Friday, January 4, 2008

Word Choice

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I'm having a little trouble sorting out some word choices. Specifically, I need to decide whether a certain character would be a gesith, a thegn, or something else (ealdorman?). A gesith, as I understand it, is a warrior companion, a member of the warband. It's a term used in very early A-S times, i.e. the fifth and sixth centuries. To me it has hints of a young, wild, warrior culture: boasts and mead and arm rings. Thegn means roughly the same thing, but was used in the eighth and later centuries. To me it connotes a bit more gravitas, in terms of both the man and the culture: older, weightier, with more responsibility and perhaps a household of his own but, still, a member of the warband, still a big fan of armrings (and sword rings) and oaths and boasts and drinking games. So which would one use for a seventh century warband warrior?

Ealdorman is an even later political construct, I believe, more of a local magnate with specific responsibilities to the king, a kind of baron. But where and when do all these roles cross and/or coalesce? Would a warband thegn have a household of his own, a holding to run, with warriors sworn directly to his service? Or was he a young unmarried fighter hoping to get a lifetime gift of land from the king for distinguishing himself in a fight?

The character I want to talk about is an older (i.e. forty) retired warrior living in a hall/settlement near the sea, who exchanged his oath of direct fighting service for one of overseeing some local coastal trade. It's around 623. Edwin is not yet an overking, but definitely has those ambitions. So what do I call this out-to-pasture country lord?

This is driving me crazy, so if anyone has any thoughts, please (please!) share them.

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  1. A thegn is a landed warrior who can marry and raise a family. It is likely that no one got to retire from military service while still able. He could still be called up but wouldn't travel with the king as part of a standing retinue. So Bede stays that Aethelfrith was killed far from home with only his bodyguards/retinue but not his thegns. So when a king calls up a large army the thegns would come with a couple men loyal to them.

    The kings bodyguards or standing retinue are basically a bunch of young men who don't have families yet and are really still being learning. Many of them would have been teenagers. They do their service with the king for 10 years or so and then they are made a thegn, given land and might get the king to arrange or approve a marriage for them.

    An ealdorman is basically just higher up the political scale and would have owned more land. Ealdormen would have been at one time a relative of the current or former king. Some of the ealdormen would have been possible contenders for the throne if the current line fails.

    At least that is my understanding. I don't really know anything about the other term.

  2. Okay. I'm going to call Edwin's hall companions/bodyguards/standing retinue 'gesiths', the settled ones 'thegns' and the more important/related thegns 'ealdormen'. Cool. It's good to have a system. Thank you.


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