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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: July 2013

8 - Castrating Monks: Vikings, the Slave Trade, and the Value of Eunuchs


‘I asked a group of them about the process of castration, and I learned that the Romaeans castrate their youngsters intended for dedication to the church … When the Muslims raid, they attack the churches and take the youngsters away from them', says the tenth-century geographer, al-Muqaddasi. He describes Arab raids that deliberately targeted Greek churches and monasteries during his own time, a time when the Greeks castrated some young boys to keep them as singers in the Church, and a time when the Arab world wanted eunuchs. The demand for slaves, including talented and literate non-Muslim eunuchs, was enormous across the Islamic world at the time of the early Abbasid caliphate (mid-eighth to the late tenth century). Judging by the actions described in al-Muqaddasi's geography, the captives did not even need to be literate in Arabic in order to be useful. This demand generated a ripple effect that spread throughout Abbasid territories, throughout the Mediterranean basin and also into eastern and western Europe. Scholars are just starting to acknowledge the large-scale influence of this long-distance slave trade on the start of the Viking Age in northwestern Europe, the same eighth through eleventh centuries. Indeed, some still deny the importance of the economics of the slave trade when it comes to Viking raiding activities. But women were often targeted during Viking raids, as potential mothers and wives in Iceland and Scandinavia, or as high-value trade objects to be exchanged as far away as Byzantium and the Abbasid Empire.

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Castration and Culture in the Middle Ages
  • Online ISBN: 9781782041108
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