In the recent series on all things Norman on BBC television, we were invited to imagine what it was like to live in England before and after 1066. The programmes touched on occupations, wealth, housing, aristocracy, manners, aided by all kinds of graphics to help us visualise the people and get under their skin. What none of the programmes mentioned, though, is something absolutely fundamental: the composition of that society. What sort of people would you have seen around you?

Well, young ones mainly. Here are some facts. The population of the whole of England in the early 1300s was around 5 million. There are now that many people living within just thirty miles of Manchester. After the Black Death it fell to around 4 million. It wasn’t until the 1740s that the population exceeded 5 million, and now it stands at around 60 million. There are people everywhere. Before that, the land was simply less cluttered with people, so it’s hardly surprising that people knew most of their neighbours and townsfolk.

Page from the Domesday book

Figures extrapolated from the Domesday Book of 1086, which can be a rough estimate only, are of a population in England of under 2 million. Even if we allow for a huge error and double it, we have only 4 million at most.  Around five per cent of them were over sixty-five because life expectancy was lower.  Between thirty-five and forty per cent were under fifteen. Compare that with today, when only twenty per cent of our population is under seventeen. One in every three people in Norman England was under 15 whereas today it’s closer to one in every five. There were, quite simply, many more children per adult in Norman England.

Ian Mortimer describes the consequences of this wonderfully in his book The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England. Societies with youthful populations are more violent than those with a large number of older people, and medieval life was certainly more brutal. Do read his book if you can, it’s fascinating.

Tilehouse St, Hitchin, 1892 (Latchmore)

But I digress: back to those young people. When Who Do You Think You Are? and programmes of early home-made cine films show crowd scenes, have you noticed how many young boys are always in the foreground? When soldiers are marching past, or when it’s carnival day or a royal visit, there are always boys poking their heads into the picture or standing in front of the crowds, or running along beside the procession.

The Anglo-Saxon evacuation (Hastings Observer 1978)

It puts me in mind of the pictures of John Simpson walking into Kabul in Afghanistan accompanied not by local elders or soldiers but by, yes, hordes of boys. Who had the news, the gossip? Who knew where the danger spots were, the location of the enemy? The boys.

So when William of Normandy landed in Kent in 1066, who ran home to the villages to warn people? When the battle of Hastings was in full flow, who was watching from the sidelines and feeding information back to the women in the villages? When William and his vicious mercenaries moved through England destroying as they went, who was watching from the bushes, who were the look-outs who saw the Norman scouts coming, who ran home to warn their families to get out quickly? Surely the boys.

London in Victorian times was swarming with boys running messages; sometimes girls too. No email or telephone: if you wanted to arrange a business meeting at short notice, or pass on or receive news, you sent a boy. If you needed something from a neighbour or a shop you sent a boy or girl.

We have fewer young people per adult in our society today, and those we have don’t run messages, pass on news or keep watch on what’s happening beyond our village or town. We don’t rely on them any more.

This is a huge change which none of the programmes mention, and it seems such a difference that we cannot imagine what life was truly like for people in Norman England. Boys too young to fight had an important part to play in their communities. It was a very different society from ours, and not just because of the language, large moustaches  and bad haircuts.