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Yeoman refers chiefly to a free man owning his own farm, especially from the Elizabethan era to the 17th century. Work requiring a great deal of effort or labour, such as would be done by a yeoman farmer, came to be described as yeoman's work. Thus yeoman became associated with hard toil.
Yeoman was also a rank or position in a noble household, with titles such as Yeoman of the Chamber, Yeoman of the Crown, Yeoman Usher, and King's Yeoman. Most of these, including the Yeomen of the Guard, had the duty of protecting the sovereign and other dignitaries as a bodyguard, and carrying out various duties for the sovereign as assigned to his office.
In modern British usage, yeoman may specifically refer to
- a member of a reserve military unit called a yeomanry, similar to the militia, traditionally raised from moderately wealthy commoners in England and Wales, and today part of the Territorial Army;
- a member of the Yeomen of the Guard
- a member of the Yeomen Warders of the Tower of London
- a non-commissioned officer usually with the rank of staff sergeant or Warrant Officer Class 1 in the Royal Corps of Signals in the British Army, an appointment achieved upon completion of a 14-month technical course.
In the United States Navy and United States Coast Guard, a yeoman is a rating usually with secretarial, clerical, payroll or other administrative duties. The first women in the U.S. Navy were Yeomen in World War I.
In the Royal Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy, the Royal Australian Navy, and other maritime forces which follow British naval tradition, a Yeoman of Signals is a signalling and tactical communications petty officer.
The word yeoman was spelled in various ways in the Middle Ages, such as yeman, yoman, yoeman, and may be derived from an Anglo-Saxon or other Germanic word yongeman or yongerman, yonge man or iunge man ("young man"). This may have referred to a freeborn servant (serviens or sergeant) ranking between an esquire (shield escort, from scutum) and a page (pagus, meaning "rustic" and later "young errand boy"). The term yongermen is found in text as early as the 12th century, and the term geongramanna is found in Beowulf at 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 countrysides of their districts, or kingdoms (both modern and ancient); thus a connection or association with pagus (pages), or rustics to the term yeoman. In the 14th century the English language increasingly replaced Latin and Norman French in noble circles, and the French term valet and the Latin term valectus were replaced by the term yeoman. The term yeoman, primarily identified as "servant", is noted throughout the Calendar Patent Rolls in the early 14th century.
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Long before chivalry developed, the term "knight" (Old English cniht) meant "boy". Terms such as radman, radcniht, or radknight ("riding man", "road man", "riding boy", "road boy/page") were used. The different terms helped to distinguish the young riding men (yeomen) from the riding boys (pages) who provided a riding or road service[clarification needed]. It also indicates a path of career progression within a noble or royal household. These terms seem to be cognates of teutonic words for "knight." In Norwegian, the word for "knight" is "ridder." In German, the word is "ritter." Both of these words seem to be cognates of the English word, "rider."
The classes of fighting men in the Middle Ages, from the knights (including knights bachelor), squires, yeomen, to pages, were often young servants; their relative statuses changed over time. Many serving men (servientes or sergeants) would be promoted to positions of importance within the king's or lord's household.
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 yeomanry was the first class of the commoners (peasants), which 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.
Yeomen in the Middle Ages typically owned land worth 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 ha) of land was worth about 40 to 50 shillings. A yeoman during the 12th and 13th centuries was primarily a household and military (semi-feudal and feudal) term later associated with the days of private warfare.
The Assize of Arms of 1252 provided that small landholders should 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 longbow (the war bow). That Assize referred to a class of Forty shilling freeholders, who became identified with 'yeomanry', and states "Those with land worth annual 40s-100s will be armed/trained with bow and arrow, sword, buckler and dagger". This status of landowner corresponds to the Knight's Yeoman in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Yeoman's Portrait in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales).
This association of the term yeoman with degree of land ownership may have originated in early Anglo-Saxon times.
The term yeoman was still used in the 16th century to denote the more prosperous, often owning either copyhold, freehold, or leasehold land.
Thus the yeoman may be considered as a middle class of sorts, in feudal or manorial service of the king or a lord, and perhaps as a link between nobility and the peasantry. 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,
Also possibly identified within a class of libri homines (freemen) in Domesday Book, the yeoman in service to a king or lord would be known as serviens or sergeant, or valet/valectus during the Norman period.
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.
14th to 18th centuries
In the late 14th to 18th centuries, yeomen were farmers who owned land (freehold, leasehold or copyhold). Their wealth and the size of their landholding varied.
Many yeomen were prosperous, and wealthy enough to employ servants and farm labourers. Some were as wealthy as the minor county or regional landed gentry and some even leased land to gentleman landowners. Some could be classed as gentlemen but did not aspire to this status: it was cheaper to remain a yeoman. Often it was hard to distinguish minor landed gentry from the wealthier yeomen, and wealthier husbandmen from the poorer yeomen. Some yeomen in the later Tudor and Stuart periods were descended from medieval military yeomen. This is attested mainly by weapons found above fireplace mantles in the West Midlands of England (especially in the border shires).
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 Landed Gentry, but above, say, a husbandman. "
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 periods might also lease or rent lands to the minor gentry. However, yeomen and tenant farmers were the two main divisions of the rural middle class, and the yeoman was a respectable, honourable class and ranked above the husbandmen, artisans, and labourers.
Isaac Newton and many other famous people such as Thomas Jefferson hailed from the yeoman class. Isaac Newton inherited a small farm which paid the bills for his academic work. Many yeomen were rich enough to send their sons to school to qualify for a gentlemanly profession. Earlier, the sons of many yeoman families served in royal or great noble households providing not menial, but honourable service, as his social status or degree in society was equal in the royal or noble household.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary, (edited by H.W. & F.G. Fowler, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1972 reprint, p. 1516) states that a yeoman was "a person qualified by possessing free land of 40/- (shillings) 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 some ways the ancient "yeoman" was very similar to the "yeomanry" today, volunteers of the Territorial Army of the United Kingdom. Yeoman military corps takes origin from the volunteer cavalry in the mid-18th century, later becoming known as the Yeomanry Cavalry in the 1790s.
In the United States, yeomen were identified in the 18th and 19th centuries as non-slaveholding, small landowning, family farmers. In Southern areas where land was poor, like East Tennessee, the landowning yeomen were typically subsistence farmers, but some managed to grow some crops for market. Whether they engaged in subsistence or commercial agriculture, they controlled far more modest landholdings than those of the planters, typically in the range of 50-200 acres. In the North, practically all the farms were operated by yeoman farmers as family farms.
Thomas Jefferson was a leading advocate of the yeomen, arguing that the independent farmers formed the basis of republican values. Indeed, Jeffersonian Democracy as a political force was largely built around the yeomen. After the Civil War, organizations of farmers, especially the Grange, formed to organize and enhance the status of the yeoman farmers.
Yeoman archers and yew war bows
The English war bow, known as the longbow, was the main weapon of a yeoman archer. It was typically but not always made of yew wood, often Wych Elm; but other woods were used for making bow staves. However, the Spanish, French and Italian yews were also highly sought after because of their superior growth qualities and the very limited availability of English yew in the late Middle Ages.
The 'yeoman archer' was unique to England and Wales (in particular, the south Wales areas of Monmouthshire with the famed archers of Gwent; and Glamorgan, Crickhowell, and Abergavenny; and South West England with the Royal Forest of Dean, Kingswood Royal Forest near Bristol, and the New Forest). Though Kentish Weald and Cheshire archers were noted for their skills, it appears that the bulk of the 'yeomanry' was from the English and Welsh Marches (border regions).
The original Yeomen of the Guard (originally archers) chartered in 1485 were most likely of Briton descent, including Welshmen and Bretons. They were established by King Henry VII, himself a Briton who was exiled in Brittany during the Wars of the Roses. He recruited his forces mostly from Wales and the West Midlands of England on his victorious journey to Bosworth Field. The Welsh were the first to be attested to have used the 'longbow' made of yew and elm (c.AD 650) 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 known 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; they took part in the campaigns against the Scots and would later be employed 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 Cheshire were specially appointed as bodyguard archers for King Richard II.
Yeomen filled many roles from the Middle Ages through to the 19th century. They were often constables of their parish, and sometimes chief constables of the district, shire or hundred. Many yeomen held the positions of 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 his parish. Yeomen, whether working for a lord, king, shire, knight, district or parish served in localised or municipal police forces raised by or led by the landed gentry.
Some of these roles, in particular those of constable and bailiff were carried down through families. Yeomen often filled ranging, roaming, surveying, and policing roles. In Chaucer's Friar's Tale, a yeoman who is a bailiff of the forest who tricks the Summoner turns out to be the devil ready to grant wishes already made.
The earlier class of franklins (freemen or French or Norman freeholders) were similar to yeomen: wealthy peasant landowners, freeholders or village officials. They were typically village leaders (aldermen), constables or mayors. Franklin militias were similar to later yeomanries. Yeomen took over those roles 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[clarification needed], for even ‘valets’ known as ‘yeoman archers’ were forbidden to be returned to parliament, indicating[clarification needed] they even held power at a level never before held by the upper class of commoners. In districts remoter from landed gentry and burgesses, yeomen held more official power: this is attested in statutes of the reign of Henry VIII indicating yeomen along with knights and squires as leaders for certain purposes.
The yeoman also comprised a military class or status (usually known as in the third order of the fighting class, between the squire and the page). In contemporary feudal continental Europe, by contrast the divide between commoners and gentry was far wider: though a middle class existed, it was not as well respected or esteemed as the contemporary yeoman of England.
Usage as a compliment or praise
The term yeoman nowadays 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 recognisable 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.
This may originate from their achievements in battle during the Hundred Years' War when the odds and numbers were stacked against the yeoman archers. It may also recall the excellent heroic service of the king’s servants, e.g. in foiling assassination attempts on his life, or protecting his castle or palace. These servants included the Yeomen of the Guard and the Yeomen Warders of the Tower of London).
The term is used in contexts such as:
- The forester provided 'yeoman service' in finding the lost children in the woods.
- 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.
Other references to yeoman
In popular culture
- In William Caxton's print of the Canterbury Tales there is a woodcut engraving of the knight's yeoman.
- In William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Prince Hamlet states his under appreciated ability to write elegantly in a particular situation had done him "yeoman's service."
- According to Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, Robin Hood's band of Merry Men is largely Yeomen.
- The Yeomen of the Guard (1888) is a Savoy Opera by Gilbert and Sullivan.
- The Dr. Seuss book The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins includes a 'Yeoman of the Bowmen', a master archer who shoots a hat off the title character's head.
- The followers of St. Gird (many of whom are farmers) call themselves the "Yeomen of Gird" in Elizabeth Moon's The Deed of Paksenarrion fantasy novels.
- In the science fiction video game Mass Effect 2 there is a character by the name of Kelly Chambers, who serves on the space vessel Normandy. While she is more of an administrative assistant, managing the main character's in-game messages and monitoring the crew, her rank is listed as "Yeoman".
- In Star Trek: The Original Series, there are various crew members with the rank of Yeoman.
- Yeomanry Cavalry refers to the extrajudicial military force organised by the property-owning class to defend against French invasion in 18th-century England as well as to protect British occupation in 18th-century Ireland. Yeomanry Cavalry was officially formed in 1794 (formed unofficially circa. 1760s as a Volunteer Cavalry), it eventually became an expeditionary force known as the Imperial Yeomanry in 1899, and then was absorbed into the Territorial Army in 1907. Many units retain their 'Yeomanry' designation today and have seen service in both the World Wars and modern times, including the current "War on Terrorism". This contrasts with the title of Gentlemen Cavaliers of the Household Cavalry regiments.
- Yeoman Riders of the Coursers Stables, Yeoman Riders of the Hunting Stables, Yeoman Riders of the Race and Running Horses, First Yeoman Rider, Second Yeoman Rider. (See British History Online.)
- Yeomen of the Guard were established in 1485 after the Battle of Bosworth Field and were officially chartered by King Henry VII for their loyal service during the war. Later, King Henry VIII established the Yeomen Warders of the Tower of London, which is the oldest of the Royal Bodyguards in England, and one of the oldest Royal Bodyguards and military organisations in the world. In essence Yeomen of the Guard and Yeomen Warders are direct modern day links to the days of warfare in the Middle Ages.
- Yeoman Usher of the Black Rod is a deputy position to the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod and is the deputy sergeant-at-arms in the House of Lords. The position is an official figure in the parliaments of some Commonwealth countries.
- There are several Yeoman positions in the staff of the Royal Household, under the Master of the Household.
- In falconry, the bird for the Yeoman is a goshawk, a forest bird.
- Sir Gawain states that he was made a yeoman at Yule in Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.
- The Yeoman is also the mascot for the Oberlin College athletic teams.
- The Yeoman/Yeowoman is the former mascot for York University in Toronto, Ontario (Canada). The mascot was changed in 2003 to, and still remains as, a lion.
- University of Cambridge, and some other traditional universities, possess (or once possessed) an office by the name of the Yeoman Bedell (cf. Esquire Bedell), which originally consisted primarily of running errands, such as serving summons to appear in the University's courts. Largely the office has either been abolished as a mediaevalism, or retained in a purely ceremonial form. At the University of Sydney the office has been retained as the manager in charge of the University's caretaking and security services.
- Yeoman is also a petty officer's job (or rating) in both the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, as well as a similar clerical position in Starfleet in the fictional universe of Star Trek: The Original Series. During World War I, women were enlisted in the United States Naval Reserve Force as Yeomen to provide some of the additional workforce needed to support the war, working mainly in clerical positions. They were designated Yeoman (F) to distinguish them from their male counterparts and were released from the service shortly after the war ended.
- The sinister supporter of the arms of Wisconsin is a yeoman, though the figure incorrectly shown on the flag seems to be a miner, a miner's helmet not being mentioned in the blazon.
- The sergeant flagman at Windsor Castle carries the title of 'Yeoman of the Round Tower'.
- Agrarianism, political activism among farm owners
- Plain Folk of the Old South, the American equivalent
- Kulak (derogatory Russian term for prosperous peasant)
- Work ethic
- "Yeoman Definition | Definition of Yeoman at Dictionary.com". Dictionary.reference.com. Retrieved 2009-12-15.
- "Re: Yeoman's work". Phrases.org.uk. Retrieved 2009-12-15.
- Wagner, Sir Anthony R., English Genealogy, Oxford University Press, 1960, pps: 125-130.
- The difficulty yeoman farmers faced in this region was notorious enough that it inspired the lyrics "Corn don't grow at all on Rocky Top; dirt's too rocky by far" in Rocky Top, now one of Tennessee's state songs.
- Samuel C. Hyde Jr., "Plain Folk Yeomanry in the Antebellum South," in John Boles, Jr., ed., Companion to the American South, (2004) pp 139-55
- Steven Hahn, The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850-1890 (1983)
- Thomas A. Woods, Knights of the Plow: Oliver H. Kelley and the Origins of the Grange in Republican Ideology (2002)
- Allen, Robert C. Enclosure and the Yeoman (1992) Oxford U. Press 376p.
- Broad, John. "The Fate of the Midland Yeoman: Tenants, Copyholders, and Freeholders as Farmers in North Buckinghamshire, 1620-1800," Continuity & Change 1999 14(3): 325-347,
- Campbell, Mildred. The English Yeoman
- Genovese, Eugene D. "Yeomen Farmers in a Slaveholders' Democracy," Agricultural History Vol. 49, No. 2 (April 1975), pp. 331-342 in JSTOR, antebellum U.S.
- Hallas, Christine S. "Yeomen and Peasants? Landownership Patterns in the North Yorkshire Pennines c. 1770-1900," Rural History 1998 9(2): 157-176,
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