Domesday Book‎ > ‎Terminology‎ > ‎Peasantry‎ > ‎


Latin, francus homo.

There appears to be no essential distinction between a freeman (francus homo) and a
Freeman (socmannus) in terms of status. The Phillimore edition underlines this by distinguishing them only by the use of a capital letter for Freeman. Free peasants formed the third largest group among the peasantry, almost 14% of the recorded population. In economic terms, they were among the most substantial groups within the peasantry, possessing on average 30 acres of land and two plough oxen.

Freemen and freemen appear in large numbers only in the
Danelaw counties where their numbers were very considerable, up to half the rural population in some counties. The peculiarities of this distribution have excited considerable debate. Most historians would agree that the distribution reflects the impact of the Viking invasions of the ninth century, though just how this effect was produced is disputed. Some argue that the free peasantry of the Danelaw represent descendants of the rank and file of the Danish armies who had settled in the ninth century, others that they were the descendants of a mass immigration of Scandinavian peasants which followed in the wake of this military conquest. A third view is that the effects of Viking conquest were indirect and cultural, the native peasantry of the Danelaw acquiring free status under Viking rule. This view has been stood on its head, and it has been argued that the free peasantry were widely distributed throughout the country before the Viking invasions, the once free peasantry of Wessex losing their freedom in the struggle for survival against the Vikings.

After the Norman Conquest, the numbers of free peasants declined, their status depressed by the turmoil of the Conquest and the acquisitive greed of their new Norman masters. Great Domesday does not normally record population statistics for more than one date, so the extent of this decline cannot be measured accurately, or even estimated with any degree of confidence. However, in the counties of
circuit 3, the number of free peasants whose pre-Conquest holdings were itemised had declined by almost 75% by 1086, from some 1,250. It is likely that the holdings of many Freemen were not separately itemised, so this figure is probably a considerable underestimate. In Yorkshire and other counties affected by the 'harrying of the north', the decline was probably even more catastrophic. It has been estimated that some 10,000 families of free peasants may have disappeared from Yorkshire alone between 1066 and 1086.

And as one
entry records, the fate of the surviving free peasantry after 1066 was often 'wretched and miserable' (BUK 17,16).

For the economic resources of the free peasantry, see Reginald Lennard, Rural England, 1086-1135: a study of social and agrarian conditions (1959); for their decline, H.C. Darby, Domesday England (1977); and John J.N. Palmer, 'War and Domesday waste', Armies, chivalry and warfare in medieval Britain and France, edited by Matthew Strickland (1998), pages 256-75. There is a recent review of the substantial literature on the free peasantry by D.M. Hadley, The northern Danelaw, its social structure, c.800-1100 (Leicester, 2000).