In the Middle Ages, a yeoman was identified as a rank or position in a noble or royal household, with titles such as Yeoman of the Chamber, Yeoman of the Crown, Yeoman Usher, King's Yeoman, and various others. Most duties were connected with protecting the sovereign and dignitaries as a bodyguard, such as the Yeomen of the Guard, attending the sovereign with various tasks as needed, or duties assigned to his office.
As such, yeoman may refer to several general meanings:
"Yeoman" may also refer specifically to:
The expanded forms of yeoman, such as yongeman or yongerman, are possibly of Anglo-Saxon or northwestern Germanic origin and eventually became yeman or yoman in the Middle Ages (with variations such as yoeman, etc.). In the early 14th century, the word developed the more recognizable modern spelling of yeoman. In 1363 the vernacular form of the English language was officially recognized as the national language of the Kingdom of England, and the French term valet (used as the formal language), and the Latin term valectus (used in the courts) were replaced by the term yeoman. The term yeoman, primarily identified as "servant", is noted throughout the Calendar Patent Rolls in the early 1300s.
In Tacitus' Germania, he writes of young men chosen from every district (pagus), who are swift on foot, and with this swiftness they support the cavalry, fixed in number (100) and from this they take their "name of honor". It is not clear what Tacitus means by "name of honor" as he does not state it (some sources posit the term "hundred-men", but these have not been validated). Their most likely equivalent is that of ancient Roman centurions, in itself an ancient idea that is most likely associated with the concept of using young men of status within their districts for the wars, e.g., in later times known as 'yeomen', 'pages', 'squires', and 'knights'.
The Yeomen of the Guard is an example of the use of the number 100 of special military corps/royal bodyguard as told in the tales of Robin Hood. The number 100 is also a number that is commonly used in the formation of the lesser fyrd created in during the reign of King Alfred the Great for protecting the districts (homeland defense); while the general fyrd also created by King Alfred the Great was primarily an expeditionary force.
In many ways the ancient 'yeoman' is very similar to the modern concept of the 'yeomanry' today who are volunteers of the Territorial Army protecting the United Kingdom, ‘yeomanry’ ancestry comes from the volunteer cavalry in the mid 1700s, and later to become known as the Yeomanry Cavalry in the 1790s.
The term 'yeoman' is also used to define a man who follows a chief, or a lord; in ancient times known as 'gau judices' (district chiefs). The term is similar in concept to 'geneatas' meaning companion (with geneatas being classed as peasants). In the Brythonic language the term 'gweis' is similarly used in the same context as a young freeborn servant language|Cumbrian (Northern Welsh)]] and many other Britonnic dialects are now extinct.
Long before the concept of chivalry and the Crusades were born from the ideas of Christianity, the term "knight" (from cniht) originally meant "boy." Terms such as radman, radcniht, or radknight ("riding man," "road man," "riding boy," "road boy/page" were used). The difference of terms helped to distinguish the young riding men (yeomen) from the riding boys (pages) who provided a riding or road service. It also indicates a path of career progression within a noble or royal household.
All the fighting classes of men in the Middle Ages from the knighs (in particular knight's bachelors), squires, yeomen, to pages were usually young servants; the degree of importance or status of each changed over time. Many serving men (serviens or sergeants) would usually be promoted to various positions of importance within the king's or lord's household.
The term yongermen is found in text as early as the 12th century, and the term geongramanna is found in Beowulf in a much earlier period (700-800). Serving men of districts, since the days of the Gau polities in Germania, and the stretches of the Germanic peoples throughout Western Europe immediately after the collapse of the Roman Empire would most likely be young men, or young men of the district. Yeoman or gauman within the definition of both land and/or service of a young man appeared mostly settled around the border regions or remote country sides of their districts, or kingdoms (both modern and ancient); thus a connection or association with pagus (pages), or rustics to the term yeoman.
If the term 'yeoman' is associated with land, or degree of land ownership, then it may have its ancient roots in the early Anglo-Saxon rule of England or earlier (thus coming full circle to its most likely etymological roots). In ancient times the land was a strong indicator of social status, and wealth, since the period known as the Dark Ages, and in terms like 'yeoman farmer' used in the 16th century to denote prosperous small farmers; whether land was copyhold, freehold, or a mixture of both.
As land indicated social status, just as the term yeoman farmer in the 1600s as an identifier of social status for small freeholders or copyholders of land with and an indicated amount of wealth that is a determining factor of his social standing. Not all yeomen owned land as many were indentured or feudal servants in a castle. In earlier Anglo Saxon rule, the class of 'geneatas' would most likely be the classification a 'yeoman' in this period as an aristocratic peasantry.
The 'yeoman' would be the connection between royalty and nobility to the peasantry, thus a middling class of sorts in feudal or manorial service to either the king, or a lord. Also possibly identified within a class of libri homini (freemen) within Domesday, the 'yeoman' in service to a king or lord would be known as serviens/sergeants, or valet/valectus during the Norman period. There also men known as 'socmen' or 'sokemen', usually derived from Anglian or Danish sources, equivalent in status as 'radman', thus combining land status and servile status as equals.
This is most likely based upon the historical achievements of winning numerous battles during the Hundred Years' War when the odds and numbers were stacked against the yeoman archers in these conflicts. It also may have been used to denote the excellent or superior service given by a king’s servant performing heroic duties such as preventing an assassination attempt on his life, or protecting his castle or palace (such as we see in the modern day Yeomen of the Guard and the Yeomen Warders of the Tower of London).
The term used in context such as the forester provided ‘yeoman service’ in finding the lost children in the woods, or the Hubble Telescope has done ‘yeoman service’ or ‘yeoman’s duty’ since it was launched in 1990. He made a ‘yeoman’s effort’ to clean the garage. The security guard did ‘yeoman’s work’ last night by staying alert and preventing a break-in entry after working very long hours in austere conditions.
Yeoman farmers were originally a class of British or English landholding (freehold and copyhold) farmers in the late 14th century to the 18th century. The amount of land owned and the wealth of the English yeoman farmer varied from place to place. Many yeoman farmers were prosperous, mixed with the minor county or regional gentry and some even rented land to gentleman landowners. Some were entitled to be classed as gentlemen but did not pursue it, as it was cheaper to remain a yeoman. Some yeomen farmers of the later Tudor and Stuart period shared the heritage and ancestry of the occupational medieval yeoman, as attested mainly by weapons found above the fireplace mantles (especially in the border shires) of the West Midlands of England.
Yeoman farmers were called upon to serve their sovereign and their country well after the Middle Ages, for example in the Yeomanry Cavalry of the late 1700s and later Imperial Yeomanry of the late 1890s.
Most yeomen farmers had servants or labourers with whom they would work if they had the means to afford such services. The term Yeoman Farmer was later used to distinguish them from Gentleman Farmers, who did not labour with their hands. Some yeomen had more wealth than the minor gentry, but remained classed as yeomen by choice rather than by necessity. Often it was hard to distinguish minor gentry from the wealthier yeomen farmers, and wealthier husbandmen from the poorer yeoman farmers.
Sir Anthony Richard Wagner, Garter Principal King of Arms, wrote that "a Yeoman would not normally have less than 100 acres" (40 hectares) and in social status is one step down from the Gentry, but above, say, a husbandman. (English Genealogy, Oxford, 1960, pps: 125-130).
The Concise Oxford Dictionary, (edited by H.W. & F.G. Fowler, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1972 reprint, p.1516) states that a Yeoman is "a person qualified by possessing free land of 40/- annual [feudal] value, and who can serve on juries and vote for a Knight of the Shire. He is sometimes described as a small landowner, a farmer of the middle classes."
In the United States, yeomen were identified in the 18th and 19th Centuries as non-slaveholding small landowning family farmers. Yeoman farmers, because they owned no slaves of their own, frequently hired slaves at harvest time to help in the fields. In an area where land was poor, like eastern Tennessee, the landowning yeomen were typically subsistence farmers, but grew some crops for the market. Whether they engaged in subsistence or commercial agriculture, they controlled far more modest landholdings than those of the planters, more likely in the range of over fifty to two hundred acres, rather than five hundred or more acres.
Yeomen were identified in the Middle Ages as persons owning land worth approximately 40 to 80 shillings annually, roughly between ¼ Hide and 1 Hide (about 30 to 120 acres, or 12 to 50 hectares). In the early 12th century, 40 acres (16 hectares) of land was worth about 40 to 50 shillings. The Assize of Arms of 1252 gave instructions for the small landholder to be armed and trained with a bow and those of more wealth (wealthy yeomen) would be required to possess and be trained with sword, dagger and the longbow (the war bow).
The Assize of Arms of 1252 AD identify a class long identified with the ‘yeomanry’, being a 40-shilling freeholder, and indicates "Those with land worth annual 40s-100s will be armed/trained with bow and arrow, sword, buckler and dagger". The description of societal standing of landowning persons mentioned in the 1252 Assize of Arms of who is to own and train with certain weapons epitomizes the Knight's Yeoman such as the one in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Yeoman's Portrait in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales).
The English war bow, known as the longbow (the main weapon of a yeoman archer) was typically but not always made of yew wood, often Wych Elm and other woods were used for making bow staves. Though yeomen archers are inextricably tied to the English War Yew Bow, it was the Spanish, French and Italian yew that was highly sought after because of its superior qualities of growth and the extremely restricted availability over English Yew in the late Middle Ages.
The 'yeoman' archer’ was unique to England and Wales (in particular, the south east Wales area of Monmouthshire with the famed archers of Gwent, Glamorgan, Crickhowell, and Abergavenny regions, and South West England with the Royal Forest of Dean, Kingswood Royal Forest near Bristol, and the New Forest). Though the Kentish Weald and indeed Cheshire archers were noted for their skills, as well the Ettrick Archers of Scotland, it appears the bulk of the 'yeomanry' was from the more remote and border regions of England, Wales and Scotland (English and Welsh Marches; The Borders).
The original Yeomen of the Guard (originally archers) chartered in 1485 AD were all most likely of Briton descent (Welsh, Breton, etc), established by King Henry VII, himself a Briton who was exiled in Brittany during the Wars of the Roses. He recruited his forces throughout mostly Wales and the West Midlands of England on his victorious journey to Bosworth Field.
The Welsh have the honour of being the first to be attested in written history in using the 'longbow' made of yew and elm (circa 650 AD) either against the Mercians, or as allies of the Mercians against Northumbria. The incident at Abergavenny Castle, where a Welsh arrow pierced through armour and the legs of an English knight was certainly not unknown to King Henry II, and his grandson Henry III who created or signed the Assize of Arms 1252 identifying the 'war bow' as a national weapon for classes of men who held land under 80s or 100s annually. The 'Yongermen' fell under this classification. By Edward I's reign the bulk of the archers were Welsh, who defeated the Scots and eventually would be used with great success by King Edward III in the Hundred Years' War. The famous ‘yeoman archers’ drawn from the Macclesfield Hundred and the Forest districts of the Cheshire region were specially appointed as bodyguard archers for King Richard II.
It should be noted that the phrase 'defeated the Scots' refers to an even more temporary victory than that of Edward V over the French at Agincourt. In Edward's case, his forces were numerically superior, as well as having those deadly bowmen. But his son Edward II was quite unable to hold his father's victories. In 1314, at Bannockburn, Edward camped his troops in such an ill-chosen part of the field that in the ensuing battle, the Scots pikemen, in 'schiltrons' that to some extent presaged the 'British square', were able to incapacitate the English cavalry, and had got close to the English with such speed that the archers could not hit Scots without killing English. At Bannockburn, the English outnumbered the Scots roughly three to one. At Agincourt, the French were numerically superior. Subsequently, it was Joan of Arc who took back her country from the English.
The Yeoman represented a status between the aristocratic knights and the lower-class foot soldiers and household servants (pages). The yeoman archer was typically mounted and fought either on foot or on horseback, in contrast with infantry archers, and came to be applied to societal standing as a farmer in particular during the 14th century to 18th century. A Yeoman during the 12th century and 13th century was primarily a household and military (semi-feudal and feudal) term later associated with the days of private warfare.
Yeomen are also noted as providing guard escorts to deliveries of victuals and supplies (not only fighting as an elite archer but also as a guard to the baggage train as well a protector of the nobility and royalty) to the expeditions of the Hundred Years' War. They also provided escorts for the sovereign and great nobles on their journeys and their pilgrimages across the realm and overseas. Yeomen of the Crown were essentially agents of the king who were allowed to sit and dine with knights and squires of any lord's house or estate. At retirement they were offered tenure of stewardship of royal forests at the king’s choosing.
Later in Medieval history and through the Renaissance, the yeomanry shared attributes with both the upper class and working classes, though they had little in common with today's urban middle class. The yeomanry was the first class of the commoners (peasants), in Saxon days would be the equivalent to geneatas or villager. The ‘yeoman’ was more military and bound to the manor or estate, comparable to the radman or radcniht (radknight) who would provide escorts, deliver messages, erect fences for the hunt, and repair bridges. He would be given land (copyhold or sometimes freehold) by his lord for services well rendered. Many similarities exist between radmen/radknights and yeomen of the crown, as yeomen had many of the same tasks, though he was not as heavily imposed with the intense labor requirements as the radman/radknight had during his time.
Duties of 'yeomen' were manifold from the Middle Ages through to the 19th century. They were usually constables of their parish, and sometimes chief constables of the district, shire or hundred. Many 'yeomen' would hold status as bailiffs for the High Sheriff, or for the shire, or hundred. Other civic duties would include churchwarden, bridge warden, and other warden duties. It was also common for a 'yeoman' to be an overseer for their parishes.
‘Yeomen’, whether working for a lord, king, shire, knight, district or parish are noted for their civic duties as localized or municipal police forces raised by or led by the gentry. Some of these duties and mostly that of constable and bailiff would be carried down through family traditions. ‘Yeomen’ are seemingly in a role of ranging, roaming, surveying, and policing throughout their social history. In Chaucer's Canterbury Friar's Tale a ‘yeoman’ who is a bailiff of the forest who tricks the Summoner, and he turns out to be the devil ready to grant wishes already made.
In the early Middle English period (noted in the text Pseudo Cnut De Foresta Constitutiones written in the late 11th century). The ‘yonger men’ chosen of liberi homini mediocre were to range the royal forests and is the first known use of the word ‘yeoman’ being associated with the forests (both greenwood and royal or manorial hunting forests). The chief forester of such royal forests was stationed at the nearest castle and was also the constable of the castle with his deputy foresters or yeomen assisting in the maintenance and affairs of the royal forests.
The earlier word Franklin was the Yeoman's equivalent (a wealthy peasant landowner or freeholder or village official). Franklins in their days would typically be village leaders (aldermen), constables or mayors. Yeomen would find that status in the 14th century as many of them became leaders, constables, sheriffs, justices of the peace, mayors and significant leaders of their country districts. It was too much, for even ‘valets’ known as ‘yeoman archers’ were forbidden to be returned to parliament, indicating they even held power at a level never before held by the upper class of commoners. The further away the district from gentry or burgesses, the more power a 'yeoman' held in office, as well attested in statutes during the reign of Henry VIII indicating yeomen along with knights and squires who have the leading of men to be in charge of certain functions.
A ‘yeoman’ could be equally comfortable working on his farm, educating himself from books, or enjoying country sports such as shooting and hunting. By contrast members of the landed gentry and the aristocracy did not farm their land themselves, but let it to tenant farmers. Yeomen in the Tudor and Stuart period could also be found leasing or renting lands to the minor gentry. However, ‘yeomen’ and ‘tenant farmers’ were the two main divisions of the rural middle class in traditional British society, and the yeoman was a respectable, honorable class and ranked above the husbandmen, artisans, and laborers.
Isaac Newton, as well many other famous people such as Thomas Jefferson hailed from the yeoman class of society. Isaac Newton inherited a small farm which paid the bills for his academic work. Many ‘yeoman’ fathers would have the means to send their sons to school to qualify to join the professions, and become classed as gentlemen. Many families of ‘yeoman’ status and established good standing would also have sons who would serve in the royal or great noble households providing not menial, but honorable service, as his social status or degree in society was equal in the royal or noble household.
The term also suggests someone upright, sturdy, honest and trustworthy, qualities attributed to the Yeomen of the Crown; and in the 13th century the Yeomen of the Chamber were described as virtuous, cunning, skillful, courteous, and experts in archery chosen out of every great Noble's house in England. The King's Yeoman or King's Valectus (Valetti) is the earliest usage in a recognizable form such as King's Yeman or King's Yoman. Possibly the concept is derived from King's Geneatas, meaning either companion or a follower of a king. In ancient times before the establishments of feudalism and manorialism, a ‘yeoman’ was a follower of a district (gau) chief or judice.
The term is sometimes applied to people of similar status in other traditional societies. The ‘franklin’ is an example meaning a freeman and sometimes meaning a French or Norman freeholder. Franklin milities would basically be the equivalent of a ‘yeoman’ in the middle-ages and the ‘yeoman’ the equivalent of a ‘franklin’ in the late middle-ages.
The ‘yeoman’ belonged to a class or status of fighter (usually known as in the third order of the fighting class between that of a squire and a page). This status was very different from what was occurring on the continent in the days of feudalism where the gap between commoners and gentry was far wider causing much derision between the two classes in medieval society. Though a middling class existed on the continent, it was not well respected or held in such high-esteem as the ‘yeoman’ of England was during the time when the class existed.
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