26 Jul 2020

African Slaves in Medieval England? A History Sunday Post

Cecil in Jody Hedlund's A Loyal Heart , Little John in the upcoming adaptation of Robin Hood. 
Representing diversity in fiction has its merits, and its understandable why Christian Fiction authors want to reflect it in their works.

So when a character of African heritage is included in a Medieval novel, its often just assumed that they must have been a former slave: because of the Slave Trade, right? Well, actually, I think that's wrong on two levels. 

First of all, Britain did not become involved in the transatlantic slave trade until the sixteenth or seventeenth century: well after the Medieval period had ended. (And indeed, up until the end of the 17th century many poor people from Britain and Ireland were sent to the Americas as 'indentured servants'. Many died en route, or before they had lived in the Americas for a year.)
Second, I think find it rather offensive to assume that people of African heritage  only ever held a servile status in Europe until the modern age. 

This got me thinking: how much evidence is there for African Slaves in Medieval Europe? The
The Vikings made slave trading into an international industry:
This included selling Europeans as a slaves in North Africa &
The Near East.
answer is very little indeed. The Romans, of course, had slaves: but they did not tend to discriminate in terms of ethnic background. Slaves could be from anywhere in the Empire and beyond.
The Anglo-Saxons and the other peoples of Britain before the Conquest also had slaves: but the evidence suggests that they were generally people from neighboring regions and Kingdoms. Other Brits, or occasionally people from such far flung regions as Ireland, France or Byzantium.
The brutal truth is, if a person wanted a slave way back then, it would just have been a whole lot easier and cheaper to take one in a raid on the Picts across the border then to sail halfway across the world. 

The Vikings certainly had slaves: but one little-known fact is that they were involved in a slave trade which was almost the reverse of the one we know about. They kidnapped Europeans by the boatload and sold them in the Byzantine Empire, North Africa and the Middle East.
In fact, some of the worst offenders when it came to slavery in the Middle Ages were in fact the Islamic cultures of those very regions. From the 8th century, the Arabs began to conduct raids in Africa to take slaves, and alongside the Turks, their trade in African slaves continued until the 19th century, and even later in some cases.
Some historians estimate that as many as 112 million people from Africa were enslaved by the various Arab Empires of the Middle Ages, as well as the Turks and others, and destined for the Ottoman Empire, the North African Kingdoms and the Middle East. 1.
Most were male, and according to some sources were routinely castrated, and even had their babies killed at birth.
Back in Britain, it might come as a surprise to learn that the Normans were none too keen on slavery.
"Wulfstan (an 11th century English Bishop) made it his mission to end the practice of selling Christian slaves and spent months preaching to the people of Bristol against the practice. At first they were hesitant but he eventually won them around.
There are even reports that the townspeople attacked any slaver they came across. Eventually the example made by the people of Bristol was held up by King William and the practice of selling slaves was banned throughout the land by 1102."2

'But feudalism and serfdom!' I hear you cry. There were various important differences in legal and economic status between Medieval serfs and slaves, which is a subject for another post, but the
Although they're often characterized as such, Medieval
peasants were not 'slaves'.
simple fact is that not everyone who wasn't noble in Medieval Britain was a serf. In fact, some historians suggest that up to half of the rural population of Medieval Britain consisted of Free Peasants.
Then to add to the Norman antagonism, the Pope banned the holding of other Christians as slaves in the late 12th century. So really, slavery just became more and more untenable. 

We're used to the idea of Medieval Europe as 'Christendom': the centre of Christianity in basically the Western World, and indeed it was. But there were other Christian states in the Medieval world. One was Armenia, there were also large Christian communities in places like modern Lebanon and Syria, as well as Eygpt. One early Bishop and Church pioneer in Anglo-Saxon Britain is known to have come from North Africa: he was known as 'Hadrian the African' and might have been a Berber by birth (the Berbers were the indigenous people of North Africa: there before the Carthaginians or the Arabs, or the Romans).

And there was another problem. Medieval Europeans literally believed that the Equator was an impassable ring of fire. So hot that it could not sustain life, and any people living beyond it could not cross north, or people from the North cross over to the South. This meant that any contact Europeans had with Africans was limited to the areas North of the Equator.
This leaves two places that still needs to be mentioned. Regions often ignored or neglected in many histories and in fiction.That place? 


Remember the Ethiopian Eunuch from the Book of Acts? Did you know that many Bible teachers consider him to have been the first Gentile convert? 
So perhaps its not surprising that Christianity was evidenced in Ethiopia from a really early period, and Christianity was established as the official region by the 4th century making it one of the first official Christian states on earth. After Armenia.

Tradition has it that Christianity was bought to the country (which included much of modern Ethiopia and Eritrea), by two Syrian merchants who got washed up on the shore. Ethiopia was on a major trade route between India and the Roman Empire, so the version of Christianity which came to be adopted as the state religion was very similar to Eastern Orthodoxy. So Ethiopia developed its own version of Orthodoxy leading to the creation of the Ethiopian Orthodox church.

Church of St George, Labelia, Ethiopia
There are churches in Ethiopia today that date back to the 12th and 13th centuries, including some of the famous rock cut churches. Like this one, the church of St George in Lalibela. Notice that its shaped like a Greek Cross- and its also interesting that there is a Medieval Church in Ethiopia dedicated to the same Saint who would become the Patron Saint of England. Shows you something about the international nature of Medieval Christianity. 

Over the centuries, Ethiopia became isolated from the rest of the Christian world because of Islamic conquests to the North, but it still had some contact with the outside world: there's even evidence for contact in Europe. Indeed, some European travelers convinced themselves that Ethiopia was the home of the legendary King Prester John.

There was also the Kindgom of Nubia, along the banks of the Nile river which corresponded roughly
Mural from a 12th century Church in Faras,
A city on the border between Egypt and Sudan
to the modern state of Sudan. A Chronicle from the time of the Crusades make a passing reference to a Nubian King on Pilgrimage to Constantinople in the opening years of the 13th century.

..When the emperor (Byzantime Emperor) saw him coming, he rose to meet him and did great honour to him. And the emperor asked the barons: “Do you know,” said he, “who this man is?” “Not at all, sire,” said the barons. “I’faith,” said the emperor, “this is the king of Nubia, who is come on pilgrimage to this city.”3

Nubia also had a large Christian presence for many centuries, but eventually fell to the control of Bedouin tribes, the Turks and it's neighours to the North, so that by the 14th-15th century the region was no longer officially Christian.
The Christian King who made the Pilgrimage to Constantinople during the 4th Crusade was one of the last of his ilk.

There are also references to black people in art and literature: in a Medieval Arthurian legend, the leading character has a mixed race brother Sir Morien, born to a one of the Knights of the Round
Sir Morien, a character from a 13th century Romance
Table and a Moorish Princess. There is even evidence of a man from sub-Saharan Africa in a Medieval English monastery. 
Henry VIII even had a musician and trumpeter in his court who was black, given the ironic name of  'John Blanke'. Some people might consider it evidence of racism to have given a man of African descent a name which means 'White', but I think its more a case of British sense of humour, rather like how the tallest character in the Robin Hood stories is called Little John. 

What we can see is that not one of the black people who we find evidence or mention of in Medieval England was a slave. They appear as merchants, warriors, musicians, diplomats, even clerics and labourers but not as slaves taken by force from their homeland.
Contrast that with the Islamic world, in which people from Africa, particularly men were taken as slaves and usually castrated. This was going on long before Europe became involved in any kind of slave trading in Africa.

That said, is  some evidence of slaves in some Medieval European states after 1100. Most of these people seem to have been taken captive during the Crusades and sold into slavery. If this seems unjust, though, it pays to remember that the Turks were also in the habit of enslaving captured Crusaders, and even women and children who were unfortunate enough to have got caught in the proverbial crossfire.
So what Europeans were doing was essentially reciprocating the same treatment that had been meted out to them, and that the enslavement here was not based on race, but religion and circumstances.

Most of the slaves in Europe during the Crusading centuries seem to have been present in Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Spain, Greece or the South of France. Countries which had direct contact with the near East and North Africa. Britain is obviously not a Mediterranean country, we're closer to Scandinavia than the Med, so there isn't any evidence of Muslim or pagan captives enslaved in England or Scotland.

So there's nothing inaccurate about having a person of black African heritage in a Medieval novel at all. What would be inaccurate would be to cast them as as a slave or former slave. There probably weren't any black slaves in Medieval England: or many slaves at all. 


Quotes and References:

1: See John Azumah, The Legacy of Arab Islam in Africa
2: 'Bristol's Other Slave Trades', The History Press Online, https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/bristol-s-other-slave-trades : accessed 12th July 2020
3:See The Conquest of Constantinople, Translated from the Old French of Robert de Clari trans. E.H. MacNeal. Columbia University Press, 1996.


  1. Great article! Thank you for all the hard work you put into researching and writing this timely piece.

    1. Thankyou, Jennie and I'm glad you found this interesting.

  2. Very interesting! It makes me want to look into this further. Thanks!

  3. This is very interesting! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Replies
    1. Thankyou for vistin, and glad you found this useful.


I like to hear from readers, so feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...