Welsh Social History (continued)

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Social order in rural Wales


Social order in rural Wales

The outlines of the gradually evolving pattern of rural settlement in Dark Age Wales are clearly associated with the two major social groups ion the community - the freemen and the bondmen. Two distinct forms of settlement appear to have existed side by side from the earliest times the social order in Wales was bound up with the division and occupation of land. The laws of the medieval king, Hywel Dda, depict a semi-nomadic people with strong tribal affinities, practising a pastoral economy. From the 11th C. numerous Welsh princes attempted to settle these nomadic pastoralists in permanent homesteads. The unit of landholding was that of a gwely (or bed), which was an association of people bound together by a blood relationship. They acted as a family for mutual protection and support, and each individual shared in the common property of the clan. The position of the individual within the gwely depended not on his contract but on consanguinity - his rights and duties were determined by his birth.

A permanent base in the form of a family dwelling was set up. Small plots adjacent to the dwelling were enclosed for crop growing, while rather larger enclosures for animals were to be found farther away from the homestead. As time progressed the existing land was subdivided among the kin group, for on the death of a head of a family his wealth did not descend to his eldest son (as in 'primogeniture') but was divided equally among all the sons - the custom known as 'gavelkind'. And in their turn the grandsons inherited. The continual division of property meant smaller and more scattered holdings. These nucleated hamlets of the bondmen, groups of which were attached to the residence, or llys, of the local lord, to whom the bondmen rendered dues and services. The free tribesmen lived in clusters of semi-dispersed homesteads. The bondmen also owed certain services and allegiances to the freemen. The hamlets of the bondmen took the form of a nucleation usually of nine adjacent houses surrounded by an open field, which they tilled in common. Within every territorial administrative unit there was a more important settlement - the maerdref (the mayor's settlement). The demesne lands of the Llys were tilled for him by the local bondmen or also by serfs from other bondvills around. The free tribesmen - the elite were originally a minority of the population, each clan having a gwely (resting place) The dwellings of the freemen were located on the margins of this arable patch; the holdings were seldom large and the grouping of homesteads resulted in a cluster more like that of the Irish 'Clachan' than anything in the present day landscape of Wales. In addition, the upland areas of the open moorland were available for summer grazing by sheep and cattle by all concerned - from Prince to bondman - hence the age-old custom of seasonal transhumance from the hendre, the winter settlement, to the hafod, the temporary summer dwellings on the hills. In addition, the upland areas of the open moorland were available for summer grazing of sheep and cattle for all concerned - from prince to bondman.

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