Society in King Egbert's Time, Part 3

Society in King Egbert's Time

Part Three-
Crafts and Trade, Clothing and Appearance, Hygiene, Medicine

Crafts and Trade

There was a return of some type of prosperity to Britain before the end of the eighth century. Before Egbert’s reign some of the Anglo-Saxon communities had started to more than meet their own needs. In the sixth and seventh centuries different kinds of goods were being imported into England for trade, from Sweden, Denmark, the Rhineland, Gaul, and more distant land.

The early medieval merchants were peddlers who sold goods to towns and villages. Merchants were sometimes simply wandering adventurers. They became dealers, employers and ship owners sending their carriers along a network of trade routes linking the major European cities. Ships from Europe were bringing precious metals, silks, wine, oil, salt, and other luxuries to England. There they picked up wool, coal, iron, copper, lead, and timber for the return voyage.

There seems to have been an export trade in slaves. In the seventh century a Northumbrian prisoner of war was sold to a Frisian merchant in London. Seventh century Kentish law allowed a freeman caught in the act of theft to be sold as a slave overseas, although this practice was forbidden by Ine in Wessex. It is certain that slave labor was widely employed in England itself and scattered documentary references suggest that the number sold overseas may have been considerable.

In the beginning a debt could be recorded on a tally stick. Notches were cut into it to record the amount, then the stick was split in two and each party kept half. When the debt was settled the tally was destroyed or kept as a record. As time went on merchants found they needed to keep more accurate accounts of their money and stock. As trading methods grew more complex, much more paperwork was needed. Merchants had to pay clerks and scribes to help them. There were letters giving details of business deals, bills of sale, orders, contracts to suppliers and documents promising payment. All of these had to be signed and marked with the wax seals of the merchants involved.

Early Anglo-Saxon pottery was crudely handmade, and not particularly attractive. Wheel-thrown pottery of a better quality was imported into Kent from the Rhineland. Later the Rhineland techniques were used in East Anglia. Outside Kent and East Anglia the old tradition of handmade pottery survived even into late Saxon times.

Glass was a rare and costly item that was likely to have been found only on the tables of the rich, and seldom outside of southeastern England. Some glass may have been manufactured in Kent, but generally the Anglo-Saxons had no knowledge of glass making. The supplies would have had to be imported from the continental glass makers.

Not much is known about iron mining in Anglo-Saxon England, but iron was used for weapons and farming tools. The more elaborately made swords with richly decorated hilts, and ornamented helmets and coats of mail, were expensive items which belonged only to the aristocracy. The Anglo-Saxons themselves were not experts in the making of sword blades, but they were unrivaled in their decorative metalwork, using gold, silver and bronze to produce ornaments. This metalwork is as good as the finest jewelry of any age and show great technical skill.

The Derbyshire lead mines were being worked during King Egbert’s time, but whether the Anglo-Saxons were able to extract silver from the lead, or whether loot was the main source of their supply of silver, is not known. India is believed to have been the ultimate source of the cut and polished garnets used for many brooch settings. It is in the skillful and variegated shaping of these settings, in the use of twisted or plaited gold wire and in the inlaying of bronze with patterns of silver wire, that the Anglo-Saxon jewelers showed their greatest skill.

Toward the end of the reign of King Egbert came the beginning of an age just as violent as the age of the Anglo-Saxon invasion–the Viking invasion. During the interval between these two ages of invasion–the Anglo-Saxon and the Viking–those who worked had recovered at least some of the wealth and prosperity lost to Britain with the collapse of Roman trade, industry, and monetary system.     

Clothing and Appearance

Clothing, was made by households to meet their own needs. Flax was certainly being grown and woven into linen. Anglo-Saxon women were very skilled in the art of weaving. Evidence that at least some English cloth was being sent abroad in the eighth century was mentioned in a letter that Charlemagne wrote to Offa in 796. It is also known that there was a strong trade in clothing, particularly cloaks, across the channel.

There are no complete written descriptions of clothing from England, but there are several from Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire in the eighth century. Charlemagne’s habitual costume was described as the national dress of the Franks.

"Next to his skin he had a linen shirt and linen drawers; and then long hose and a tunic edged with silk. He wore shoes on his feet and bands of cloth wound round his legs. In winter he protected his chest and shoulders with a jerkin made of otter skins or ermine. He wrapped himself in a blue cloak and always had a sword strapped to his side."

Another more detailed description:

"The dress and equipment of the Old Franks was as follows. Their boots were gilded on the outside and decorated with leather laces more than four feet long. The wrappings round their legs were scarlet. Underneath these they wore linen garments on their legs and thighs of the same color, but with elaborate embroidery. Long leather thongs were cross-gartered over these wrappings and linen garments, in and out, in front and behind. Next came a white linen shirt, round which was buckled a sword-belt... The last item of their clothing was a cloak, either white or blue, in the shape of a double square. This as so arranged that, when it was placed over the shoulders, it reached to the feet in front and behind, but hardly came down to the knees at the side."

While both these descriptions are of the dress of wealthy men, the clothing of poorer people would have been similar, but less decorative or elaborate. This would be a good description of Anglo-Saxon dress of the day, although they probably did not wear the cross-gartering. Other indications of what people wore come from the art of the time, showing people from peasants to kings in their daily lives.

From the earliest times a cloak or cape was an important part of men’s clothing. Anglo-Saxon cloaks were usually rectangular. Most of cloaks of the time of King Egbert reached from just below the waist to mid-calf. The cloak was usually fastened at the right shoulder with a disc brooch, although other types of fasteners may also have been used.

Men’s trousers were worn tight fitting. Some illustrations show figures wearing only close fitting knee-breeches, without a covering tunic. The head covering might have been a pointed cap or a conical helmet. A few hooded cloaks are known, however. There is evidence to suggest that men wore loin-cloths beneath the other clothing. They generally took the form of short, unbelted skirts or linen short.

The tunic of a man was worn belted or girdled at the waist with a full skirt reaching to just above the knee. The skirt, and sometimes the forearms, of the tunic were occasionally in a different color and texture to the body. It may be that the sleeves and skirt were made of a different material, or, a shorter tunic was worn over the longer one. Some of the tunics had plain, close-fitting sleeves, and other sleeves had a corrugated or pleated appearance. The corrugated appearance was made by having over-long, tight fitting sleeves, which where pushed back, wrinkling up on the forearm. Most of the tunics had a round neck opening for the head. The lower hem of the skirt was cut wide and straight, giving an inverted ‘U’ shape to the hem.

Belts must have been worn to hold up trousers and at the waist of the tunic.  Although buckled belts were used, many belts were leather or cloth tie belts. Small items such as knives and other small tools were worn at the belt, pouches are almost never shown. This is probably because the pouch was normally a simple drawstring bag worn attached to the trouser belt, so would be hidden by the tunic. There were decorated purses with stiffened flaps, which were generally worn on the hip or at the back of the belt. Some of these were highly decorated, and many had a firesteel, which would have been used to start fires, attached to them. In some cases a small knife was attached to the purse too.

Aldhelm, writing in the early eighth century criticizes the overly elaborate clothing worn by women in holy orders, and in the process gives a written description of women’s clothing:

"...linen undershirts, a red or blue tunic, a hood and sleeves with silk stripes or borders: the garments are encircled in dark red furs; the hair on their temples and forelocks are crimped with a curling iron; dark grey veils for the head yield to white and colored head-dresses which hang down from the grip of fillets as far as the ankles."

An Anglo-Saxon woman of the ninth century wore an ankle-length tunic or overdress, like a longer version of the man’s tunic, and often worn unbelted. It would generally have been made of wool, although linen may have been worn by the wealthy. These tunics usually had a round neck opening and cut very wide. The sleeves of the tunic were usually wide and reached either to just above the elbow, or to the mid-forearm, although some may have had tight fitting wrist length sleeves similar to those worn by men. Wealthy noblewomen could have added broad borders of embroidery or braid at the cuffs and hem of these dresses, and another broad band running from the neck to the hem at the center front. For extremely wealthy women the entire tunic may have been of patterned cloth or covered with embroidery.

Beneath the overdress the woman wore a plainer linen under-tunic or underdress. This dress was similar to the male tunic, with a round neck and sleeves that were tighter on the forearm, and reached to the wrist. These tunics would have generally been worn belted. They were of undyed linen, although a broad decorative band of contrasting color cloth, braid, or embroidery was often used at the wrist. It seems that this dress may have been worn with a hooded cloak rather than the overdress. There is no evidence of women wearing underwear or leg coverings, but this does not mean that they were not worn. There is almost no evidence for women’s belts after the eighth century, and those items which a woman needed were carried in a bag with a shoulder-strap.

Most women seem to have worn semicircular, or perhaps triangular, capes or shawls which would rest on the shoulders, and be pulled up to cover the head when needed. Some included a hood, which might be pointed at the back. Occasionally these are shown fastened at the neck or with a pair of pins at the shoulders, or worn unfastened. Sometimes the ends were brought around the chest and thrown back over the shoulders.

Headgear for women was a close fitting cap, which sometimes left the hair at the forehead and temples visible. For wealthier women this may have had a padded or rolled edge, and possibly striped or embroidered. Although this was sometimes worn on its own, it might also be covered by the hooded cloak and or a veil. This veil could be extremely colorful and large. The veil would generally be pinned to the cap, although it could also be fastened with fillets or ribbons, or pinned to the shoulders of the overdress or cape, perhaps using a set of the linked dress-pins. The veils were often made of fine linen or wool, and could be so fine as to be almost a gauze.

Many wealthy women wore ornate necklaces, pendants, and often a central cross. Many of these were made of gold and garnet or amethyst, and the less ornate versions used gold and silver wire rings around glass beads. These ornaments were almost certainly a symbol of rank.  

There does not seem to be any distinction made between men and women’s shoes in this period. Leather shoes were made by the ‘turn-shoe’ method, meaning the sole and upper were joined together inside out, and then turned. The typical shoe was ankle high, and fastened by a drawstring. Low “slippers” were also worn. Some shoes had a band of decorative stitching running from the ankle to the toe.

The many combs found suggest that care of the hair was important, and the many tweezers, shears, etc. found show that personal grooming was also valued. The only direct evidence for the early Anglo-Saxons hair styles come from highly stylized faces and figures on jewelry. Luxuriant moustaches are suggested on some faces, occasionally with a beard, but most were clean shaven. Men’s hair was commonly worn shoulder length, collar length or shorter. Women’s hair was worn long (but not necessarily uncut and un-styled), and sometimes loose but often plaited. Some representations show the hair drawn back from the face, presumably into a plait or pony-tail. It is uncertain whether a ponytail would be tied back with some kind of fastening, or whether it would be knotted. Some sculptures show elegant hairstyles and ringlets on women, and a pair of pony-tails fastened behind each ear have also been shown. 


The Anglo-Saxon of King Egbert’s day loved baths. Some castles had a special room beside the kitchen where the ladies might bathe sociably in parties. Hot water, sometimes with perfume or rose leaves, was brought to the lord in the bedchamber and poured into a tub shaped like a half-barrel and containing a stool, so that the occupant could sit and have a long soak. In the cities there were public baths, or “stews” for the common people

Soap was soft without much detergent power. Generally soap was made in the workshops of a manor, of accumulated mutton fat, wood ash or potash, and natural soda. Laundresses might also use a solution of lye and fuller's earth or white clay. They did the laundry usually by the side of a moving body of water, beating the cloth with wooden paddles. After the winter's freeze they would have a great spring washing.

Shaving was difficult, and painful, since the soap was inefficient and razors looked like carving knives, and perhaps were also used for that purpose. Even hair-cutting would have been disagreeable. Scissors were of the one-piece squeeze type, similar to grass trimming shears; they must have really pulled the hair. Cleaning of teeth was generally done by rubbing them with a green hazel twig and wiping with a woolen cloth.


Advances in medicine were few during the Middle Ages. Clerics were more interested in curing the soul than the body. Physicians continued the church-approved techniques of Galen and others that were saved in ornately decorated, hand-copied manuscripts made by monks. Christian concern for the ill and injured, and contact with the Arab world during the crusades, led to the establishment of large hospitals built and run by monks. Although attempts to cure the patients were primitive in comparison to today, they were usually well fed and comforted. The average life expectancy of a person in the Middle Ages depended greatly on the social class of the individual, those in the higher classes living longer than a serf. In general people during King Egbert’s reign would have an average life span of 45 years. The lifespan of a peasant during this time was on average 27 years. Someone in their sixties would be considered very elderly, even in the most aristocratic level of society. King Egbert, who died at the age of sixty-four, apparently peacefully, would have been considered a very old man.

Although medicine and surgery were related, medieval practitioners drew a distinct line between them. Generally, physicians treated problems inside the body, and surgeons dealt with wounds, fractures, dislocations, urinary problems, amputations, skin diseases, and syphilis. They also bled patients when asked to do so by physicians. Surgeons today can trace the start of their specialties to the teeth-pullers, bone-setters, oculists, and midwives of the Middle Ages.

During the Middle Ages, medicine started to become a profession based upon formal education, standardized curriculum, and legal regulation. In some places, physicians were required to pass examinations before beginning practice. Not all healers were priests or scholars though. Women commonly treated female patients, and uneducated surgeons and self-taught lay doctors, or “leeches,” were permitted to work on both men and livestock.

By analyzing common herbals the medieval physicians used, there have been found recipes with therapeutic merit. Medieval medicine was not a forerunner to modern medicine, or a simplistic, primitive system. It was a very learned theory that made sense with the information medieval doctors had. Some medieval doctors and surgeons made written records, but the folklore medicine tended to have an oral tradition.

During the ninth century, the body showed a person’s state of health, and doctors relied on the exterior signs. While the body was known to degenerate with age, doctors believed that a healthy body required a state of harmony or balance. An unhealthy body represented an imbalance, usually identified through a change or sign on the outside of the body, either on the skin or from the bodily fluids. Thus the body becomes the symbolic text which a doctor needed to interpret in order to diagnosis and then to cure.

Lacking any concept of germs, viruses or bacteria as causes of illness, medieval doctors were left to reason that certain behaviors led to illness. There were three types of possible illnesses: those caused by the body's natural degeneration, those to which the body was predetermined, and those caused by immoderate living. While both medieval and modern medicine have a similar emphasis on the lifestyle causes of illness, medieval medicine's difference was in the belief that sins could cause illnesses. This relation between sins and illnesses was influenced by Christian ideas.

These medieval idea of disease and morality were considered literal truths. If a certain form of sin causes illness, then the only way to alleviate illness is to correct moral failings. Literature helped to inform people about the consequences of sin in the hope that people would stop and in that way help to slow epidemic diseases which threatened society. There was a lot of moral literature during the years of the Bubonic Plague that was thought caused by the community’s sin of pride.

All illness was not considered to be connected to moral failings. Some illnesses were believed to occur naturally or as a result of old age.While dysentery or gum disease certainly could have some moral connections, leprosy and bubonic plague are two diseases which clearly fit the morality categories. Sin was seen as the cause of plague and was a collective sin. Individual sin was seldom seen as the cause of sickness, whether mental illness or physical. An exception was leprosy, which was associated with a variety of sins, but especially with lust, envy, wrath, simony, and pride.

Like hermits and monks, lepers were often called “pauperes Christi,” and the strict rules governing the conduct of leper houses were in part a reflection of the idea that lepers constituted a quasi-religious order. It was this ambivalence about their condition, as well as its physically revolting character, that lent extra merit to the practice of washing the sores and kissing the lesions of lepers which became a general, almost a fashionable, religious exercise. One of its enthusiasts was Henry I's wife Matilda, whose devotion on one occasion prompted a courtier to ask what the king's feelings would be if he knew where last her lips had been.

The connection between morality and illness was part of the Greco-Roman medicine. Galen unified two competing theories into one philosophy which became the foundation of medieval medicine. There was a notion of a microcosm and macrocosm. The microcosm consisted of the four bodily humors: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Each of the four humors reflected the elements of the macrocosm: air, water, earth, and fire, respectively. The humors also had temperature and moisture properties. Blood was hot and wet, phlegm was cold and wet, black bile was cold and dry, and yellow bile was hot and dry. When a person became sick, it was thought that one of the four humors was out of balance. To balance the humors, one needed to take a prescription, usually made from some combination of plants or animals. Doctors categorized all plants and animals by their temperature and moisture. Thus, if a patient's illness was caused by an imbalance of phlegm, which is cold and wet, the patient needed to counteract that humor with its opposite, yellow bile, and would need to take a prescription made from plants and animals that were hot and dry. By this theory, people are inherently connected to the natural elements because these elements, not germs, influence health.

Iron bracelets found at Wroughton

The Hurbuck Hoard

Medieval Technology

Silver-gilt sword-pommel, inlaid with niello. One of the best
survivng late Saxon pieces, dated from the late 8th
to early 9th centuries.

postcard of Offa,
illustrates men's clothing of the time

spearman's outfit

2 illustrations of women's dress

example of a lady's headscarf

Saxon lady as depicted on an early postcard

types of shoes Anglo-Saxons were likely to wear,
from an illustration

Woodcut of the Daily Bath

depiction of an Anglo-Saxon bathroom

leaching the king



© The British Library Board
Old English Herbal
by Apuleius, Canterbury Church, 11th century

In center, the figure of Apuleius Platonicus holding two bunches
of herbs, is presented with a large book by Esculapius, God of
Medicine, and by Chiron, a centaur skilled in the uses of
drugs.The green background is crowded in the top part
with animal species, and filled with reptiles in the foreground.
It is surrounded by a 'Winchester' type acanthus border.

for larger image
Historical Time Line
The Making of Kings- Kingship, The Army and Warfare
Events before King Egbert's Time- Beginning in Europe, The 7 Kingdoms and the ChurchLineage, Ancestors and Parentage
The Life of King Egbert- The Early Years (775-802)
The Kingship- Chronicle Excerpts, 802-824, 825-829, 830-839, Reasons for Success

The People and Places Important to King Egbert - The People, The Places
Society in King Egbert's Time- Part 1 (Government, Household, Allegiance, Finances) Part 2 (Great Hall, Cooking & Eating, Food, Feasts, Christmas)
Part 3
(Crafts & Trade, Clothing and Appearance, Hygiene, Medicine) Part 4 (Peasants, Farming, Gardens & Plants, Common Tasks, Home, Village) Part 5 (Art)
Sources and References