit his land. But there were numerous landed thegns who lacked rights
of jurisdiction. As Jolliffe has observed, 'it is clear that there was no
common right of jurisdiction in the thegnage. Some king's thegns had their
soke and some had not.' More important still, the  Worcestershire passage
does not state that everyone with rights of jurisdiction received a summons.
It merely reports that if the summoned defaulter happened to possess such
rights he would be punished accordingly." [And here we're back to the rank
and its obligations depending on being landed, some of the thegns having
land *and* judicial power over it, while some don't. We're back here to
something that might map onto the idea of an SCA baron.]


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