Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Slavery, St. Patrick and Vikings

If I could time-travel back to the dark age/medieval era in which most of my books are set, I suspect one of the most disturbing things I would have to deal with (besides the lack of hygiene and sanitary practices) would the prevalence of slavery. We’re all aware that the Egyptian, Greeks and Romans had slaves. But the fact is, so did most cultures in Europe during that time period.
A huge part of the Viking trade was the buying and selling of slaves. Slaves were mostly captives, although sometimes people ended up enslaved as a punishment or were sold into slavery by family members or enemies. Because it involved so many cultures, races and even social classes, virtually anyone who was alone in a foreign land might end up as a slave. This is what happens to Bridei, my hero in The Dragon Bard. Bridei is the son of a king, but his status is meaningless once he’s in the hands of the slavers.

Slave shackles found in St. John’s Lane, Dublin now at the National Museum of Ireland

The Saxons, Britons, Norse and Irish all had slaves. And at the same time, anyone of those races could also end up enslaved themselves. Because slaves were not easily identified as being of a specific race, if you could escape your captors or the immediate area where you were considered a slave, you instantly became “free” and might even be able to return to your old life. This is what happened to the most famous slave of all:  St. Patrick.

St. Patrick’s real name is believed to be Maewyn Succat. As a youth he was captured by Irish slavers raiding the coast of Britain (probably from what is now Wales or Scotland). He was educated and from an upper-middle class family and it must have been a huge shock to him to end up as a lowly slave in a foreign country. According to the legend, he endured slavery for six years, working as a shepherd, before escaping and returning to Britain. Somewhere during his trials, he started have visions from God telling him that his destiny was to return to Ireland and share his faith with the race who had enslaved him.

The tale of Patrick (Patricius) is especially interesting because Christianity and slavery were connected almost from the beginning. For several hundred years after the religion was founded, Christianity was known as the religion of slaves. The belief preached by Jesus that all men are equal before God was enormously appealing to the downtrodden and disenfranchised. At the same time, the concept of a better life after this one gave them hope and helped them endure grim and miserable circumstances.

But Christianity also offered something meaningful to kings and emperors, and over time, it became the religion of the rich and powerful and in some cases, a tool of oppression and dominance. But its equalitarian roots linger, and the idea that each human being has worth (and therefore, should have some essential human rights) has been a powerful force for positive social change and immensely important in the fight to banish slavery from our world. Unfortunately, slavery is still alive in our modern era. It’s now called human trafficking and is appallingly common, even in our own country, as numerous recent books attest.

Since historical accuracy forces me to feature slavery in many of books, I’ve learned to take advantage of that and use the slave/master dynamic as part of my stories. Fiona is a slave to the hero Dag in my Viking romance, Storm Maiden. And in Beyond the Seamist, also a Viking tale, the whole plot centers around the hero Magnus’s attempts to rescue the heroine, Ailinn, from enslavement. And finally, in the reincarnation romance I’m working on now, tentatively entitled The End of the Rainbow, Viking metalsmith Kylan travels to modern day L.A. to reclaim his love Maeve/Marissa who was his slave in a past life. It’s fun to empower the heroine in this time, and force Kylan to win the love of the woman who he remembers as his thrall and captive.



  1. Fascinating post, Mary. I hadn't known that St. Patrick once was a slave. As you pointed out, in those earlier times, slavery was an equal opportunity thing.

  2. I didn't know about St. Patrick's enslavement either. Very interesting post.

  3. Great post, Mary. :) I did know about Patrick being a slave, but just heard recently that Niall of the Nine Hostages, a fifth century Irish King of Ulster, may have traded him. It's sad that slavery--human trafficking is ongoing.

  4. I've done a lot of research on early slavery, Mary, but was not aware of St. Patrick's involvement.Very interesting post.

  5. I didn't know about St. Patrick being a slave.