Mary Valente’s recent article ‘Castrating Monks: Vikings, Slave Trade, and the Value of Eunuchs’ suggests that one of the main reasons behind the beginning of rise in attacks against monasteries from Ireland to France was to “capture literate young males who could be turned into eunuchs and sold off to the east.”
Earlier studies have indicated that during the Early Middle Ages one of the main trade goods going from Western Europe to Byzantium and the Middle East was human slaves. Valente writes that the Vikings fulfilled a niche demand within this industry by targeting boys and young men in their raids. They could be sent to places such as Venice, where they would be castrated and shipped off eastwards.
Historical records point to examples of this slave trade taking place – such as a 10th century biography of St.Nian tells the story of 200 churchmen who were captured by the Vikings and taken to the slave markets in Venice. Valente writes, “religious men were being captured and were being sold through centers where castration was being practiced regularly, and records exist of large numbers of young men being sold specifically as eunuchs, suggesting that some slaves may have been taken for precisely that purpose – feeding the eastern markets for young, educated castrates.”
The Byzantine and Abbasid empires were the destinations for these castrated slaves – where there was great demand for them. With the creation of the caliph’s harem in Baghdad, there was “a massive need for trustworthy guards, a need that was filled by eunuchs.” These men would be servants to the women children in the harem, even acting as teachers. They would soon start filling other roles in the bureaucracy, or work in the palaces of regional officials. ”In the end,” Valante writes, “the expanding uses for slaves during the time of the early Abbasids, including the need for large numbers of enslaved eunuchs, drove much of the slave trade around the Mediterranean basin. The Viking raids, which began barely a generation after the Abbasid dynasty seized the Caliphate, met part of that need.”
Byzantium also required eunuchs to serve in the imperial palace, where they held a variety of important positions. Some military commanders were eunuchs, while in the Eastern church eunuchs could rise to the position of Patriarch. Valante adds, “Not all eunuchs were successful, however, and those who never became part of wealthy households could still be found around the city as entertainers and even prostitutes in lower neighbourhoods.”
Mary Valante, who is a Professor of History at Appalachian State University, has done extensive research on the Vikings and their impact on the medieval world. Her other works include The Vikings in Ireland: Settlement, trade and urbanization, which was published in 2008.
Valante’s new article appears in Castration and Culture in the Middle Ages, edited by Larissa Tracy and published by D.S. Brewer. It contains 15 articles that include archaeological studies of eunuchs, historical accounts of castration in trials of combat, the mutilation of political rivals in medieval Wales, Anglo-Saxon and Frisian legal and literary examples of castration as punishment, castration as comedy in the Old French fabliaux, the prohibition against genital mutilation in hagiography, and early-modern anxieties about punitive castration enacted on the Elizabethan stage.