Þá Ðegnas Miercisc (The Thegns of Mercia) attempt to portray a small group of ‘professional’ warriors from the Midlands area of Anglo-Saxon England. However the concept of þegnscipe (being a thegn) is much more than the purely military and deserves some exploration.
The Old English word þegn / ðegn literally means ‘military follower’. It is also glossed as ‘servant, attendant and retainer, probably deriving from the verb ðegan - to serve. It derives from the Proto-Germanic *þegnaz. (It is cognate with the Old Norse þegn - meaning a freeman, Old High German thegan and German Degen "thane, warrior, hero"), It is thought to derive from the Proto-Indo-European *tek-no- , from the root *tak- "to beget, give birth to".)
The modern spelling is from the Scottish where, in the early 13th century, it came to mean "chief of a clan, king's baron," and probably predominated in English due to influence of Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, "Macbeth;"
(First Witch)Normal orthographic changes from the Old English ðegn should have produced Modern English *thain. This was the spelling used (after some dispute with his publishers) by Tolkein in his “Lord of the Rings”.
48 All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!
49 All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!
50 All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!
In Old English literature, the term þegn is used to describe either an aristocratic retainer or more usually a nobleman. As a class, the thain was ranked below the Ealdorman or high reeve but well above the ceorl or free yeoman-farmer. However the underlying idea of the thegn was always a military one.
The precursor of the thegn was, in some sense, the gesith (gesiþ /gesið). The gesiþ was a companion of the king or high lord and a member of his 'comitatus'.
Comitatus' is a Latin term meaning “retinue” and dates back to pre-Imperial Rome. A comitatus was formed when a member of the patrician-class announced that he needed men to accompany him on a expedition into enemy territory. Those who thought this a good idea, usually members of the lower of the two aristocratic classes of ancient Rome, the Ordo equester or ‘knights’, might then volunteer. At that time the relationship between leader (dux) and followers, who were called comites (“companions”), was a temporary one, lasting only for the duration of the raid. In Imperial Rome, generals and particularly the Emperor, would have a cohors amicum, a group of friends and advisors. In the case of the Emperor, this group was often the same as the cohors praetoria.
Among the Germanic tribes, the arrangement was similar but more feudal; the leader fed his comitatus (hence the Old English term Lord - Old English - hláford "ruler", earlier hláfweard, literally "one who guards the loaves," from hláf - "loaf" + weard "keeper,") and kept them close to him in peace as well as in war. He supplied their weapons and horses and shared with them the spoils of war.
However, unlike in Roman Society, the Germanic comitatus or gedriht, were bound together by much more than self interest. This was a unique friendship structure of mutual obligation; the drihten’s men were sworn to live, breathe and die for their lord in battle; it being a terrible disgrace to survive him. In exchange the leader was obligated to govern in consultation with his senior warriors, his heorðgeneatas, or hearth-companions, whom he had probably grown up with. The Drihten also was expected to honour and reward his heorðwerod (hearth-troop) with gifts of gold and land. The mutual reverence, respect and love thus engendered made for a strong, cohesive military unit.
Recorded in writing only in the time of Æþelstan but probably in use much before then, the term ðegn came to mean a military gesith. By the 10-11th century, the term is clearly being used for a member of the territorial nobility. The thegn held his land from the king or other lord and would be expected to come to his lord’s side in time of war, bringing with him all his warriors.
In a document called Geþyncðo (“Dignities” : a legal treatise on social class probably penned by Wulfstan, Archbishop of York between 1002-1023) it is written that :
“Once it used to be that people and rights went by dignities and councillors of the people were then entitled to honour, each according to his rank, whether noble (eorl) or ceorl, retainer or lord.”Wulfstan then goes on to list the requirements of wealth and service by which a ceorl could rise to thegnhood:
"And if a ceorl throve, so that he had fully five hides of his own land, church and kitchen, bellhouse and burh-gate-seat and special duty in the king's hall, then was he thenceforth of thegn-right (ðegnriht) worthy."In a similar way a successful thegn might aspire to become an earl. In addition to this there were others who were described as thegns on account of their birth (ðegnboren). Thus thegnhood was partly inherited and partly acquired.
"And if a merchant throve, so that he fared thrice over the wide sea by his own means, then was he thenceforth of thegn-right worthy."
Wulfstan then goes on to distinguish between four different types of thegn and their qualifications:
At the top of the pyramid stood the thegn who rode in the king's household band (híred) and had a 'median thegn' to serve him and to represent him in court with a preliminary oath (forað).
A less privileged type was the king's thegn who lacked any such representative at court. On the next level was the ‘median thegn’, who held at least five hides of his own, but served a king's thegn, attended him in the king's hall and was qualified to represent him with an oath. Finally, there was also a lower type of median thegn, who did not meet all these requirements of land and service.
The twelve senior ðegns of the hundred played a part in the early English system of justice. By a law of Ethelred II they seem to have acted as the judicial committee of the court for the purposes of accusation and thus they have some connection with the grand jury of modern times.
The wergild of a thegn (ðegngylde, ðegnwer) was set as 1,000 scillingas (46 oz. of gold) or around six times as much as a ceorl. This is equivalent to £100,000 today.
The modern title of ‘count’ derives from the Norman-French counte, from the Latin comitem (nom. comes) "companion”. Similarly the title ‘Duke’ derives from the Norman-French duc and directly from the Latin dux (gen. ducis)- "leader, commander". The Anglo-Saxon term ðegn was usually translated into Latin as comes, just as eorl was translated as dux.