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Medieval Sourcebook:
Traffic in Slaves: England, 1065-1066

The trade in slaves persisted on a large scale throughout the early Middle Ages. Indeed, payments were often reckoned in terms of slaves and early fairs were full of men and women exposed for sale. Since England produced at this time very little for export except a few staple commodities, it was convenient to exchange slaves for other goods and these unfortunate people were sent to Italy, Ireland, and Denmark, from which last country they also probably made their way into Germany.

William of Malmesbury: Chronicle of the Kings of England, 1065:

When he [Godwin] was a young man he had Canute's sister to wife, by whom he had a son, who in his early youth, while proudly curveting on a horse which his grandfather had given him, was carried into the Thames, and perished in the stream; his mother, too, paid the penalty of her cruelty; being killed by a stroke of lightning. For it is reported, that she was in the habit of purchasing companies of slaves in England, and sending them into Denmark; more especially girls, whose beauty and age rendered them more valuable, that she might accumulate money by this horrid traffic.

From The Life of St. Wulfstan, 1066:

There is a maritime town, called Bristol, which is on the direct route to Ireland, and so suitable for trade with that barbarian land. The inhabitants of this place with other Englishmen often sail to Ireland for the sake of trade. Wulfstan banished from among them a very old custom which had so hardened their hearts that neither the love of God nor the love of King William could efface it. For men whom they had purchased from all over England they carried off to Ireland; but first they got the women with child and sent them pregnant to market. You would have seen queues of the wretches of both sexes shackled together and you would have pitied them; those who were beautiful and those who were in the flower of youth were daily prostituted and sold amidst much wailing to the barbarians. Oh execrable crime, wretched dishonor, men who remind us of beasts, to sell into slavery their nearest relative because of their necessities.


From: J. A. Giles, trans., William of Malmesbury's Chronicle of the Kings of England, (London: 1847), Book II, p. 222; W. Cunningham, The Growth of English Industry and Commerce During the Early and Middle Ages, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1890), p. 82; reprinted in Roy C. Cave & Herbert H. Coulson, A Source Book for Medieval Economic History, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936; reprint ed., New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1965), pp. 298-299.

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© Paul Halsall, September 1998