Consuming Violence

Slaveries in the Viking World and Beyond

We live in a world that sees itself as increasingly divided by violence, and all too often—among political pundits and serious scholars alike—these divisions are traced deep into the medieval past. Barbarian migrations and Islamic conquests tore the classical world asunder, setting up an enduring divide between East and West. As one scholar famously put it: “Charlemagne, without Muhammad, would have been inconceivable.”1

My research adopts a different perspective on these problems, reflecting on how shared economic and social networks perpetrated and perpetuated violence on a global scale, binding the early medieval world together. But I’m also resolved to show that the persons who suffered this violence should not be written off merely as victims—they often became a dynamic and invigorating presence in the societies that received them, even when those societies turned a blind eye to the migrants on their margins. And so with these thoughts in mind, we turn to one of the most celebrated accounts of early medieval violence:

In that year terrible portents came over the land of Northumbria and miserably frightened the people. There were immense flashes of lightening and fiery dragons seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed these signs, and a little after that, a raid by heathen men miserably devastated God’s church at Lindisfarne with looting and slaughter.

— The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, MS E (Peterborough Chronicle), s.a. 793 AD.

With this small band of pirates paying an unexpected visit on the English monastery at Lindisfarne, the Viking Age was born. Over the next two hundred years, chroniclers and correspondents documented the viking raiders who brought violence to their communities and took captives from their shores. Many of these captives were later sold as slaves or traded for material goods. My dissertation asks the simple question, “What happened to these people?”

When the Archbishop Rimbert came to the place called Schleswig (Hedeby) in the region of the Danes, he saw a number of Christians bound together and drawn into captivity. There was a pious woman among them who saw him from afar. She raised her voice and began to chant psalms so that he would recognize her as a Christian. And the bishop was moved to compassion. He leapt down from his horse and prepared to give all that he had for the captive.

— Anonymous, The Life of Saint Rimbert, ch. xviii (ca. 1000).

We know that some captives were traded locally, since slaves could be found even among the courts of enlightened despots like Charlemagne and Alfred the Great. Others made their way to Scandinavia, where missionary bishops found them driven in hordes. A few were traded further on, perhaps even to the furthest reaches of Scandinavian trade routes, deep into the heartlands of the ‘Abbasid caliphate.

When a boat arrives in the land of the Saqaliba (Ukraine) from Khazar territory, the king rides out and checks what is in each boat and levies a tithe on everything. When it is the viking Rus or another people coming with slaves, the king has a right to take for himself one head in ten.

— Ahmad ibn Fadlan, Account of the Northern Lands (ca. 922).

Scandinavian traders shipped human cargo south through modern-day Russia, where Arab travelers like the emissary Ahmad ibn Fadlan took note. But did these traders link slave raids in Western Europe to the slave markets of the Islamic world? Although texts help set the scene, this question can only be answered by the trowel. Archaeologists are already researching the Scandinavian import of silver coins known as dirhams. My research focuses on another Eastern import that’s found even earlier and in much greater quantity than silver—necklace beads.

The most desirable ornaments they have are beads. The Rus pay dearly for them, one dirham per bead. They thread them into necklaces for their wives.

— Ahmad ibn Fadlan, Account of the Northern Lands (ca. 922).

But my study doesn’t end with Western Europeans arriving in Eastern markets. Slaves were not merely human cargo—they were human beings. My research follows the impact of these slaves on Islamic law (sharia), which was being written down at the same time that the northern slave trade was entering its heyday. In these surprising texts, it’s possible to find jurists reflecting on slaves who could negotiate for their freedom, enter into contracts with their masters, save money, arrange loans, and appeal to the highest legal and moral authorities for judgment.

Muhammad’s wife Aisha said that Barira had come to her seeking help with her emancipation contract. She had to pay five ounces of gold in five yearly installments. Aisha said to her, ‘Do you think that if I pay the whole sum at once, your masters will sell you to me? If so, then I will free you and your wala (loyalty) will be due to me.’ Barira then went to her masters and told them about the offer. They said they would not agree unless her wala would be for them. Aisha continued: ‘I went to God’s Messenger and told him about it.’ God’s Messenger said to her, ‘Buy Barira and manumit her. The wala will be for the liberator.’

— Muhammad al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Bk. 50, ch. i (ca. 846).

So during the 800s, Western Europeans were shocked and dismayed by violence that shifted the slave trade out of their control and into the hands of Scandinavians. My dissertation uses necklace beads of glass and semiprecious stone to trace this shift, placing the chronicles of Western Europe into fresh dialogue with the legal and geographical texts of the Islamic world. And in doing so, I hope to bridge one divide that continues to perpetuate violence today.

  1. ^ Henri Pirenne, “Mahomet et Charlemagne,” Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire 1, no. 1 (1922), pp. 77-86, at p. 86: “Charlemagne, sans Mahomet, serait inconcevable.” Cf. Henri Pirenne, Mahomet et Charlemagne (Bruxelles: Nouvelle société et édition, 1937), p. 174: “Il est donc rigoureusement vrai de dire que, sans Mahomet, Charlemagne est inconcevable.”