Seedling being planted - image from

9:Medieval Welsh society and culture

A rural society

In the year AD 1000, there was nowhere in Wales which could be considered to be urban. Over the following 300 years scores of towns were founded: Bala, established in 1309, was the last fling of Wales's medieval town creators.

Although towns became central to the economy, townspeople could hardly have been more than 10 per cent of the total population. Cardiff, with perhaps 2,200 inhabitants in 1300, was almost certainly the country's largest town. With the population overwhelmingly rural, patterns of land tenure were central to the function of society.

Native Welsh society was divided into two broad classes - the free and the unfree.

Native Welsh society was divided into two broad classes - the free and the unfree. The free, the bonheddwyr (those with bon, or distinguished ancestry - compare gens in gentleman), were landowners because of their descent, and held land, often jointly, through a family group known as y gwely (literally meaning the bed).

The unfree, y taeogion or villeins, were allotted land by their lords to whom they paid renders in food and services. Early sources, in particular the archaic sections of the Welsh lawbooks, indicated the taeogion were the great majority, but by 1300 they had become a minority in most parts of Wales.

Legal status

The Law of Hywel Dda, modified over the centuries, remained the law of native Wales at least until the Norman conquest. It was based upon the concepts of descent and kinship. The relatives of a person causing death, injury or insult were obliged to compensate the relations of the person he had wronged.

For a bonheddwr, the size of the compensation or galanas depended on the distinction of his descent, while a taeog's galanas was paid to his lord. Compared with other European legal systems, Welsh law gave women a fairly high status, particularly with regard to the property of married women and their rights over their children.

Social change

Norman incursions introduced new social relationships. In places like the Vale of Glamorgan, the land was organised into a series of knights' fees, each capable of maintaining a mounted warrior and supported by a manorial system sustained by villeins who were often incomers.

The centuries after 1000 also saw changes in native Welsh society, particularly the growth of the concept that a crime is an offence against the ruler rather than against the kin, and the increasing replacement of renders of food and services by payments in money. The growth in the circulation of money indicated the growth of trade, a process which transformed traditional relationships.

An expanding society

With an improving climate and a developing economy, the population of Wales probably doubled between 1050 and 1300. The increase involved a more intense use of land, with extensive clearing of forests, the development of villages, the building of mills and the growth of a more sophisticated social structure.

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