Slavery, Vikings, and Charlemagne

Here is a little bit of synchronicity in my historical reading. I am not sure if it “proves” anything, other than the fact that it is difficult to sort people into “good guys” and “bad guys.”

1. At the library, I recently picked up The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: New Directions in Early Medieval Studies, ed. Jennifer R. Davis and Michael McCormick.

I wanted to look for some material on agriculture—the adoption of the three-field system, wheeled plows, etc.—but I was sucked into a chapter entitled, “Strong Rulers—Weak Economy? Rome, the Carolingians and the Archaeology of Slavery in the First Millennium AD” by a German scholar, Joachim Henning.

Here are two figures that I have lifted from his work:

As I used to tell my students when we talked about American religion and slavery, the Roman empire back in Jesus’ time ran on slavery the way that our civilization runs on petroleum. (And Jesus had nothing to say about it.)

Slavery requires chains and shackles, lest the slaves wander away. Figure 2.1 is a map of archaeological sites (farms, villas, plantations) containing shackles.

The second figure graphs shackle finds over time in Gaul (France, roughly). They rise during the Roman times, then plunge during the Merovingian dynasty, during the so-called Dark Ages.

But then shackle finds—and hence presumably slavery—rise during the Carologian dynasty. Its founder, Charles Martel (ca. 688-741), stopped the Islamic expansion into Europe. His grandson Charlemagne (Charles the Great) is a huge figure in medieval western European history, but his actions included the slaughter of more than 4,000 Saxons who resisted conversion to Christianity.

There was a European slave trade in Pagan, polytheistic Roman times—and it continued into Christian times, up through the 1400s, at least—and then it was time for Columbus!

2. Meanwhile, a British historian suggests that Viking raids on Europe might have been payback for Charlemagne’s forced-conversion program. (Via the Covenant of the Goddess NPIO blog.)

But before you annoint the Vikings as the pro-Pagan “good guys,” remember that they were in the slave trade too, particularly in what is now Ireland and Russia.

As some people say about their relationships on Facebook, “It’s complicated.”

5 thoughts on “Slavery, Vikings, and Charlemagne

  1. Apuleius Platonicus

    The distribution of "Roman" shackles seems odd. The demographic and economic center of the Roman world was in the East. Also, since the Romans invented neither iron nor slavery, what about all the non-Roman iron shackles?

    As you point out Germanic peoples practiced slavery, as did Celts, Balts, Greeks, Etruscans, Carthaginians, Samnites, etc, etc, etc. But maybe other (non-Roman) people were already using those cool plastic handcuffs?

  2. Chas S. Clifton


    Yes, the center of the Roman Empire moved to the east, but perhaps the archaeological record is better in the west.

    Or perhaps this argument is being made primarily about Western Europe.

  3. Chas S. Clifton


    Yes, the center of the Roman Empire moved to the east, but perhaps the archaeological record is better in the west.

    Or perhaps this argument is being made primarily about Western Europe.

  4. Rombald

    Fascinating post, especially the second figure.

    I agree with Apuleius' about whether the shackles were Roman. Eg. the two in southern Scotland date from 1 to 150 CE, and that area was only under Roman rule for about 20 years, round about 150 CE (the time of the Antonine Wall). They might have been for the Roman-focussed slave trade, though – in "Settlement and Society" (ed. TC CHampion), it's argued that Europe was ransacked by the Roman hunger for slaves, with constant wars between tribes for that reason, rather like 18th-century Africa.

    I'm fascinated about how slavery was so much higher under the Romans and Carolingians – I think empires are a BAD THING. Charlemagne self-consciously styled himself after the Romans, calling his empire the Holy Roman Empire, and being crowned by the pope.

    I think that Rome, supported by Christianity, has cast a long curse over Europe. Not only Charlemagne, but the German and Russian rulers have posed as Romans, hence Czar and Kaiser. I long to see a genuinely non-Mediterraneocentric view of European history.

    Charlemagne was a monster. I never understand how the Saxon massacre has been hushed up so well. As for the idea about the Viking raids being a counter-attack, I'm surprised that's presented as news. I read it years ago, in Else Roesdahl's book, if I remember rightly. The Danes also built the Daneverke, a huge earthwork near the modern German border, to defend themselves from Charlemagne.

    The best book about slavery I've read is David Davis' "Inhuman Bondage". It's focussed on the Americas, but an early section deals with mediaeval European slavery, and shows that the trade, run mainly by Venice, took slaves from Crimea, selling them throughout Europe and Islam, for the galleys, brothels and sugar-cane plantations. The trade was so important that "Slav" replaced the older words for slave ("servus" and "mancipium" in Latin; "thrall" in English) in most languages.

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