Steve G.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF PIRACY: PART TWO

In Crime, History, Middle East, War on May 1, 2009 at 8:59 am

PART TWO: THE MEDIEVAL ERA

The fall of Rome reset affairs at sea to more Homeric conditions. Barbarian tribes such as the Angles, Saxons, Wends, Heruli, and Slavs wreaked havoc at sea. Irish pirates, known in low Latin as Scotti, launched the career of St. Patrick by kidnapping him into a life of slavery. The Scotti eventually acquired a kingdom and settled down (relatively speaking) to become the Scots. The Vikings were the exemplars of the Dark Ages sea-marauders.  They exploited the weakness of neighboring kingdoms, notably the seemingly invincible Frankish Empire founded by Charlemagne, and in the process made themselves part of the ruling class in Ireland, Scotland, England, France, and Russia.

The Medieval era introduced an ideological element into pillage at sea. The new religions of Christianity and Islam preached a brotherhood of man and frowned on robbing one’s co-religionists. Infidels on the other hand were fair game. With the Muslim conquest of North Africa in the 8th century Moorish raiders began harrying the European coasts. The Muslim corsairs were called Sea-ghazis, a ghazi being a fighter for the faith or jihadi. The Sea-ghazis and their Christian rivals turned the Mediterranean into a free-fire zone.

Piracy was a routine hazard of medieval maritime affairs. The growth of trade attracted pirates, but conditions tended to find equilibrium. Occasionally a colorful outlaw such as Eustace the Monk, who dabbled in black magic, highway robbery, mercenary service, and piracy, achieved a level of fame. But outlaws like Eustace had no lasting effect such as the Scots or Vikings had.

The rise of the Hanseatic League in the Baltic motivated pirate gangs known as the Victual Brothers and the Like-dealers. The Hanse was a trade consortium formed in the 1300s, part Wal-mart, part Mafia racket. The Victual Brothers began, typically enough, as hired swords for the Hanse in a war against Denmark. It is not too surprising that groups like the Victualers tried to carve themselves a piece of the rich Baltic pie with their swords.  One of the best known of the Victualers was Klaus Stortebeker, renowned for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Stortebeker may have found it expedient to give a bit to the poor, robbing them could hardly have been profitable.

Invasions of piratical barabarians could change history. But most Medieval pirates were background noise in the clamor or European affairs.  The collapse of Rome, the rise of the Muslim Caliphate, and the faltering of Charlemagne’s empire all created conditions ripe for massive piracy. The rise of the Hanseatic League created a bonanza for pirates. But in general, the stagnation of trade and the deadlock of feudal warfare meant that piracy remained a constant, but low-level threat. That was to change forever with the discovery of the golden treasures of the Americas.

-Dave Hardy

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