As promised, here’s a quick skimming of the surprisingly international world of Anglo-Saxon trade.
To be fair, perhaps you, dear reader, are knowledgeable and are aware that trade and travel between countries, even distant ones, has happened ever since there were people who wanted things. Or perhaps you are logical and think, well, we might have been an island but we had boats. Excellent points.
Still, you might then be surprised to know how many people believe that nobody ever went anywhere “in medieval times” and that the Romans leaving killed off all contact with the continent.
I’m going to be broadening “trade” to mentioning gifts from abroad, and people travelling for non-commercial reasons.
So, let’s start off with something I have a picture of from my previous post. This is a quernstone.
It’s just a grinding stone. It makes flour.
Another thing that people tend to think is that, ok, fine, goods from far away countries ended up in Britain, but only for the high status people, like the royal woman I talked about earlier. Nope.
These quernstones aren’t high status in and of themselves, and aren’t concentrated at high status settlements or houses, yet they were frequently imported from the Rhineland. Why? I don’t know. Was the stone quality better? I’ve read that they could actually be used as ballast on ships which carried light and expensive cargo, so that’s an interesting explanation for such a prosaic import.
If you look at this photo from my earlier post, you can get an idea of the varied trade routes of higher status items:
Coins from far away can be found in Anglo-Saxon England. Sometimes these are found as part of a “hoard” or deposited stash, as you can read about in my Silverdale post, and it’s thought that the Arabic coins might have been valued as gifts or art rather than as currency. Gold Arabic coins may have arrived earlier; silver ones were largely brought in by the Vikings. In the 8th century the powerful Mercian king Offa had what looks like an imitation Arabic coin struck. It was gold, and one of the more amusing ways we can tell that it’s not actually Arabic is because a bit of the text is upside-down. There are many theories for why this was necessary – was it trade? Was it a gift? Was is part of a payment? Whyever it was (I’m claiming that as a word now) we can be confident that it demonstrated a good, if not perfect, knowledge of foreign currency on the part of the Mercian Anglo-Saxons.
We know about a lot of expensive imported goods because they were buried as “grave goods”. However we don’t often know how the objects ended up there. Were they obtained just for that purpose? Did their use or owner in life lead to their value in death? Were they tokens from family members? So many questions.
Other known trading areas: Aquitaine, Italy and Sicily – in general there was a good set of trade links to the northern Mediterranean.
Next up to discuss: travel. While the Anglo-Saxons didn’t do the whole invade anywhere with water thing like the Vikings, individuals travelled far afield and for many different reasons.
One of the slightly more unusual was fosterage. It wasn’t uncommon for the royal Anglo-Saxons to foster their counterparts’ children, and even internationally with the Scandinavian nobility. King Athelstan, for example, was foster-father to the future Duke of Brittany, Alan II (that name is hilarious, I don’t know why. Alan the second.). Alan grew up in England and may even have been born here. Aethelstan may possibly have also been foster-father to a Norwegian prince but there is no contemporary evidence of it. He also used the sponsoring/fostering technique as a diplomatic tool to help cement relationships.
There were two things which drove the Anglo-Saxons furthest afield. Both, ah, quite different from each other.
First: slavery. Yes, the Anglo-Saxons had a thriving slave trade, as had the Romans, as probably had most civilisations with enough wealth. There was domestic slavery as well as farmland slavery.
They probably enslaved the Celts, the people who were in Britain before the Anglo-Saxons and who ended up clustering in modern Cumbria, Wales, and Brittany, as well as remaining pretty strong in Ireland for a while. The word for Celt, wealh, came to mean “slave” as well, and I really doubt that sort of semantic slide happens by accident.
They enslaved other Anglo-Saxons too. However they were also enslaved themselves, with Anglo-Saxon slaves being found in northern France and Ghent. The city of Bristol was apparently a well-known slaving hub.
Time for mood whiplash: the other major movement factor was pilgrimage. As Christians, Anglo-Saxon pilgrims were known to make the trip to Rome, and even the astoundingly long trip to Jerusalem. In 884, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, two pilgrims set off for India! It’s not too difficult to believe that the pilgrims would have picked up objects and coinage along the way. Certainly there were merchants along the routes! Offa (he of the golden coin) was sent an angry letter by a continental king telling him to please stop his merchants posing as pilgrims along the route to ambush unwary people.
I like to imagine that more than a few Middle Eastern people ended up in Britain during the Anglo-Saxon period. Maybe the Anglo-Saxons had a few Aramic-speaking traders. It’s all fun speculation. The world is a big place.
Thank you for reading! I hope you found some of this interesting! See you tomorrow!