Posts Tagged ‘anglo-saxon england’

“The general point I wish to make is that the post-Roman/early medieval
world was characterized by a great deal more complexity in the structuring and
composition of its rural labour force than suggested by [Chris] Wickham’s simplified
image of ‘tenants who controlled their own holding and could keep its fruits
after rents were paid’. The best generic description, [drawn from as I
suggested earlier, might be a ‘mixed servile labour force’, as described by Ros Faith, where
families themselves might be of mixed legal status, and where the great
movement of manumission was creating reserves of labour still integrated into
centralized estates rather than the independent farm complexes called hubae, also
known, confusingly, as mansi when the latter term acquired its more expansive
sense in the central middle ages. That a more substantial or autonomous
peasantry existed or was emerging is incontrovertible (the feudal reaction would
be incomprehensible without it), but to understand its emergence we have to
describe the context of the relations of production within which it developed
with less abstraction and certainly less schematically than either Wickham or an
earlier generation of Marxists have tended to do. The metanarrative of the
transition from slavery to serfdom which Wickham rejects cannot be replaced by
the equally abstract idea that ‘When the Romans abandoned the slave mode, they
went straight over to rent-paying tenants’ (Wickham 1984, 31), or by the notion
that the ‘economic shift from the slave to the feudal mode had already taken
place well before 400’ (Wickham 2005, 262). It is bizarre to call the Roman
empire ‘feudal’ unless one is determined to deplete the category of all historical
content. And slavery didn’t simply disappear. It would be altogether more
correct to refer to its ‘mutation’, as Georges Duby does. Wickham’s simple
dichotomy between legal condition and economic form (slavery persisting at the
first level, ‘tenancy’ widespread at the second) lacks the subtlety needed to characterize
the transition, even if legal status mattered less and less and, as Innes says, ‘there
was no real social gulf between free and unfree’ by the Carolingian period.

Now, viewed teleologically, in terms of some inexorable evolution towards
the  manor and its eventual triumph, the allotment holders of the post-Roman/early medieval countryside may seem like a transitional type, a sort of station
between two terminals, one called Antiquity, the other Feudalism; or if you
prefer, between Slavery and Serfdom. But this, I suggest, is absolutely the
wrong way of approaching the issue. Between the ‘demesne slave’ or servi
and the peasant families in possession of substantial tenements (viz.
10-acre holdings at the lower end) lay a whole series of intermediate categories
who are surely better defined as farm workers than as peasants: the Tageschalken
in Germany, the geburs, bordars and cottars in Anglo-Saxon England, and so
on. They were ‘a substantial proportion of the rural population of Anglo-Saxon
England’ (Ros Faith) and doubtless the same is true of most countries on the
Continent. If we choose to call them tenants, then worker-tenants is a better
description of these groups than the tenants that Wickham seems to have in
mind. Wickham discusses their legal status as largely irrelevant on the grounds
that the distinction between free and unfree was typically and increasingly fuzzy.
This is true, but the diminished legal condition of most or all of these groups
was surely not unrelated to the fact that taken as a whole they formed a tied
labour force on a model familiar to late Roman landowners and their free but
tied coloni. Indeed, the laws on the colonate were themselves a major influence
on the social condition of the medieval peasantry, insofar as the successor
kingdoms absorbed them selectively and enforced them against their own
dependent populations. The mancipia who appear in Merovingian charters were
certainly not slaves in the strict Roman sense, but the fact that
they were described in this way was not unrelated to the way large estates saw
themselves using the labour of these workers.”

–  Jairus Banaji, “Aristocracies, Peasantries and the Framing of the Early Middle Ages.”  Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol. 9 No. 1, January 2009, pp. 76-77.

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“The good and bad aspects of the warrior’s character represented
by the poet of Beowulf are strongly analogous with the warrior characterisations represented in Irish and Welsh mythology. It is true that
characters such as Efnisien and Finn were, to some extent, more anti-authoritarian and, perhaps, malevolent than Beowulf. Yet, if we were
to amalgamate the characters of Beowulf and Grendel then we would
probably see a more realistic portrayal of the Anglo-Saxon warrior
initiate. The poet of Beowulf deliberately portrayed the Anglo-Saxon
hero as the ultimate ideal of a warrior. Indeed, this need to emphasise a noble role for the warrior in Christian society strongly suggests
that unstable warrior fraternities were prevalent within eighth-century
English society. The Anglo-Saxon law codes certainly suggest that this
was the case. For example, the late seventh-century Law of Ine (king of
Wessex 688–725) differentiated between the sizes of brigand warrior
bands in the following way:

We use the term thieves if the number of men does not exceed seven,
band of marauders for a number between seven and thirty five. Anything
beyond this is a war band.

According to Ine’s law codes any man belonging to a raiding party
was required to clear himself by an oath equal to his wergeld (honour
price). This suggests that warriors involved in large scale raiding
activities would have remained the responsibility of their kindred.
Paradoxically, a member of a marauding band appears to have been
outside the system of wergeld payments although he was required to
pay a fine for joining such a disruptive group. Furthermore, Ine’s
legislator clearly felt that thieves should be completely outside of the sphere of kinship responsibility. Yet, in spite of the social exclusion
of the brigand-warrior an attempt does appear to have been made
by the ninth-century compiler of the Laws of Alfred (871–899) to draw
such marauding bands away from the margins of society. For example,
Alfred 26 states:

If one of a band of marauders slays an unoffending man whose wergeld
is 200 shillings, he who acknowledges the blow shall pay the wergeld and
the fine; and everyone engaged in the affair shall pay 30 shillings compensation for belonging to such a band.

Alfred was clearly attempting to curb the insular lawlessness that had
been facilitated by the political and social instability of the early years
of his reign. Nevertheless, such fines must have been particularly difficult to impose without the aid of a substantial military force. Indeed,
this is made clear by a dictum from the tenth-century Law of Æthelstan
(924–939) which note that the officials of each hundred were obliged
to pledge that if any band

…whether nobles or commoners within or beyond the borders of our
district—become so strong and powerful as to prevent us from exercis-
ing our legal rights, and stand up in defence of a thief, we shall ride out
against them in full force…

As we have seen from the Welsh, Scottish and Irish evidence, such war
bands were notoriously difficult to control. Despite their marginal status
some war bands undoubtedly received a degree of support from their
local communities. It must have often been impossible to differentiate between the actions of brigands and murderers and those of the war
bands of powerful individuals. This was made clear by the reforming
archbishop, Wulfstan of York (d. 1023) who complained about the
violence that was plaguing English society at the beginning of the
eleventh century. In his Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (The Sermon of Wolf to
the English) the prelate bemoaned the fact that

Here (i.e. within English society) are slayers of men and slayers of kins-
men and killers of priests and enemies of the monasteries; and here are
perjurers and murderers…and those who kill children…and here are
plunderers and robbers and those who despoil…

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle reveals that when powerful men were exiled
or outlawed they invariably conducted activities of violent rapine from
marginal wilderness locations. For example, the chronicler notes that
following his exile in 1044 the Danish born nobleman Osgod Clapa
returned to ravage the coastline of Essex in 1049.204 In the following
year Swein Godwineson, who appears to have been exiled for his abduction of the Abbess of Leominster in 1046, returned to the south coast
of England with a fleet of eight ships and abducted and murdered his
cousin Earl Beorn. When Swein’s brother, Harold Godwineson, was
exiled several years later he ravaged the coastal districts of the Severn
estuary with his war band. Furthermore, Earl Ælfgar of Mercia was
outlawed in 1055 and following this he allied his forces with a Welsh war band and plundered the town of Hereford. Similarly, in 1067
an individual named Eadric the Wild attacked the Norman garrison
at Hereford with the aid of a Welsh force and inflicted heavy losses. Eadric was the nephew of Eadric Streona, who had been the powerful ealdorman of Mercia during King Æthelred’s reign. He appears
to have held substantial lands in Herefordshire and the Welsh marches
prior to the Conquest.  Eadric refused to surrender to Norman rule
following the English defeat at Hastings. As a consequence, Norman
troops under the command Richard fitz Scrob ravaged his lands from
their garrison in Hereford. Eadric fought back and inflicted great losses
upon the Normans. The twelfth-century commentator Orderic Vitalis
noted that Eadric attacked the Norman garrison at Shrewsbury along
with the men of Chester and “other untameable Englishmen” ( ferocibus
).  Interestingly, Orderic identified Eadric to be a member of
the fierce silvatici. These were bands of Englishmen who put up stiff
resistance against the new Norman regime following the Conquest.
They conducted themselves with the traditional ferocity of the Anglo-Saxon warrior and operated from wilderness bases, refusing to live
within houses lest they became soft. In many ways then, the silvatici
would appear to have resembled Irish fían groups or the warbands of
youthful ynfydion that were operating from wilderness locations in Wales.
The Abingdon Chronicle reported that following the Conquest Englishmen
from all ranks of society were lurking in the woods and on islands and
plundering those who came their way.

These groups have been viewed
as part of a wide network of political resistance towards Norman rule but this was not simply a political movement. There was little other
recourse for individuals who had lost their status other than to take
to a transitional life of plunder in the wilderness. Eadric’s nickname,
se wilda, ‘the wild’, appears strongly analogous to the names attributed
to fictional individuals who existed within the warrior fraternities of
the Irish tales, the Mabinogion or Beowulf. That Eadric came to be associated closely with the survival of Anglo-Saxon cultural and ethnic
identity should be no surprise. In many warrior societies identity was
established and perpetuated through acts of violence. Indeed, Eadric
and the other silvatici were opposed to the drastic cultural changes
brought about by the Conquest and they expressed their opposition in
a traditional manner.

Hereward the Wake, a contemporary of Eadric the Wild, also
appears to have been regarded as a guardian of Anglo-Saxon cultural
identity in the immediate post-Conquest period. Like Eadric, Hereward and his war band practised guerrilla style warfare against the
Normans from the marshy regions of the Cambridgeshire Fens. The
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ambiguously portrays Hereward as both a violent
plunderer of monasteries and as a courageous and defiant leader. This portrayal aptly reflects both the benevolent and malevolent sides
of the warrior’s character. A detailed account of Hereward’s life exists
in the Gesta Herewardi Saxonis, which was composed during the first half
of the twelfth century. Many of the events within the Gesta appear to
have been fabricated; however, it does provide us with some illuminating details about early twelfth-century perceptions regarding the likely
fate of such a warrior. The author relates that as a youth Hereward was a quarrelsome
individual who was

… tough in work and rough in play, readily provoking fights among those
of his own age and often stirring up strife among his elders in town and

The author of the Gesta felt that Hereward had

…spared nobody whom he thought to be in any way a rival in courage
or in fighting. In consequence he often caused strife among the populace
and commotion among the common people.

Hereward’s behaviour, therefore, exemplified the kind of riotous behaviour that we have come to expect from a warrior initiate. The author
notes that shortly after Hereward had turned seventeen he was expelled
from his family home and went into exile on the continent. He did
not return until after the Norman Conquest when he found that his
lands had been confiscated and that he had lost his status. He subsequently formed an egalitarian war band and pursued a violent vendetta
against those Normans who had usurped his patrimony and killed his
brother Hereward’s war band are portrayed living a life of plunder
and conducting a long standing insurgency against the Norman forces.
Indeed, the author of the Gesta deliberately depicted Hereward’s band
as members of a fraternity who were striving to retain their cultural
identity through violent war-like behaviour. Moreover, Thomas argues
persuasively that this post-Conquest author was writing with a specific
purpose; he was attempting to reassert the fighting prowess (and therefore the warrior manhood) of the Anglo-Saxon people.

It appears likely that conservative Old English warrior fraternities
continued to create problems for their new French speaking overlords
for decades after the Norman Conquest. The Welsh chronicle the Brut y
Tywysogyon noted that in 1109 a band of ‘Saxon’ warriors were ravaging
the Marcher territories of South Wales in a similar manner to Eadric
the Wild. Interestingly, these warriors appear to have formed an
accord with a like-minded Welsh war band in an inter-ethnic alliance
closely analogous to the one that had been struck between the exiled
Earl Ælfgar of Mercia and a band of Welsh warriors in 1055 or, indeed, between the warrior bands of the British leader Ingcél Cáech and the
Irish fían in Irish tale Togail Bruidne Da Derga discussed earlier.”

– David Wyatt, Slaves and Warriors in Medieval Britain and Ireland, 800 -1200 (The Northern World). Brill: Leiden & Boston, 2009. pp. 102-110.

Photograph is “Hengist Wittes Sohn,” Federfrei. “Picture by Daniel Wolfen. Saxon warriors around 800 AD, franko-saxon war, in winter dress. Material is woll, leather and linnen. All clothing is self- and handmade.”

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Slavery and Progress: A Self-Reflexive Perspective

“Medieval historiography has inherited a powerful legacy from the abolitionist era that closely associates the societies of Britain with Christian civilisation and anti-slavery sentiments. At the beginning of the twentieth century W.E.H. Lecky argued that England’s crusade against slavery “…may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of the nations.” Similarly, Sir John Harris remarked during the 1930’s that Britain’s struggle against slavery,“…deserves the admiration and thanks of the civilised world.” However, it is extremely important that we do not forget the major role that Britain played in the African slave trade. Indeed, just a few decades before abolition Great Britain had been the world’s greatest slaving nation. British merchants were largely responsible for establishing the
New World slave trade and they greatly profited from it. The irony of
Britain’s subsequent zeal for abolition was not lost upon the African
rulers with whom the British slave traders had previously dealt. The
Asante chief Osei Bonsu is said to have remarked that 

The white men…do not understand my country, or they would not say
that the slave trade was bad. But if they think it bad now, why did they
think it good before?

More recent historical scholarship has highlighted the powerful and
disturbing role that anti-slavery ideology played in the construction
of sentiments regarding the superior character and virtue of British
civilisation. In the decades following abolition the British became
imbued with a proselytising zeal to impose their ‘civilised’ values upon
those whom they now deemed to be ‘savages’ because of their continuing involvement in slaving activity.  This abolitionist zeal provided
the moral ideology that facilitated the nineteenth-century imperial
expansion into Africa. Nineteenth-century British historians played a
significant role in the construction of this superior image. Indeed, the
attitudes of some historians reveal how closely anti-slavery ideology may
be associated with such racist beliefs. In his book Wales, Past and Present
(1870) Charles Wilkins expressed his horror concerning the existence
of the “hideous” condition of slavery, yet, he goes on to remark that 

The African had grown up but a degree above the animal, his lot if
he fell into any hands could not be much worse, and if he became the
property of a kind master, it was even improved in some respects. But
our poor Welshman! With the love of liberty, that was part of their very
being…for these (medieval Welshmen) the transition (into slavery) was
torture most execrable.

E.A. Freeman expressed similar views in his History of the Norman Conquest. Freeman was undoubtedly opposed to slavery. He regarded Bishop
Wulfstan of Worcester to be “an unflinching assertor of the eternal
principles of right” whose efforts had ended the “evil practice” of
slavery in Anglo-Saxon England. Yet, later in the same volume Freeman qualified his arguments concerning Anglo-Saxon slavery under a
sub-heading entitled, “The difference between white and black slavery.”
Within this sub-section he commented that

…there was one great difference between slavery in earlier and in later
times…The great difficulties which have arisen from emancipation of
slaves who are unlike their masters in every respect in which a man can
be unlike a man, is a difficulty with which Wulfstan and William were
not called upon to grapple. 

The prevalence of imperialistic attitudes such as this has undoubtedly
affected the historiography of Britain in general. The nineteenth-century
Irish historian M.F Cusack made no mention at all of the slave holding
nature of medieval Irish society in his Illustrated History of Ireland from
the Earliest Period
. Yet, this omission must be placed within the context
of Cusack’s own social and political milieu and his undoubted outrage
at the impoverished state of his contemporary countrymen. This is
revealed at the beginning of his book when he remarked:

I shall state very briefly the position of the Irish tenant at this present
day…the position of the Irish tenant is simply this: he is rather worse
off than a slave.

The residual influence of nineteenth-century attitudes such as Freeman’s
have ensured the continuing sensitivity of historical analysis concerning slavery. In the 1980’s Elizabeth Curtis drew strong comparisons between
the English involvement in the African slave trade and the indentured
servitude imposed upon the Irish during the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries in her study Nothing but the same old Story; The Roots of Anti-Irish
. Yet, like her predecessor Cusack, Curtis failed to acknowl-
edge the slave owning nature of pre-Norman Irish society, which she
regarded to be “relatively egalitarian.” This is an example that has
been followed by other Irish historians who have sought to distance
their medieval forebears from such unsavoury practices. Indeed, Ó
Croínín has more recently asserted that “The institution of slavery, and
its concomitant, a slave economy, remained alien to the Irish way.” Such attitudes are understandable given the disparaging and condemnatory nature of pre-twentieth-century English historiography toward
medieval Irish society. Furthermore, whilst post-abolitionist sentiments
that associate slavery with only backward, barbarous and intensely
conservative societies persist, such misleading views will continue to
be perpetuated.

Despite the very genuine motivations of many abolitionist activists,
when anti-slavery was taken up by the British government the full
potential of this powerful civilising ideology became a justification for
pragmatic political expansionism. More subtly it became a subconscious
psychological aid endorsing world-wide British hegemony. In short,
slavery helped to provide the cash for the technological advances which
made Britain great. Conversely, anti-slavery provided an ideology,
which facilitated the continuing British cultural and political dominance of global affairs during the nineteenth century. This ideology
was extremely powerful and it has deeply affected historiographical
views concerning medieval slavery. Slavery has continued to be almost
as emotive an historical subject in Britain as it is in the United States.

This may be because it lies at the root of British industrial power.
Furthermore, whilst abolitionism constituted one of the first expressions of popular democracy and lies at the very heart of our civilised
self-image of compromise, decency and fair play, it also justified the
colonial expansionism into Africa and the epoch of the British Empire.
The civilising veneer of British anti-slavery is actually very thin yet
very few nationalist historians have been willing to scratch too deeply
beneath it.

Historians must be extremely self-reflexive if they are to transcend
the, still powerful nineteenth-century abolitionist ideology. No historian
would want to condone slavery yet, it is important that we understand
the reasons for our antipathy towards the institution before we begin to
study it. Indeed, historians have frequently failed to recognise the factors
that act upon their perceptions of this medieval institution and this has
resulted in anachronistic and inaccurate interpretations. Such interpretations have allowed slavery to be compartmentalised in order to reinforce
modern ideologies and sensibilities. Modern economic rationales, which
seek to uphold capitalist values or emphasise the progressive civilisation
of the West, have permeated the historical discourse on slavery. As a
result historians have, all too often, focussed their efforts upon explaining the disappearance of this medieval institution rather than seeking
to understand it. Moreover, when historians attempt to explain away
slavery in this manner they fail to realise the vital importance of the
institution for the societies of medieval Britain.”

– David Wyatt, Slaves and Warriors in Medieval Britain and Ireland, 800 -1200 (The Northern World). Brill: Leiden & Boston, 2009. pp. 54-58.

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Medieval Slavery, Modern Sensibilities

Modern preconceptions and sensibilities have profoundly affected historical interpretations of the medieval institution of slavery. Paradoxically, these same preconceptions and sensibilities have been moulded
and shaped by the discourse on slavery in the modern era. The nineteenth-century struggle to abolish slavery lies at the very heart of this
paradox. Abolitionism has been widely regarded by historians as a
defining watershed in British civilisation. Modern sensibilities concerning freedom, democracy, individualism, and the superiority of western
civilisation would all appear to have stemmed from that “unweary,
unostentatious and inglorious crusade.” The abolitionist’s triumph
thereby severed one of the final links between modern industrial Britain and the less savoury aspects of its more barbarous medieval past.
The disturbing nature of New World slavery and the way in which it
was eradicated gave rise to a powerful and emotive cultural antipathy
towards the institution of slavery. This antipathy has helped to obscure
memories of Britain’s involvement in the establishment and perpetuation of the New World slave trade. Indeed, it has resulted in a kind of
collective historical amnesia concerning the fact that Britain’s industrial
revolution was financed primarily by the profits from that trade. The
events and debates surrounding the 2007 bicentennial of the abolition of the British slave trade have shed some light on these issues.
Nevertheless, the bicentennial commemorations generally served to
reinforce longstanding perceptions associating Britain with abolitionism and progress rather than with tainted slave-trade profits and the
horrors of the Middle Passage. Yet, even the apparently noble cause
of abolition had certain less pleasant side effects that have been overlooked by the nation’s historians. The success of the abolition movement contributed significantly towards the construction of a ‘superior’ and ‘civilising’ ideology that was subsequently employed as an excuse
for aggressive imperial expansionism and colonial domination. This in
turn intensified racist attitudes towards the indigenous populations of
Britain’s colonies and created a legacy of inequality that continues to
plague us to this day. The moral outrage that accompanies the modern
antipathy towards slavery would have been harder to discern in any
British community prior to the eighteenth century. Moreover, within
the societies of medieval Britain slavery was regarded as a necessary
institution; essential for the perpetuation social and cultural order.

[We must] improve our understanding of the significance of slavery in medieval Britain by first seeking to understand
how modern attitudes and sensibilities have distorted our view of that
institution. It is important that we recognise how medievalists have
constructed the institution of slavery and acknowledge the effect that
abolitionist ideology has had on these constructions. Modern ideological perspectives and economic rationales have immeasurably distorted
our view of medieval slavery. A critique of these economic approaches
will, therefore, be provided using Anglo-Saxon society as a case study.
This critique will then be related to some suggestions regarding the
alternative and, perhaps, more fruitful lines of enquiry that will be
pursued during the course of this study.

Until recently scholars of medieval history have rarely discussed
slavery. Indeed, many medieval historians have chosen to ignore the
subject altogether. Those historians who have dealt with slavery have
attempted to sanitise our view of the institution. One consequence of
this has been a tendency to depict the enslaved as being either in need
of or deserving of this servile status. The nineteenth century English
historian E.A. Freeman portrayed enslavement as a kind of medieval welfare measure. He argued that when famine struck Anglo-Saxon
England, the destitute “became slaves to any one who would feed them,
sometimes, when happier days had come, to be set free by the charity
of their masters.” Esmé Wingfield-Stratford, who published her History
of British Civilisation
in the 1920’s, argued that the Anglo-Saxons were
“a practical folk” who took slaves rather than slaughtering everyone. Dorothy Whitelock felt that the fate of slavery fell most commonly upon
the more undesirable elements of medieval society such as convicted
criminals or individuals who defaulted on their debts. Other historians
have attempted to distance the societies of medieval Britain from the
institution of slavery by attributing its existence to the influence of other
ethnic groups. For example, in his Early Medieval Ireland 400–1200 the
Irish historian Dáibhí Ó Cróinín argued that the growth of the slave
trade in medieval Ireland was “…a less savoury influence attributed
to the Vikings.” He goes on to admit that slaves were not unknown in early Irish society but qualifies this with the comment: “…there is on
the other hand no evidence for a trade in slaves in Ireland—though
there is for England and its continental neighbours.” In an early article
examining the slave trade in medieval Wales, Bromberg argued that
“…it was probably the Viking trader-raider who turned the attention
of the Welshman to the slave trade.” Similarly, Fisher in his Anglo-Saxon
Age c. 400–1042
argued that the Anglo-Saxon exportation of slaves was
a result of “the new influx of Danes” which “had given new vitality
to old bad habits”.

Even those historians who acknowledge the significance of slavery
for the communities of medieval Britain have often, consciously or
unconsciously, attempted to temper this view. As a result they have
issued slightly awkward or contradictory statements on the subject. In
his study Scotland: The Making of a Kingdom A.A.M. Duncan acknowledges
that during the eleventh century

…the ‘good’ men of Scotia went off to rustle Northumbrian cattle and
plunder the treasuries of Northumbrian Churches, and perhaps, too to
drive men north into slavery. 

Yet, in a later reference to this very comment Duncan felt compelled
to remark, somewhat defensively, that 

It is inadequate to characterise tenth to eleventh-century [Scottish] society
as barbarian and primitive, though it had something of both qualities;
perhaps the most neutral description is archaic. 

This later qualification would appear to reflect the author’s dim view
of native Scottish slave-raiding practices; a form of behaviour which he
clearly associated, more ordinarily, with only ‘backward’ and ‘primitive’
societies. Furthermore, Henry Loyn qualified his well-known statement
that, “Right to the end of its days, Anglo-Saxon England was a slave
owning community”, by later arguing “…the slave trade operated to
feed the needs of two distinct communities: the Moslems…and the
Scandinavians.” Yet, even the most conservative estimates suggest that
at least ten percent of the population of England were still slaves in
1086. Indeed, the sources reveal that all of the societies of medieval
Britain were trading in and holding slaves into the twelfth century.
Nevertheless, the slave holding nature of these societies has been con-
sistently denied or played down by historians. In his ground-breaking
study Slavery in Early Medieval England, published in the mid-nineteen
nineties, David Pelteret provides substantial evidence for indigenous slave
raiding activities during the Anglo-Saxon period. Yet, flying somewhat
in the face of this evidence, he issues the rather confusing statement
that “… from the ninth to the eleventh century it was mainly Norseman
who enslaved many in England.”

The historical arguments that continue to rage over the nature and
importance of both ancient and medieval slavery cannot be cleanly
detached from the debates concerning New World slavery. The idea
of slavery still has a great psychological impact upon historians. This
is because any discussion of medieval slavery is intimately related
to some of modern British society’s most cherished values and also
because the invidious legacy of New World slavery still looms large. The psychological impact of New World slavery is clearly discernable
in the historical discourse on the institution in the medieval period.
Nearly every medieval historian who has examined this institution
has felt obliged or compelled to compare or contrast it with slavery in
the New World. For example, the English historian, E.A. Freeman
made a point of differentiating between Anglo-Saxon and New World
slavery under a marginal note entitled “The difference between white
and black slavery.” Similarly, Andrew Lang, a Scottish contemporary
of Freeman, commented that the cumelache (fugitive bondman) that
feature in the medieval Scottish legal tracts were not to be thought of
as a “…bondman running away to town under cover of night, like
a negro slave making for the Northern States…” but rather as “…a
migration of the bondman by the lord’s assent, and with his sanction.” Whilst discussing the existence of slavery in medieval Wales,
the nineteenth-century Welsh antiquarian, Charles Wilkins remarked
with some horror: “How often have we not expended our sympathy
in the commiseration of the African; but here was a condition on our
soil still more hideous.”

More recently, Henry Loyn clearly felt that enlightened medieval
individuals would have been equally horrified by the slave markets of
their day, remarking that “Bristol and London in 1050 were notorious in much the same way as Liverpool was to become in 1750.” Moreover, in his book The Flowering of Ireland Schermann argues that
a decree made by the council of Armagh in 1170 prohibiting the slave
trade in Ireland “…was an astonishingly progressive act for its time”
which was achieved “seven hundred years before the rest of Europe
and the United States took the same action.” Modern sensibilities
concerning slavery have also affected views of the institution in other
disciplines. For example, the archaeologist B.G. Scott interprets two seventh-century Irish slave collars in the following manner: “Although
commonly referred to as ‘slave collars’, it would seem odd that such
fine pieces would have been put to such a lowly use.” Instead he feels
that they “…might have been used for favourite animals as a way of
showing the esteem of the master for his pet.” (See fig. 1, above).  Evidently
Scott had a clear mental image of what being a slave entailed and
it had a lot more to do with ideas about the horrors of the Middle
Passage and gang-style slavery of the New World than it did with the
prestigious nature of slave holding in Old Irish society.

Such anachronistic and misleading archaeological interpretations
regarding slave related artefacts are nothing new. A number of late-Roman slave collars inscribed with Christian iconography appear to
have been deeply unsettling for the nineteenth-century scholars who
initially examined them. Their resulting interpretations of these artefacts
are strikingly similar to Scott’s view of the Lagore collars. Like Scott,
they seem to have preferred to interpret these chains as dog collars
rather than acknowledge the slave holding nature of their early Christian
forebears. Furthermore, a recent reinterpretation of the spectacular
Iron-Age votive deposits at Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey has revealed
how significant archaeological evidence for human sacrifice at the site
was rigorously suppressed by the original excavator Cyril Fox. Fox, who
supervised recovery of these deposits between 1942 and 1945, appears
to have considered that such a find would not sit well with Britain’s wartime self-image as the champion of the civilised world. His suppression
of this fascinating evidence is particularly relevant for this discussion because enslaved war captives were the most likely victims for such a
sacrifice. The Llyn Cerrig Bach deposits also included an ornate slave
chain not at all dissimilar to the ones found at Lagore Crannog. 

In his seminal study Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology Moses Finley
has argued that 

No one today need feel ashamed of his Greek or Roman slave ancestors,
nor are there any current social or political ills that can be blamed on
ancient slavery.

Finley’s statement is undoubtedly true, yet our antipathy towards slavery,
as constructed through the nineteenth-century anti-slavery ideology, is
extremely pervasive. As the Greek and Roman civilisations are regarded
to be the source and inspiration for modern western democracy it is not
difficult to understand how emotive anti-slavery sentiments might have
muddied the waters of earlier historiography. Such sentiments appear
to have affected historiography in general and this is unsurprising given
that the existence of ancient slavery was held up as a justification for
the institution of slavery in both the medieval and the early modern
periods. If one follows Finley’s argument to its logical conclusion then
one must ask in what period should we begin to feel ashamed of our
slave, or indeed, our slave-holding ancestors? It is, therefore, important that we understand and acknowledge how modern concepts of
freedom and feelings of remorse concerning New World slavery have
configured the modern historiography of medieval slavery. Only after
we have recognised and attempted to take account of such modern
preconceptions will we be more able to understand the significance of
slavery for the medieval societies in which it existed.  This was point was clearly recognised by Frederick Engels during the latter half of the
nineteenth century. He remarked that 

Without slavery, no Greek state, no Greek art and science; without slavery
no Roman empire as the base, also no modern Europe … It costs little to
inveigh against slavery and the like in general terms, and to pour high
moral wrath on such infamies…But that tells us not one word as to
how these institutions arose, why they existed, and what role they have
played in history.’

– introductory essay from David Wyatt’s Slaves and Warriors in Medieval Britain and Ireland, 800 -1200 (The Northern World). Brill: Leiden & Boston, 2009. pp. 3-10.

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