In the aftermath of certain historical novels I have read recently, I should like to give the following information, in the hope it will be helpful to authors, editors (if they still exist) and indeed readers.
SLAVERY – Although slavery was quite common in England in Anglo-Saxon times, it was became less usual after the Norman Conquest and by the mid-12th Century it had ceased to exist. Former slaves were generally absorbed into the system of serfdom.
SERFDOM – Serfs were not slaves. They were tenants who paid their rent by way of labour service. The nature and extent of the labour services varied between individual manors and also changed over time. Serfs were, of course, tied to the land, were subject to various restrictions, and often had to obtain the consent of the lord if they wanted to do anything out of the ordinary, such as marry off the manor or send their children to school. (These matters were usually resolved by a fine and in reality were excuses to raise money.) However, serfs also had their rights, based on local custom and enforced by the manor court. For example, they could not just be thrown off their land on a whim. Serfdom gradually died out, chiefly because it was economically inefficient, and it was already in steep decline by the latter half of the 14th century. Tenancies were often converted to money rent, a system known as copyhold, which continued for centuries.
MARRIAGE – After the passage of Magna Carta, widows could no longer be forced to remarry by the King. (Albeit, they might be ‘persuaded’ by various informal pressures.) What was still in place was that the widows of tenants-in-chief still needed the King’s permission to remarry. This normally involved a fine, although sometimes the King got very cross indeed if the marriage was made pre-emptively and might throw the parties (especially the man) into jail and forfeit the widow’s dower. These little difficulties were normally smoothed over with cash.
On the other hand, certainly up until the mid 14th Century, it has to be admitted that it was by no means unknown for widows (even great ladies) to be abducted, raped and forcibly married by men who wanted to secure their property. This was, of course, illegal, but it rarely seems to have made the reigning King particularly angry. There were certainly no spectacular punishments that I am aware of – perhaps, again, cash donations soothed any royal indignation. The Age of Chivalry was not always particularly chivalrous.
SAXONS AND NORMANS – Although the upper classes still spoke a form of French up until about the end of the 14th Century, English was already well on the rise (Chaucer read his English poetry to Richard II’s court) and by the early 15th century its triumph was virtually complete. By the 14th century (and possibly a hundred years before) people of all ranks had begun to think of themselves as English, and xenophobia against the French (and foreigners in general) was common. One factor in the change was certainly that English lords lost their French lands (bar any held in English Gascony) in the time of King John, and thereby became less cosmopolitan in sentiment.
It is notable that the legal concept of ‘Englishry’ was abolished in 1340. In earlier years, a hundred could be heavily fined if someone considered ‘Norman’ was slain – it was a great benefit to the community to prove that the corpse was ‘English’. By 1340 this was so obviously an obsolete distinction that even a body so inherently conservative as a medieval Parliament, completely dominated by the ruling class, saw that it was absurd to keep this law.