Merciless medieval merchants
Updated: Jul 25
The earliest proof of Frisian merchants trading in slaves dates from the seventh century. It was Venerable Bede himself, the Father of English history, who documented this criminal act. It was a merchant doing business on the London market, who was also traded in slaves. In this blog 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 AD 730. This is, in short, the story:
It was in AD 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.
The 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 was not dead. Badly injured, he lay on the battlefield between the slain men for the whole night. The next day he regained consciousness, bounded 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. Bede gives no name of the nobleman. Imma pretended to be a poor married peasant and said he only brought supplies to the battlefield. The nobleman believed this and took him in his house. He took care of his wounds. But, when Imma was to be bound to prevent him from fleeing, the fetters were loosed somehow.
The reason why Imma could not 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 wellbeing of his brother's soul. This was the reason Imma was freed each the time. This 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 the fact Imma was an enemy. He did not because he had promised Imma to take care of his wounds. Instead, the nobleman sold him to a Frisian merchant in London. Venerable Bede does not 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 trader tried, again no fetter stayed fastened on Imma. They all came loose automatically. Eventually, the Frisian trader gave Imma the possibility to ransom himself.
Imma turned to King Hlothhere of Kent. Apparently, there were some favourable family ties. Indeed, King Hlothhere helped him out with money or silver, and Imma could pay his ransom to the Frisian business man. Possibly, together with a compensation for the future loss of revenue of the merchant. After that, the thegn of King Ælfwine was free to go at last. Imma returned to his brother Tunna and to his land, which in the meantime was annexed by the Kingdom of Mercia.
Slaves were an integral part of early-medieval society. Taking slaves during battle or during a raid, was simply the thing you did. It was still a common practice during the Viking Age, centuries later. Slavery and racial discrimination (and worse) are in origin two seperate things. Slavery was a universal practice and, at first, had nothing to do with coulour or race. In the North Atlantic slave trade the captors often recognized the nobility of their victims. When a bit later in time Vikings enslaved Gaels, Welsh, and Anglo-Saxons and forced into a life of servitude in Iceland, they are remembered as 'men of good family'. However, with the rise of the colonial powers in the Late Middle Ages, slavery and racism were merged, among others to justify the gross human exploitation and degradation. The genetic mirror of this past can still be seen since genes do not lie (read out blog post With the White Rabbit down the Hole).
Slaves during the Early Middle Ages could buy themselves free if her or his kin raised the silver for it. Relevant in this story is that the (heathen) Frisian 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 Frisian merchant in London. The merchant probably could sell the (Christian) slave across the North Sea, at Dorestat or Birka, for a higher price. Nevertheless, if a slave was able to compensate the merchant before, he would set him free. Who knows maybe even shake hands to seal the transaction. Now, the trader had space left on his ships to stock up, for example, some more high quality English wool. It was all about making a profit.
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) in Aurich, Ostfriesland.
Note 1: If you are interested in the Frisian merchants and the magnitude of the free trade of capitalistic Frisia during the Early Middle Ages, read our blog post How the porcupine gave birth to the US buck.
Note 2: The early-medieval law codes of northwestern Europe with their extensive injury tariffs distinguish between different castes like noblemen, freemen and serfs. Read our blog post You killed a man? That'll be 1 weregeld, please.
Note 3: Concerning Frisians taking slaves and offering the possibility of ransom, on the Faroe Islands a children rhyme named Frísa Vísa 'Frisian song' exitsts about a girl being kidnapped by rude Frisians and who tries to ransom herself. Read our blog post Latið meg ei á Frísaland fordervast!
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Emmer, P.C., De Nederlandse slavenhandel 1500-1850 (2000)
Hines, J., The Anglo-Frisian Question (2017)
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)