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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

Merciless Medieval Merchants and Slave Traders


Viking selling slave girl to Persian merchants
painting Tom Lovell

Earliest proof of Frisian merchants, or kāpmon in Old Frisian language, trading in slaves dates from the seventh century. None other than Venerable Bede himself, the Father of English history, documented this criminal act. It was a merchant who was doing business in the London markets and also traded in slaves. In this post, we shed some light on this dark chapter of history.


Venerable Bede, the Northumbrian monk, describes the whole affair in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, 'the ecclesiastical history of the English people', written around the year 730. This is, in short, the story:


It was in 679 that in the kingdom of Lindsey the Battle of the Trent took place. A battle between the kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia. The kingdom of Mercia won, and ruled over that of Lindsey from then on.


Lower King Ælfwine of the Kingdom of Deira was killed during the Battle of the Trent. One of Ælfwine’s thegns, named Imma, was struck down with many others. But he wasn't dead. Badly injured, he lay on the battlefield among the slain men for the whole night. The next day, he regained consciousness, bound his wounds a bit, and sat up. Then he was noticed by his enemies, the Mercian warriors of King Æthelred. They brought him to one of their chieftains, a nobleman of King Æthelred. Venerable Bede gives no name for the nobleman. Imma pretended to be a poor married peasant and claimed that he had only brought supplies to the battlefield. The nobleman believed this and took him into his house. He promised to take care of his wounds. However, when they attempted to bind Imma to prevent him from fleeing, the fetters magically came loose somehow.


Why Imma couldn't be bound, was because of his brother Tunna who was a priest. Tunna thought Imma had died in battle and obviously started praying for the well-being of his brother's soul in the afterlife. This was the reason Imma was mysteriously freed from his fetters all the time. The nobleman got suspicious and started to inquire with Imma. Now, Imma told him the truth: that he was a thegn of King Ælfwine and that he had a brother-priest who was probably praying for him right now.


The nobleman could have killed him on the spot for his lies, and for the fact that Imma was an enemy. He didn't, because he had already promised Imma to take care of his wounds. And, who knows, the nobleman was a little impressed by the Deus ex machina concerning the flipping fetters. Instead, the nobleman sold Imma to a Frisian kāpmon 'merchant' in the London markets. Venerable Bede doesn't give the name of this Frisian trader, unfortunately. Neither does Bede say anything about the amount of silver the Frisian paid to the nobleman for the transaction. Then, after the transfer, no matter how hard the Frisian merchant tried, again no fetter remained fastened on Imma. They all came loose automatically. Of course, still thanks to the prayers of brother Tunna. Eventually, realizing that things were unmanageable and it cost too much time and money, the Frisian merchant gave Imma the possibility to ransom himself.


early-medieval London by Londonist

Slave Imma turned to King Hlothhere of Kent. Apparently, there were some favourable family ties. Indeed, King Hlothhere helped him out with the needed amount of money and/or silver, and Imma could pay his ransom to the Frisian businessman. Possibly, together with compensation for the future loss of revenue of the merchant. After that, the thane of King Ælfwine was free to go, at last. Imma returned to his brother-priest Tunna and to his land, which in the meantime was annexed by the Kingdom of Mercia. But who's counting? He was a freeman again.


End of the story as recorded by Venerable Bede.


As an anecdote, it's interesting to mention that a hundred years later, again a Frisian merchant pops up in Britain. This time in the city of York. It's not nice either, what he did. This merchant killed the son of a count. Because of this incident, the whole Frisian colony, apparently permanently living in York, had to leave the country. Clergyman Ludger, later to become Saint Ludger (read our posts Liudger, the first Frisian apostle and One of history's enlightening hikes, that of Bernlef to learn more about him), was instructed by Alcuin to accompany the Frisian merchants back home to Frisia. This, to the great chagrin of Ludger, who had just returned from barbaric heathen Frisia and who had hoped to devote himself to study for a while. Now, much too quickly, he ended up in barren and wet Frisia again. The story is recorded in the ninth-century Vita sancti Liudgerii.



Epilogue


Firstly, we must confess that the case of Imma in the year 679 isn't the earliest proof of Frisian merchants trading in slaves. Already in the year 29 they did. No we didn't miss a number. Really, it was the year AD 29. The writing tablet found at Tolsum in province Friesland is an agreement between a slave of a certain Iulia Secunda and made at Giricaemium, probably the modern village of Winsum in province Friesland (Galestin 2009).


Again in the year 82, Frisians are involved in the slave business. Frisians, together with men from the Suebi tribe, captured a group of renegades who had deserted the Roman army on the lower reaches of the river Rhine and had fled Britannia with commandeered ships. Some were killed, and others were sold as slaves by Frisian merchants who happened to be nearby. Everything according to the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (c. 55 - c. 117). Taking slaves continued as a common practice during the Viking Age, as seen in the records of Rūs (i.e., Swedish Norsemen) merchants on the river Dnieper in the tenth century (Raffield 2019), and many centuries later.


Slaves were an integral part of early medieval society. Taking slaves during battle or during a raid was simply the thing you did. How economically important the trade in slaves was for Frisian traders is hard to tell from the old texts. When large parts of Frisia came under Frankish and thus Christian rule, selling slaves to pagans was no longer allowed. We know this from title XVII of the late eighth-century Lex Frisionum.

Qui mancipium in paganas gentes vendiderit, weregildum suum ad partem regis solvere cogatur.

He who has sold a slave to heathen people, shall be compelled to pay his weregeld [blood money] to the king.


Selling slaves to fellow Christians was, of course, still allowed...


In the Vita et miracula sancti Goaris 'Life and miracles of Saint Goar' written by monk Wandalbert of Prüm in the first half of the ninth century, another example of Frisian merchants using slaves can be found. It's the account of a shipwreck on the river Rhine near the Lorelei rock at Sankt Goar. See our post Little prayers at the Lorelei rock for more about these Frisian Rhine skippers.


Slavery and racial discrimination (and worse), are in origin two separate things. Slavery was a universal practice, and, at first, had nothing to do with colour, religion, nor race. In the North Atlantic slave trade, the captors often recognized the nobility of their victims. When Vikings enslaved Gaels, Welsh, and Anglo-Saxons and forced them into a life of servitude on Iceland, these slaves were often remembered as 'men of good family'. On the other hand, when Vikings robbed African slaves in what is now Spain and brought them to Ireland, they called them blámenn 'blue men' for their dark skin.


However, with the rise of the colonial powers in the early modern period, slavery and racism were merged to justify gross human exploitation and degradation. The genetic mirror of this cruel past can still be seen in the African American and Icelandic male population, since genes do not lie. Read our post With the White Rabbit down the Hole.


At the same time, Barbary 'Berber' and Salé corsairs captured quite staggeringly high numbers of Europeans, or Christian slaves as they were called, and sold them as slaves. Slaves were captured at sea or raided from coastal towns and villages all the way up to Iceland. Privateers, annex pirates of the Barbary Coast and the Kingdom of Salé, had their base in North Africa, which are today the countries Libya, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. It's estimated that between 1520 and 1830, one million Europeans were sold as slaves (Doedens & Houter 2022). Another estimate is that between 1530 and 1780, at least one million European Christians were enslaved by Muslims, and possibly one and a quarter million. When you compare this with the slave trade from West Africa, an equal number of Europeans and West Africans were enslaved during the first two centuries of the early modern period (Davis 2003).


 

Wealhaz - The West Germanic term walhaz means 'foreigner', or more specifically 'a person of Celtic or Romance speech'. In other words, walhaz is the perspective of a Germanic-speaking neighbour of the Roman Empire, living in what is now Flanders, Germany, and the Netherlands (Schrijver 2014).


On the Continent, the term 'walhaz' survived as 'wahl' in German (e.g. Walchensee) and 'waal' in Dutch (e.g. town of Waalwijk and region Walonia) to denote people who spoke Romance. A walnut is, therefore, 'a nut from France', where the people speak Romance.


In Old English, 'walhaz' developed into 'wealh' or 'wealhas' and retained the inherited meaning of 'foreigner' to indicate (interestingly) the indigenous people of Britain, being of lower status. In the West Saxon dialect of Old English, 'wealh' was even a synonym for slave.


In the epic poem Beowulf, the queen of King Hrothgar of the Scyldings is named Wealhtheow, stemming from Wæl-theo, meaning 'chosen servant/slave (of the gods)' (Shippey 2022).

 

During the Early Middle Ages, slaves could buy themselves free if their kin raised the silver or gold for it. Relevant in this early-medieval story documented by Venerable Bede is that the (surely still heathen) Frisian merchant acts as a middleman. It was the nobleman who made someone from a neighbouring people (i.e. Northumbria) a slave and who sold him to the merchant. The Frisian merchant probably could sell the (Christian) slave across the North Sea at for example Dorestat, Birka or Ribe for a higher price. Nevertheless, if a slave was able to compensate the merchant in time, the latter would simply set him free. Who knows, maybe even shake hands to seal the transaction. Now, the trader had new space left on his ships to stock up, for example, some more high-quality English wool instead of slaves. After all, it was all about making a profit. To quote De Maesschalck (2019): "Especially the Frisians turned out to be shrewd merchants who dominated the trade between Germany, France, England, and Scandinavia."


convoy Frisian merchants arriving in southern Scandinavia

If someone knows the name of the Frisian merchant concerned, let us know so we can indict him for the International Criminal Tribunal for Frisia (ICTF) at Aurich in Ostfriesland, Germany.

 


Note 1 - The Old Frisian verb kāpinge means 'to trade' or 'to purchase'. In modern Mid-Frisian language, the verb is keapje for 'to buy'. The medieval Norwegian trading town is called Kaupang, of which archaeological research has proven that Frisians were established here. The Old Norwegian word kaupangr means a marketplace. We let the reader draw conclusions.


If the reader is interested in Frisian merchants and the magnitude of the free trade of capitalistic Frisia during the Early Middle Ages, read our posts Porcupines bore U.S. bucks and To the end where it all began: ribbon Ribe.


Note 2 - That Frisians merchants could be ruthless is illustrated with the murder of the bishop of Utrecht, Conrad of Swabia, in the year 1099. A Frisian merchant allegedly murdered the bishop after the holy man had imposed an additional tax on Frisia (Henstra 2012). Taxes are so much as red tape to Frisians.


Note 3 - The early-medieval law codes of north-western Europe with their extensive injury tariffs, distinguish between different castes like noblemen, freemen and serfs. Read our post You killed a man? That’ll be 1 weregeld, please.


Note 4 - Concerning Frisians taking slaves and offering the possibility of ransom, on the Faroe Islands a children rhyme named Frísa Vísa ‘Frisian song’ exists about a girl being kidnapped by rude Frisians, and who tries to ransom herself. Read our post Latið meg ei á Frísaland fordervast!



Suggested music

Adventures of Stevie V, Dirty Cash (Money Talks) (1989)

Sade, Slave Song (2000)


Further Reading

Abulafia, D., The boundless sea. A human history of the oceans (2019)

Arrighi, C., The Role of Skin Colour in the Sixth Century A.D. (2022)

Bakker, G., Friezen werden rijk dankzij de handel in slaven (1994)

Brink, S., A History of Slavery in the Viking Age (2021)

Dan, P., Historie van Barbaryen en des zelfs Zee-Roovers (1684)

Davis, R.C., Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters. White slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800 (2003)

De Maesschalck, E., De graven van Vlaanderen (861-1384) (2019)

Doedens, A. & Houter, J., Zeevaarders in de Gouden Eeuw (2022)

Emmer, P.C., De Nederlandse slavenhandel 1500-1850 (2000)

Galestin, M., Het Romeinse schrijfplankje uit het Friese Tolsum eindelijk ontcijferd (2009)

Henkes, B., Sporen van het slavernijverleden in Fryslân (2021)

Hines, J., The Anglo-Frisian Question (2017)

Historiek, Jonge Amsterdammers verdwenen in slavernij (2023)

Holder, A., The Venerable Bede. On the Song of Songs and Selected Writings (2011)

Hondius, D., Jouwe, N., Stam, D. & Tosch, J., The Netherlands Slavery Heritage Guide (2019)

Humphrey, A.C., “They Accuse Us of Being Descended from Slaves” Settlement History, Cultural Syncretism, and the Foundation of Medieval Icelandic Identity (2009)

Kok, de G., Walcherse ketens. De trans-Atlantische slavenhandel en de economie van Walcheren, 1755-1780 (2020)

Looijenga, A., Popkema, A. & Slofstra, B., Een meelijwekkend volk. Vreemden over Friezen van de oudheid tot de kerstening (2017)

Nieuwenhuijsen, K., Lex Frisionum (website)

Nijdam, H., Law and Political Organization of the Early Medieval Frisians (c. AD 600-800) (2021)

Price, N., The Little-Known Role of Slavery in Viking Society (2020)

Raffied, B., The slave markets of the Viking world: comparative perspectives on an ‘invisible archaeology’ (2019)

Schrijver, P., Language Contact and the Origins of the Germanic Languages (2014)

Shippey, T., Beowulf and the North before the Vikings (2022)


Credit featured image Tom Lovell.

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