Sex, Violence and the Seventh Century – oh, and Slavery

Recently, I read a review of Slaves and Warriors in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland, 800-1200 by David Wyatt (Leiben and Boston, Brill, 2009). The review was by Richard Marsden and published in issue five of the Kelvingrove Review.

I have not yet got hold of a copy of Wyatt’s book, so what follows is based entirely on Marsden’s review. However, the story seems to be very thought-provoking. If I understand it correctly, Wyatt is arguing that rape and enslavement following anything from a raid or skirmish to a full-scale battle was an institutionalised right of passage for members of the warrior elite.

The picture that this conjures up is quite startlingly awful – as if fit young men were not only encouraged to engage in violence and rape, but that the moral tone of society was set by this pattern of behaviour. Wyatt apparently goes on to argue that the Christian church was instrumental in modifying this pattern, at least partly by attempts to confine sex within the bounds of marriage. This puts a whole new (for me, at least) spin on the impact of the church.

So, this set me to thinking. Firstly, does my admittedly ‘cosy’ version of the seventh century do a grave injustice to seventh century women and also, incidentally, to the Christian church?

Secondly, how does this illuminate the legend of St Winifred?

Now Winifred was theWelsh saint beloved of Brother Cadfael in the murder mystery series written by Ellis Peters. Her name is associated with a well on the western bank of the estuary of the River Dee, which is still a popular site of pilgrimage. There are many versions of Winifred’s story, but the core component is attempted rape, followed by murder. The man in question, usually called Caradog or Caradoc, cut off her head with his sword. The head rolled down hill and a spring miraculously emerged, which has been there ever since. Beuno (later Saint Beuno) put her head back in place, covered her with his cloak and went away to pray. When he returned, she was alive and went on to be Abbess of two institutions, one near the site of her beheading and the other inland, in Snowdonia at Gwytherin. Caradog was either killed by demons or by Winifred’s brother, Owain.


Stained glass windows in Shrewsbury Abbey depicting the he martyrdom of St Winifred. Her body was moved to the abbey in the 12th century

Stained glass windows in Shrewsbury Abbey depicting the he martyrdom of St Winifred. Her body was moved to the abbey in the 12th century

There is no suggestion that Winifred was at risk of being enslaved after her rape. Caradog, it would seem, wanted to ‘marry’ her, but she had already decided to become a nun. However, this decision is given as the reason why she refused Caradog, not that she did not like him or that she wanted to marry someone else. And indeed, I am tempted to speculate that a decision to enter the church was the only viable option for seventh-century women who did not want to marry – whether a particular person, or in general.

Bede seemed to believe that only celibate women were truly virtuous. I do not recall anywhere that he celebrated motherhood, for instance. I also don’t recall that he has much to say about the virtues of celibacy for men, either, only for women, which is interesting in itself.

So is/was Winifred a touchstone for all those women ‘married’ against their will and/or raped and enslaved? Resistance was possible; it might even succeed; and it would be applauded by the church, if not by men in general? I wonder …

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2 Responses to Sex, Violence and the Seventh Century – oh, and Slavery

  1. Kidnapping followed by marriage is not uncommon in a lot of these stories. St Cadoc’s mother was a captured bride. If I remember correctly, Arthur observes the escaping ‘groom’ with his prize and helps him against her father who is trying to recover his daughter. As this marriage produces a saint, its all good, of course. St. David’s mother was a captured ‘bride’ or raped.

    Patrick also writes about women in enslaved/captured women in Ireland. I think the church was indeed a refuge for many women. Patrick certainly saw himself as a protector of women. Check out the story built around Cain Adomnan (Law or Canon of Adomnan) I put this in the medieval sourcebook years ago.

    St Æthelthryth certainly tried to avoid marriage and was forced into it twice, though she managed to remain a virgin according to her hagiographers. Bede had a way of cleaning up references to women, not that he was very interested in any there were not royal or a nun.

  2. Sally says:

    Thanks for that Michelle. It is a huge struggle to get my head around the enormous gulf between the mindset of ‘then’ and ‘now’. I had not realised that I posted this on International Women’s Day. Subliminal?

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