It may come as a shock to learn that Viking Dublin had one of the largest slave markets in Europe along its docks and quays! It may shock you even more to learn that the trading of slaves existed in Ireland long before the time of the Vikings!! Saint Patrick anyone?
There are lots of accounts of the slave market between Britain and Ireland at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire in Britain at the end of the 4th century. The majority of the accounts, however, tell us that a trade in slaves existed, but don’t necessarily tell us how the trade and market functioned.
What we do know is that there were primarily three ways people were brought into slavery. Some were captured in Viking raids, or in the battles of king against king, and taken as prisoners of war. Some were given to slave owners and traders to pay off debts! Slaves were a valuable commodity in the Viking age and could fetch the trader a pretty penny. Others voluntarily gave themselves, and even their children, into slavery in a desperate exchange for food during times of famine.
Depiction of slavery at Dublin’s docks in Dublinia
People were a valuable export for Ireland during the Viking age. Vikings took Irishmen and Irishwomen as slaves, or thralls in Old Norse, to establish control after a raid as quickly as possible. These slaves could then be used by the Vikings themselves, sent back to Scandinavia, or used as a bartering tool for expensive goods from eastern markets. Excavations in Dublin have uncovered large slave chains which would have been tied around the neck of those captured to prevent them escaping. Dublin’s port was an ideal location for a market importing and exporting people throughout Europe.
Viking Period Slave collar, St. John’s Lane, Dublin © National Museum of Ireland
Life as a Viking slave was exactly as you might imagine. Many captured slaves would have been sent abroad, but the majority would have lived alongside their owners forced to spend long days carrying out the dirtier and tougher aspects of house and farm work. Although bleak, this prospect was a better option than the fate of some slaves… Bodies have been found in tombs that have died as a result of decapitation and severe blows to the head, which suggest that slaves were sometimes offered as gifts to Viking gods. Whether or not you worked for a relatively kind owner who may eventually set you free or give you some land, or were treated as poorly as animals was entirely a matter of luck!
The slave trade in Dublin came to an end more through external pressures than anything else. A law passed in England in 1102 in which human trafficking was banned, was a severe blow to the trade. It meant that Ireland could not buy slaves from or sell them to England. This greatly reduced the market open to the port in Dublin. As societies developed throughout Europe, other countries came to condemn the use of slaves. The slave market came to be seen as a justification to war with Ireland and invade, particularly for Anglo-Norman armies looking to settle here. The Council of Armagh in 1171 declared that all English slaves in Ireland were to be freed. Believe it or not, Ireland and Scotland were the last of the slave markets in Christian Europe to cease trading!
Image copyright: http://viking.archeurope.info/ , irishcentral.com (History Channel Vikings)