Genocide in the Middle Ages

Disclaimer: the following post discusses genocide as a historical problem. It is not intended to discuss the morality of genocide, which I regard as a hideous crime.

A friend of mine recently heard a talk by Dr Ben Kiernan, who is writing a general/global history of genocide. After he discussed some incidents of genocide in the ancient world, he said that genocide was much less frequent in the Middle Ages, but then reoccurred more frequently in the early modern era. My friend, not a medievalist, wanted to know if I agreed there was less genocide in the Middle Ages and if so how I accounted for it. Here, in response are my thoughts.

The first problem in thinking about genocide for the Middle Ages is that we don’t have that much evidence, especially for the early Middle Ages, which may be crucial. We know of a lot of tribes which are mentioned in early accounts that then disappear from the records. There was even a recent conference on this, under the wonderful title of Ethnonemesis (as a parallel to ethnogenesis, which a lot of early medievalists study). Because we have so few records from the periods, we don’t know what happened to members of such tribes (were they killed or not?), let alone what the intentions of other cultures were towards them. For example, the lack of Celtic placenames in most of England suggests that culturally they were overwhelmed by the Anglo-Saxon invasion. But there is no consensus between scholars on how many Anglo-Saxons actually came, let alone whether the Celtic population was killed, driven out or simply absorbed.

A second issue is land-use patterns. Unless you have overpopulation (which is very rare in the West before early modern times and limited to a few areas even then), there are only a few circumstances when it is useful to gain land without people. Obviously, if the land needs to be cleared before farming, that takes a lot of manpower. Until the mid-nineteenth century or later, when tractors started to come in, arable farming always required a large labour force (some crops still do). Pastoral farming requires much smaller numbers of farm workers, but historically it’s tended to be severely limited by the expense of building up a substantial herd. I suspect only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did capital growth make large-scale sheep-rearing/cattle ranching commonplace, which had obvious implications for land-holding from the American West via the Scottish Highlands to the Australian bush. The other time when land without people is useful is when the land contains valuable minerals. The growth of mining technology and (perhaps more importantly) of geological techniques for recognising potentially valuable sites, makes the previous inhabitants of such areas far more vulnerable. The first example I know of someone with specialist knowledge finding a valuable site (as opposed to the locals having known about it) is Giovanni de Castro finding alum at Tolfa in about 1458. (But I’m not an expert on ancient/medieval mining, so there may be earlier examples).

If over the long course of history controlling unpopulated land has rarely been of use, then genocide is only occasionally strategically sensible. It makes far more sense to conquer and then absorb/assimilate the remnants of the conquered into your own tribe/nation/empire, either as subordinated workers or even as additional warriors, thus making you stronger. There are only a few occasions when it ‘makes sense’ to carry out genocide. One is with irreconcilable opponents, those who cannot be successfully assimilated. (I think the Romans may have come to think of the Carthiginians in that sense, but only after more than 100 years of on-off warfare). The second reason for committing genocide is ‘pour encourager les autres’: as a warning to other potential rebel cities etc. (I guess the classic example of this would be Athens’ treatment of the city of Melos, which Thucydides discusses in some detail). The other (I suspect relatively rare) category of genocide in the premodern world is when the conquering group feels its culture is endangered by assimilating other groups. The main example of this is some of the Old Testament pronouncements of God to the Israelites. (I’m not sure whether there were other religions/cultures that had similar attitudes).

Then a lack of genocide in the Middle Ages would reflect the obverse of these factors. Killing a whole people to make a point to others is a rather extravagant gesture and also harder when you have tribes/polities larger than city-states: you can get much the same effect by destroying just one city (or as Charlemagne did, executing 4500 Saxons). Both Roman and Christian culture stressed the possibilities of assimilation into them: anyone could become a Roman citizen/Christian, if they did the right things and this wasn’t (normally) seen as a threat to Romanness/Christianity. (This possibility of assimilation was not true of all ancient identities: it was hard (and became progressively harder) to become an Athenian citizen in ancient Greece and becoming a proselyte (a convert to Judaism) also required considerable commitment and instruction.

The Middle Ages (and the ancient world beforehand) certainly had the concept of peoples/races (there were kings ‘of the English’ before there were kings ‘of England’), but such identities weren’t thought of as unchangeable in a way there were later. In fact, there have been scholars like Dominique Iogna-Pratt who have studied the rise of anti-semitism in the Middle Ages to try and work out when anti-Judaism (hatred of a religion) developed into anti-Semitism (hatred of an ethnic group). One of the signs of this change is the attitude towards Jews who converted to Christianity. From the twelfth/thirteenth century these seem to have been regarded with increasing suspicion: there is a sense that there is something still Jewish about them that cannot be removed easily or at all. But the possibility of conversion for Jews and others was still there: even in Spain in 1492, the choice was conversion or expulsion. Expulsions, deportations or other forms of ethnic cleansing are, of course, always an alternative to genocide, and I suspect this is easier when there are still ‘open frontiers’.

The ‘rise of the nation state’ in some parts of the west in the later Middle Ages didn’t, I think, necessarily mean a more monocultural society and less ability to tolerate minorities. It did tend to mean persecution of the Jews: expulsions were associated with nation-building in both England and Spain. But Scotland (and perhaps Switzerland) showed the possibility of developing a multi-ethnic nation that still had a strong sense of identity. However, several factors changed in the early modern period. As well as some of the land-use issues I’ve already mentioned, there was an increasing sense of ‘race’ as a fixed and unalterable property, along with the colonial encounter with humans who were ‘more different’ than those previously (and so were more easily seen as unabsorbable/incapable of being ‘civilised’). Another factor may also have been that some early modern nations seemingly no longer had the ‘techniques’ (or willingness) for assimilation of the Other that the Roman empire and early medieval civilisations had once had. In particular, I once heard a talk by a scholar called Richard Drayton (then of University of Virginia, now at Cambridge). He was contrasting the early empires (C18 and before) of France and Britain. One of the contrasts he drew was that although the French demanded religious conformity, they were more tolerant of differing cultures in other ways, and followed Roman ideas of collaboration between the conquering and the conquered. In contrast, this only came into British imperialism at the end of the eighteenth century in India. Before this, the British had been unable to cope with situations when they had been vastly outnumbered by the native population and had simply ended up killing or expelling them.

From my notes, I don’t remember Drayton saying what this difference was due to, although he did mention that French imperialism was far more centrally controlled than British, which was largely led by independent groups of settlers. Political traditions may also have had an effect. In some ways, ‘successful’ imperialism requires the same kind of confidence trick that autocracies need. A small group of the elite has to convince a vast number of the subordinated that this is the only possible way to exist and that rebellion is wrong, or at least futile. (In most such situations, the elite don’t actually have overwhelming military force available and if their bluff is called their position may collapse). On the other hand, I imagine Spanish colonialism was also pretty centralised and autocratic, so this may only be one factor.

Perhaps another difference is that France was still expanding territorially in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, so that it needed to remember the techniques of assimilation of previously hostile others. In contrast, England after 1066 had only the minor digestion problems of Wales and Ireland (there’s an argument that Scotland never was assimilated even after 1707), and although Spain has the Reconquista, the vast bulk of that happened before 1250. But if any early modernist is reading this blog, I’d be interested to hear their comments.


3 thoughts on “Genocide in the Middle Ages

  1. Truly an excellent analysis.
    There are two things that could be addressed in more detail, though:
    First, what would be an example of genocide from the Middle Ages? Alternatively, a full list of known genocides would be helpful.
    Secondly, what about Central and Eastern Europe and, more specifically, the Teutonic Order? The Sudovians (Jaćwingowie, Yatvingians) are the most prominent example of what might be consider a genocide.


  2. In Empires of the Word Nicholas Ostler discusses why the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain was linguistically successful though other Germanic invasions (e.g. of Italy, of France) were not. He cites evidence that the Celtic population of Britain had been decimated in epidemics, giving the Anglo-Saxons an opening.

    This proposed “genocide by disease” is obviously similar to what happened in the Western Hemisphere after 1492. As a biologist & medical historian, I find it plausible that early medieval epidemics might have hit Britain harder than the Continent, because epidemic diseases are notoriously harder on island populations.

    So perhaps there weren’t many conscious genocides in the Dark&Middle Ages because they didn’t *need* them, because there were enough genocides-by-epidemic.


    • I haven’t read Ostler’s book, so I don’t know the specific evidence he quotes but I would be sceptical. This is mainly because the population of Britain weren’t isolated from the rest of Europe. There was regular contact across the channel, as well as contact between the Anglo-Saxons and the Welsh, not to mention the Celtic settlement of Brittany. That seems to me a very different situation from the kind of sudden encounter of previously completely isolated populations that happened with Native Americans and Europeans.

      I don’t know what the archaeological evidence suggests, but a quick trawl brought up the following article: Malcolm Todd, ”Famosa Pestis’ and Britain in the Fifth Century’, Britannia, Vol. 8. (1977), pp. 319-325, which doesn’t think the suggestion of epidemics devastating SE England in the fifth century hangs together. (If you have access to JSTOR, it’s online there).


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