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Vikings and Slavs

4 December 2014

Member Gary Gilligan sent in an interesting link to put up – go to www.ancient-origins.net/history/headless-vikings-dorset-002382 … which is in fact a story that was at BBC a couple of years ago. It has also been back in the news since then as the bones have been analysed more fully – and now it appears to have percolated far and wide. We don't know why the locals decided to butcher a group of Viking warriors who appear to have surrendered – as they were unarmed at the point of execution, and buried enmasse. However, does this mean the locals (or a group of A/S warriors) were especially vindictive. In recent years the Vikings have been portrayed as not the bloodthirsty pillagers as the prejudiced Christian monks saw them but rather nice immigrants as they settled down and took up farming. The fact that other people had owned the farm land prior to their arrival is usually ignored and the fact that monks were usually butchered for the sake of a few religious objects made of silver or gold is also conveniently glossed over. The BBC History magazine even had an article a few months ago that seemed to say the Vikings were justified in pillaging the monasteries because Christian missionaries had been trying to convert them. The fact is, Christian conversion began after the Viking raids, as a means of the Church overcoming what was seen as a tribulation for Christianity. They took the positive step of converting the pagan Vikings as a response to their violence. Christianity is not fatalistic.

The Vikings never gained control of the southern counties of England and we may assume the locals were not just unfriendly but well organised. Never the less all the coasts and rivers of Britain were being regularly breached by Viking boats with men armed to the teeth and in search of plunder. A large part of that plunder was slaves. In the 8th to 10th centuries AD the Vikings were the leading slave traders – and many of their raiding parties were designed to seek out women and children to sell on the slave markets of the Islamic world (which included southern Spain, North Africa, Egypt, and the Middle East at large). Arabs did not like the idea of actual physical labour, and slaves fulfilled that function, from heavy labour to the role of house servant. The Arab Empire was at its zenith at the time of the Vikings and the term slave actually comes from Slav, as so many slavic peoples from the steppes and from eastern Europe were captured and sold into the Islamic markets in western Asia. These were primarily peasants. The Vikings that raided Britain looted and pillaged and a major part of the loot was human captives. They were more numerous than gold cups in churches. They could be sold in Spain or in Morocco – or anywhere in the Islamic world. For the origin of the word slave go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_in_medieval_Europe

The moral of the story is that this group of Vikings discovered in a pit during road construction was conceived as people that were intent on killing the locals (menfolk) and enslaving their women and offspring. Of course, not all the captives were sold – some of them were kept by the Vikings and in effect sired their children. The genetics of Icelandic Vikings shows that many of the female genes have an Irish origin – and centres such as Dublin were set up not just as fortresses against the locals but as places where raiding parties sallied forth and that included the taking of slaves. The Irish had an elaborate system of hiding their women and children during times of danger – but many of them must have become victims in order for these underground bolts to have been built in the first instance.

What looks to us like barbaric behaviour, the killing of a group of young men that had been captured, may have been in response to a Viking atrocity. We don't know. If you think your wife and offspring is going to be sold as slaves and end up in a miserable existence at the beck and call of cruel taskmasters you have every right to be brutal if you catch up with some of them. The medieval world was not a pleasant place. It was the Church that allowed people to take a different course to naked revenge – but we should not assume this was always so.

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