Posts Tagged ‘medieval studies’

“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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“The ritually violent behaviour of male warrior fraternities was not simply a phenomenon associated with ‘Celtic’ societies. Similar fraternities
can be identified operating within the Germanic cultures of Scandinavia
and Anglo-Saxon England.  Indeed, the archaeological evidence from
cemeteries strongly suggests that systems of age-grading existed in both
societies during the pre-Christian era. Research has revealed that the
age of twelve was an important threshold in the male individual’s life
cycle.  It is from this age group that shields and swords are found
deposited in male graves suggesting the bestowal of arms and the
beginning of the transition into man-hood.  A second threshold may
have been crossed around the age of fifteen after which the orientation
of the graves becomes more standardised, a greater number of grave
goods are deposited and grave structures and coffins become more
common.  This would appear to signal the attainment of manhood
and full warrior status. The abundance of weaponry associated with
such adolescent male graves is indicative of a society in which male
identity and violent behaviour were closely linked.

By far our richest source of evidence regarding such warrior groups
comes, once again, from the literary texts. This is especially true with
regards to the Old Norse sagas, many of which were written down in
Iceland during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, much later than the
events they describe. The sagas therefore constitute a problematic body
of sources but, like the Fenian literature, they do clearly convey the ideals,
concepts, values and taboos of their contemporary warrior audience
whilst also providing evidence concerning expected behavioural traits
and information about rituals and initiations.  Strong cultural affinities existed between Scandinavian society and the societies of medieval
Britain and there was, of course, substantial Scandinavian settlement in the British Isles. So a closer examination of this material will provide
a useful and relevant parallel.

In the mythical Saga of the Volsungs an initiate youth, named Sinfjotli,
exhibits characteristics which are strongly comparable to the Old Irish
fían warrior and the practice of díberg. Sinfjotli is said to be a youth
who is not yet of age to seek vengeance. The saga relates that he “did
not put much store in kinship” suggesting that, like the fían member,
he had distanced himself from his kindred group and removed him-
self from the blood-price compensation system. Sinfjotli also resides
in wilderness locations and, together with an older warrior named
Sigmund, pursues a life of ritualised brigandage. Like the fían, these
warriors are closely associated with wolf-like or canine characteristics
and undertake ritual transformations; donning magical wolfskins and
declaring an oath to kill and maim.  Following this declaration, Sigmundr and Sinfjotli then rampage around forest locations slaughtering
folk indiscriminately and howling like a wolves whilst enveloped in a
these canine carcasses. 

A war band referred to as the Jómsvikings also constitute a warrior
fraternity which appears to be closely analogous to those evident in the
societies of medieval Ireland and Wales. The Jómsvikings feature in a
number of sagas dating from the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, including Oláf Saga Tryggvasonar, Fagrskinna Saga, Snorri Sturlusson’s’s
Heimskringla and the eponymously titled Saga of the Jómsvikings. The
Jómsviking element in these sagas appear to have been based upon ear-
lier skaldic oral traditions regarding a war band involved in a struggle
between the Norwegian earl Hákon Sigurðson and Danish forces in
the late 10th Century. The Saga of the Jómsvikings portrays an exclusive
warrior fraternity based in the marginal location of an island fortress.

This microcosmic warrior society had its own hierarchy, rules and codes of behaviour described in the following manner:

…no one might join the company who was over fifty or under eighteen.
All members were to be between these ages. Kinship must not weigh when
considering for membership a man who wished to join. No member was
to flee from any man who was his equal in bravery and as well armed
as himself. Each member must avenge any other member as though
he were his brother. No one was to utter words of fear or be afraid of
anything, however hopeless matters looked. All the booty brought in
from their expeditions was to be carried to the standard- of whatever
value, big or small- and anyone not abiding by this rule must leave the
company…No one was to have a woman in the fort, and no one was to
be away for more than three days. And if it became known after a man
had been admitted into the company that he had earlier slain the father
or brother or some other near kinsman of another member, Palnatóki
was to be the judge…

This extract exhibits a number of, by now, familiar characteristics
associated with the medieval warrior fraternity; the Jómsvikings were
thought to be an exclusive all-male group who placed a high value on
prowess and violence; the fraternity was regulated through age grades,
personal qualities and initiation rituals; it was seperated from blood
price compensation systems and kindred groups but, with substituted
bonds of fictive kinship; it was relatively egalitarian in ethos but nonetheless structured with an internal hierarchy and with a clear leader
in the character Palnatóki.

The Saga of the Jómsvikings provides an exaggerated literary construction of a relatively common social phenomenon. Indeed, the powerful
significance and prolific nature of comparable fraternal warrior groups
in the medieval Germanic societies has been widely acknowledged. The well documented Berserkr characterised in Old Norse sagas as violent
youthful warriors who assume ursine or canine qualities, provides further flesh to these bones. Berserkrs generally occur in pairs or groups of twelve;
when in groups they usually constitute either a band of outlaws or an
elite band of warriors. The etymology of the term berserkr is disputed.
It may derive from bare-sark or ‘bare-shirt’ referring to the berserkr’s habit
of going ‘naked’, or rather, unarmored into battle. Snorri Sturlusson
records this tradition in Ynglinga Saga relating that these warriors (whom
Snorri associated with the pagan god Oðin) 

…went without mailcoats, and were frantic as dogs or wolves; they
bit their shields and were strong as bears or boars; they slew men, but
neither fire nor iron could hurt them. This is known as ‘going berserk’

Others have contended that the term should be read bear-sark or
‘bear-shirt’ describing some form of animal-skin dress, mask or hair
style. This is clearly in keeping with Sinjotli and Sigmund’s donning
of magical wolf skins in the Saga of the Volsungs. The earliest recorded
use of the term berserkr occurs in the skaldic verse Haraldskvædi, a praise
work to the late ninth century Norwegian king Harald Finehair. This
described these warriors as “wolf-skins” (úlfheðnar) a term which also
appears in a number of later sagas including Grettirs Saga and Vatnsdæla
. This label is clearly suggestive of acquired magical shape shifting
qualities; with berserkr warriors being perceived as marginal figures who
blurred the boundaries between the human and animal worlds. Like
the Irish hero Chú Chulainn, the berserkr, too, was thought to actually
swell and change into bestial form, or at least to assume the ferocious
qualities of the wolf or bear. Kveldulf in Egils Saga was spoken of as
such a shapechanger, and Hrólf’s Saga Kraka tells of the hero, Bjarki, who assumed the shape of a bear in battle. These animal-like states
are also associated with the violent frenzy mentioned by Snorri in the
extract from Ynglinga Saga, above, and known as berserksgangr.

This frenzied state imbued the berserkr warrior with a magical immunity to weapons. Some berserkrs were thought to be inherently possessed
of this immunity while others performed rituals to induce it. This perceived immunity to weapons may also have been connected with the
animal-skin garments worn by the berserkr and associated with shape
shifting capabilities. Berserksgangr might have been induced through
the consumption of drugs such as the hallucinogenic mushrooms or
alcohol; practices which correlate generally with ritual usages. The
condition has been analysed by the psychologist Howard Fabing who
wrote a fascinating neurological enquiry into the phenomenon during
the 1950’s. In light of Thomas Jones’s chosen translation of the Middle
Welsh term ynfydyon, above, it is extremely interesting that, similarly,
Fabing associated the frenzied state of the Scandinavian warrior with

This condition is said to have begun with shivering, chattering of the
teeth, and chill in the body, and then the face swelled and changed its
color. With this was connected a great hot-headedness, which at last gave
over into a great rage, under which they howled as wild animals, bit the
edge of their shields, and cut down everything they met without discriminating between friend or foe. When this condition ceased, a great
dulling of the mind and feeble-ness followed, which could last for one
or several days.

Unsurprisingly, given their capability for such unpredictable behaviour, attitudes towards berserkr warriors appear to have been somewhat
ambivalent. Indeed, the berserkr’s place in society was limited by the
terror and violence that was associated with berserksgangr. As superb
warriors, they were due admiration; like the fían, berserkrs were employed as a kind of militia or mercenary force by powerful men. A key role
of the berserkr seems to have been as as a warrior attached to a king’s
retinue or bodyguard. Furthermore, a number of rulers are said to
have employed berserkr shock-troops at the front of their battle ranks;
a tactic clearly intended to terrify opposing forces. Outside of these
honourable roles, however, the berserkr became the stock villain of the
sagas, typified as murderous brutes. … berserkr warriors were also closely associated with uncontrollable sexual
violence and the abduction and rape of individuals, particularly
women.  Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish cleric writing during the first
decade of the thirteenth century, raised the following complaints concerning such warrior forebears: 

So outrageous and unrestrained were their ways that they ravished other
men’s wives and daughters; they seemed to have outlawed chastity and
driven it to a brothel…Husbands were tormented with fear, their wives
by the sport made of their bodies. Outrage was submitted to; respect
for matrimony disappeared and sex combined with violence became the
norm …

Later, in the same volume Saxo makes a further association between
the virilisation of youths and violent behaviour lamenting that the
young Danish warriors 

…would harry and pillage the neighborhood, and frequently spilt great
quantities of blood. They considered it manly and proper to devastate
homes, cut down cattle, rifle everything and take away vast hauls of booty, burn to the ground houses they had sacked, and butcher men and
women indiscriminately.

Another clerical commentator from the region, Adam of Bremen who
was writing in the 1070’s, somewhat closer to the events he described,
noted that such activities were characterised by indiscriminate slave-taking raids. Adam commented how these Viking warriors 

… pay tribute to the Danish king for leave to plunder the barbarians who
live about the sea in great numbers. Hence it also happens that the license
granted them with respect of enemies is frequently misused against their
own people. So true is this that they have no faith in one another, and as
soon as one of them catches another, he mercilessly sells him into slavery
either to one of his fellows or to a barbarian.

Although the berserkrs appear mainly in the saga materials, the twelfth-
century Icelandic law tract Grágás includes several provisions which
suggest that such warriors existed and that they created real problems
for the community. Under a section of the laws dealing with treatment
of homicide there are several provisions regarding the penalties for
raiding in Iceland. These refer to bands of men residing in “islands
or caves or fortified places or ships” who “take peoples property from
them against their will or beat or bind or wound people if they have
the power.” Grágás relates that such men might be slain with relative impunity whilst they were raiding and were clearly excluded from
kindred networks of compensation. Nonetheless it is made clear such
raiders could be summoned to a legal assembly and that they might  collude with individuals who remained within the community. Furthermore, a specific provision exists within Grágás regarding bereserksgangr,
it appears under a sub-section dealing with punishments for residual
pagan activities such as the worship heathen beings, and the use of
witchcraft and sorcery and states that

If a man falls into a berserk frenzy, the penalty is lesser outlawry, and
the same penalty applies to the men who are present unless they restrain
him—then they are liable to no penalty if they succeed in restraining him.
But if it happens again, the penalty is lesser outlawry.

Lesser outlawry ( fjorbaugsgarðr) was a sentence of three years’ banishment from the country, further suggesting that berserkr warriors and
their companions, like Icelandic raiders and indeed the Irish fían, might
be exiled and legally removed from their kin group and community.
Moreover, berserksgangr like the practice of díberg was clearly associated
with pagan and magical practices which were deemed unacceptable (but
were nonetheless still practised by certain elements) within Christianised
Icelandic society. Berserkr warriors therefore clearly display a number of
traits that are closely comparable to those of their ‘Celtic’ counterparts;
i.e. placing a high value on prowess and strength; indiscriminate violence, plunder, abduction and rape; semi-nakedness and/or distinctive
dress or adornments; an association with marginal locations and the
natural world; canine/ursine symbolism and ritualistic pre-Christian

– David Wyatt, Slaves and Warriors in Medieval Britain and Ireland, 800 -1200 (The Northern World). Brill: Leiden & Boston, 2009. pp. 94-101.

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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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