The Scale of Slave Raiding and the Slave Trade in Northumbria and Ireland, 7th-11th Centuries

The Scale of Slave Raiding and the Slave Trade in Northumbria and Ireland, 7th-11th Centuries

By Janel M. Fontaine

Paper given at the 2014 International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds

15th century map British Isles - Photo: Brooklyn Museum

Introduction: Slave raiding and the slave trade in early medieval Northumbria and Ireland were transcultural and inter-regional processes, involving the enslavement and transportation of people across permeable borders. This conflict and exchange linked groups throughout these regions, which is why they merit examination as an interconnected whole. Ireland and Northumbria were so linked during the seventh through the eleventh centuries, making it possible to compare and contrast slave raiding and trade over an extended period.

In present historiography, English slavery is building momentum, but Irish slavery remains surprisingly under-studied, and tends to focus on Viking activity. In both regions, the subject lags behind studies of the Continental slave trade. The lack of connections made between slavery in England and Ireland remains a gaping hole in the scholarship. This is especially true since each functioned as a raiding base or trade outlet for the other.

I hope to demonstrate that slave raiding prior to the Vikings was an opportunistic system in which captives were the byproducts of war, and the slave trade was an infrequent, ad hoc process. The merchants supporting this sporadic trade dealt in slaves occasionally and played no part in enslavement. With the development of the Scandinavian trade system, Viking raiders became both suppliers and merchants. They encouraged the English and Irish to become suppliers as well by offering a larger outlet, turning the slave trade into a profitable enterprise. As a result, the volume of the slave trade increased dramatically, thereby fundamentally altering the scope of these already well-established practices.

But it would be a lie to claim there was a wealth of sources available. Nearly all those surviving for Ireland and Northumbria occur in a highly skewed or ambiguous context. Annals and histories present enslavement relative to armed conflict, making the situation seem entirely political. Hagiography mentions slavery only when it comes into conflict with salvation, making it a dichotomy of pagans and outsiders, and Christians and insiders. Legal texts may address the slave trade as either an ideological tradition or as a developing concern of state-building. These gaps in the evidence make it difficult to answer such basic questions as: who were the slave raiders and who were the merchants? In what context were people enslaved? Despite this, it is critical to remember a lack of sources need not denote lack of slavery. From the Roman period we have only one textual reference to slave trading in northern Britain, in a few lines of Justinian’s Digest. And yet, we accept that the slave trade was a fact of Romano-British life.

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