Category Archives: Slaves and Warriors

Kings and Medieval Social Structure

Whether writing historic or alternative history fiction (or even when world-building in a fantasy or Sci-Fi genre), it is often necessary to describe society’s political and social structure. This is so in my second novel, which takes place in 11th century Ireland.

Medieval Dublin Castle

Prior to the 19th (or so) century, Kings seem to be the prevalent governing structure. Being totally immersed in our established democracy and firmly accepting that all are created equal, I wondered by people put up with any type of aristocracy.

The book “Slaves and Warriors in Medieval Britain and Ireland, 800 to 1200” by David Wyatt shed quite a bit of light on the formation of medieval societies and let to my eventual acceptance and, perhaps, support of the historic necessity of Kings.

I read Dr. Wyatt’s book while researching the “institution” of slavery. Note: I used the inter-library loan system at my local library as the book is out of print and used copies run approximately $200 on Amazon.

The book does a great job of describing emerging societies. My take-away is as follows:

  1. Early societies were violent. Anyone without a personal connection is a target for theft, slavery or rape. People banded together for protection. One leader would emerge and trade his protection for the loyalty of followers. There was no sense of Nation.
  2. Anyone outside this leader-follower structure is a target. Only within the leader-controlled areas do neighbors (typically) not kill each other.
  3. As the “leader” extended his/her influence, this area of protection increases.
  4. When a leader controls enough territory, he calls himself a King and the territory becomes a Nation, resulting in an even larger pool of inhabitants that become non-targets to each other.

Unfortunately, with more than one King in the world, King/Nation to King/Nation violence started and spread, a notable example being the centuries long spat between the English and the French Monarchs. At least until Kings were supplemented by democracies.

Another serious downside is that intermediate social levels such as lords, knights, clerics and other privileged classes are formed. While they helped enforce peace at the local level, violence between classes (top down) still existed.

So, while Kings are not in favor in the modern world (except ceremonially), they served a vital function in the past to reduce overall violence and to generate a sense of Nation as societies evolved.

Note: I accept that this post is a bit simplistic. Problems did persist; one being when, for political reasons, specific minorities were persecuted by the King. Another is the heavy burden of taxation on the lower classes (to support the upper classes).

Amazon affiliate link to referenced book: Slaves And Warriors in Medieval Britain and Ireland, 800 – 1200

Slaves, Warriors and Connections

Writing anything to do with history forces one to study the past. Unfortunately, this means studying both the achievements of mankind and its grimmer, less savory activities. This last, especially when viewed from modern sensibilities, can be disheartening.

Slavery was a concept I just could not get my head around, let alone put into a fictional adventure. The logistics alone baffled me: how could one force another to do one’s bidding. Why didn’t the enslaved just run away?

I turned to “Slaves and Warriors in Medieval Britain and Ireland” by Dr. David Wyatt (Cardiff University History Department) for a possible answer.

The essence of Dr. Wyatt’s book is given in its abstract: “The purpose of this monograph is to highlight the extreme social and cultural significance of slavery for those societies. The analysis does not focus upon economic conditions or even, necessarily, upon the plight of the slave. Rather, it concentrates upon the lifestyle, attitudes and motivations of the slave-holders and the slave-raiders in these warrior-centered communities. Through the employment of comparative anthropological perspectives this study explores the violent activities and behavioral codes of Britain’s war bands and illustrates the importance of slave raiding/holding for the establishment of power, identity and notions of manhood. In particular, it highlights how the rape, abduction and enslavement of women constituted powerfully symbolic acts for societies which equated prowess, prestige and honor very much with female protection and guardianship. Indeed, one problematic result of the continuing focus on medieval slavery as a means of economic production is that this has ensured an unhelpfully narrow research focus concentrating on male slaves involved in agricultural production. Yet, the majority of slaves in the medieval period would, most likely, have been females living and toiling in the domestic sphere and this is highly significant. Furthermore, this book highlights, more generally, how the dichotomy between slavery and freedom was fundamentally important for defining social hierarchy within the medieval communities of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.”

This is heavy stuff. My take-away as far a writing fiction for such an age is as follows:

This stage of society is defined by the family and immediate tribal members. Hostilities over territory, livestock and resources demanded a warrior mentality for Darwinian survival.

Furthermore, protection depended on connections. To survive, allegiances must be made with nearby neighbors (and family members). This formed hierocracy determined by martial skills. Hierocracy also demanded trappings of status, including the power to enslave. Owning slaves thus became a social symbol of power (as well as an economic resources and, in the case of female slave, sexual recreation). Better to travel outside of one’s neighborhood and collect slaves (and booty) to prove one’s prowess in battle than to fight it out for supremacy with one’s neighbors (another Darwinian factor).

This defines the identity of slaves. These peoples fell outside the realm of the allegiances (or social structure) in which one participated. In the context of medieval life (and certainly other times/ages), this meant anyone living beyond one’s narrow world.

To put it more bluntly, anyone outside of one’s connections was subject to enslavement, attack, plunder and murder.

A slave then was in a social situation where all the non-slaves around him/her had connections and/or allegiances to his/her owner. Flight, if successful, would most probably only result in enslavement in another region of different connections/allegiances.

(Travel between “regions” depended on allegiances between high status individuals of different regions. Those granted travel rights would be easily identifiable characters such as messengers, bards, or druids/priests.)

Slavery was a social institution, driven by a warrior culture. And it was connections that defined one’s place in society.