The Viking slave trade: entrepreneurs or heathen slavers?

Originally published in Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2009), Medieval History (pre-1500), Volume 17

European and Irish society long before the Vikings arrived. St Patrick was first brought to Ireland as a captive, and slave-raiding across the Irish Sea is attested (in both directions) at the time when Roman power collapsed in Britain. There is no evidence, however, of large-scale slave-raiding in Ireland in the century prior to the Vikings’ first recorded raids. Slaves were, nevertheless, obtained by other means—as prisoners of war, or in lieu of debts that could not be paid. In addition, parents occasionally sold their children or gave themselves into slavery as a desperate measure during times of famine.

When the Vikings came to raid the coasts of Ireland, people, along with ecclesiastical metalwork and cattle, were portable goods that could be taken off in ships. The Annals of Ulster record that in AD 821 Howth, Co. Dublin, was raided and ‘a great booty of women was carried away’. Viking leaders also realised that they could obtain a quick and sizeable profit by ransoming high-status captives back to their communities or families. From the 830s a number of high-profile figures were seized (usually kings or bishops), who were later released (presumably for a fee) or who were ‘killed at the ships’ of the Vikings—perhaps because hostage negotiations failed or because the captives chose to put up a fight.
The late ninth-century Life of St Findan has a remarkable account of one individual’s travail at the hands of the Vikings. Findan (a man of noble stock from Leinster) was sent to ransom his sister, who had been taken by Vikings. Things went badly and Findan was himself captured, although some of the Vikings argued that it was wrong to seize negotiators and he was soon freed. Findan nevertheless was taken by Vikings on another occasion and carried off to the Orkney Islands, where he eventually escaped and made his way to the Continent. A curious feature of the account is that Findan’s second capture was aided by an Irish conspirator. Political alliances between Vikings and Irish are recorded in the annals from the 840s. In the tenth and eleventh centuries we hear of Irish kings gathering captives as the booty of war, presumably so that they too could profit from the burgeoning slave markets established in Ireland’s major ports.

What was the fate of those captured by Vikings? The Life of Findan suggests that some were sold on to Viking colonies in Britain, while recent DNA studies suggest that many went to Iceland. A sensational story is also found in a thirteenth-century Icelandic saga concerning an Irish princess called Melkorka who was brought to Iceland as a slave. Melkorka pretended to be dumb, and it was only after she had borne a child to her owner that her Irish pedigree was discovered. Laxdaela Saga presents one of several medieval stories that circulated about Irish princesses in Iceland. These probably reflect later fantasies about exotic noble beauties rather than historical reality. Another destination for slaves exported from Ireland was the east. The comparatively sophisticated Islamic and Byzantine empires produced many luxury goods that were sought after by Viking traders, and there is archaeological evidence for imports from these regions, including Byzantine silk and Arabic coins, in Ireland. These high-status goods were exchanged for ‘unmanufactured’ items from northern Europe, including slaves and furs.

The destination of slaves was only one aspect of their fate; their treatment was another. The Arabic geographer Ibn Fadlan gives a very dark account of the way the Vikings treated their female slaves, which included human sacrifice. There is some evidence for this in an insular context. At Ballateare on the Isle of Man a wealthy Viking was buried with many slaves, including a young female who had been killed by a savage blow across the top of her skull. Her remains lay towards the top of the warrior’s burial mound, mixed in with the cremated remains of his animals. An eleventh-century poem, Moriuht, purports to tell the tale of an Irish poet and his family who were captured by Vikings. The poem is an outrageous attack by a rival, who delights in claims that Moriuht was urinated upon and gang-raped by his captors.
There is no doubt that people living in eastern coastal districts of Ireland feared seizure by Vikings. Probably very few slaves were sacrificed to heathen gods. Most would have ended up living alongside their new owners, in Ireland or abroad, required to do the dirtier and more laborious work of the household. Whether owners were relatively kind (eventually freeing their dependants and endowing them with land) or whether they treated their slaves worse than their livestock was probably a matter of luck.

Not all slaves accepted their condition. A few escaped; one, an Irish bishop held on Dalkey Island in 940, died in the attempt. The Icelandic Book of Settlements tells a story of a revolt by Irish slaves in the early days of the Scandinavian colony, but in this tale the escapees were all killed. It is possible that some of the wars fought between Irish and Vikings were fuelled by accusations that the enemy had made slaves of their people. In 980 the Southern Uí Néill king Maelechlainn stormed Dublin. He was credited with releasing all the Irish slaves in the port from captivity. This may have been a wise political move as well as an act of charity; it served as a rallying point for a king who sought supremacy across Ireland, and it imposed an economic disadvantage on his defeated enemies. In the late tenth century the fortunes of Viking rulers in Ireland were in decline. They suffered a series of defeats at the hands of powerful Irish kings. In these situations the tables were turned. Irish kings now seized human booty from the defeated Viking armies or towns. Their justification seems to have been that the inhabitants of Viking towns were foreigners bearing the sins of their ancestors.

Decline of the slave trade
Notwithstanding the significant defeats suffered by the Viking towns, they remained economically powerful in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and commerce in slaves continued. There is greater evidence for the involvement of Irish kings in this lucrative business in the eleventh century. There are also reports of slaves being paid as tribute, or in return for military service. In 1098 ships from Dublin supported the Welsh of Anglesey against the Normans, but they were induced to change sides by a Norman earl with promises of ‘captives . . . of young men and maidens’. A near-contemporary Welsh source reports with relish that the earl ‘assembled from afar all the hags—toothless, humped, lame, one-eyed, troublesome, feeble’ to give as payment to the ‘traitors’, and at the sight of them the Dubliners weighed anchor and sailed away.
A significant blow was dealt to the slave market of Dublin in 1102 when trafficking in human cargo was banned in England. This led to the breakdown of exchange networks in this particular commodity, although some illicit trading may have continued from the port of Bristol, where Irish merchants were accused of carrying unwitting visitors off in their ships.

The Anglo-Norman invaders of Ireland used the persistence of the slave trade as a justification for conquest. Any English slaves in Ireland were to be freed, according to a degree of the Council of Armagh in 1171. It is not clear whether there were many English slaves in Ireland at this time, but it certainly suited the invaders to seize the moral high ground. Trading in slaves had been abolished in areas under Norman rule, partly on religious grounds as a movement for spiritual reform spread through Christendom, but also for economic reasons. Across large areas of Europe population growth meant that lower classes of freemen were forced to accept deteriorating conditions of employment: slavery was no longer necessary. The Normans opposed slavery but supported a feudal system that saw people of the lowest ranks effectively enslaved as serfs.

Viking slave-raids on Ireland seemed fearful and abhorrent to contemporaries, despite the fact that slavery was already an integral part of Irish society. Perhaps this fear was fuelled by the alien ways and heathenism of the first Viking raiders and their method of slave acquisition, which operated outside the norms of Irish society. Despite this, over time, non-Viking groups became willing to participate in similar slaving activities in Ireland and elsewhere. How important slavery was to the economy of the Viking Age ports in Ireland is unclear. Contemporary sources perhaps tell us more about the emotions that were aroused by the capture and sale of individuals than about the commercial significance of these transactions.
Medieval slave-traders sought to depersonalise their victims (perhaps to soothe their own consciences) by identifying them as low-born, criminals, foreigners, or members of an opposing political group. In passing judgement on medieval crimes against humanity, it is worth remembering that such labels have also been used in modern times when denying people basic human rights. HI

Clare Downham is a lecturer in Celtic Studies at the University of Aberdeen.

Further reading:
C. Downham, Viking kings of Britain and Ireland: the dynasty of Ívarr to AD 1014 (Edinburgh, 2007).
P. Holm, ‘The slave trade of Dublin, ninth to twelfth centuries’, Peritia 5 (1986), 317–45.
F. Kelly, A guide to early Irish law (Dublin, 1988).
A. Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, 789–1070 (Edinburgh, 2007).


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