Source: Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England
Bede was a prolific writer and a scrupulous historian. He lived c. 673-735 and spent most of his life as a monk at the double monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, then located in the kingdom of Northumbria in northern England. His masterwork, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, is a history centered around the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity up to 731 when the work was completed. It remains our principle source for Anglo-Saxon history before that date. For most of the migration and conversion periods, Bede is our only witness. The Ecclesiastical History was originally written in Latin, the language of the church, and was so popular that numerous early copies still survive from across Europe. It was, without a doubt, an early medieval best-seller.
Bede had several goals in writing his History, which we must remain doubly aware of given the lack of corroborating source material. His main objective was to emphasize connections between Anglo-Saxon Christianity and Rome. He achieved this by downplaying or omitting the role of Irish and Welsh missionaries in the conversion process and possibly smoothing over some more difficult political episodes to make Christian conversion seem like an inevitable outcome. He sought to portray the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons as a success story and a model by which other missionaries could proceed. Like most writers of his time, Bede was mostly interested in who he considered important people, so we have to rely on anomalous stories like the one here to understand what life may have been like for peasants, captives, and slaves.
Despite his own motives, Bede was nevertheless a careful and methodical historian. He acquired primary sources from other monasteries, and you can see in this excerpt that he is careful to note where he got his information and why he found it reliable. Bearing in mind the larger aims of this work, we can generally trust Bede’s narrative – and as the only witness to most events he describes (including this episode with Imma), we have to! While reading this text, it is important to remember that medieval people did not see miracle stories as fabulous or ahistorical. Miracles were reported all the time. While we might be skeptical of miraculous events today, their presence here does not negate the source’s value. Instead, miracle stories can provide a wealth of information about everyday life via incidental details. This is the only description of captive-taking and slave trading from early England, and it is invaluable in that it details the whole process beginning with Imma’s capture and ending with his ransom.
Contributed by Janel Fontaine. This contribution CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Translation from the Latin published in A.M. Sellar, trans., Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England (London: George Bell & Sons, 1907), 268-270.
Chapter XXII. How a certain captive’s chains fell off when Masses were sung for him. [679 A.D.]
In the aforesaid battle, wherein King Aelfwine was killed, a memorable incident is known to have happened, which I think ought by no means to be passed over in silence; for the story will be profitable to the salvation of many. In that battle a youth called Imma, one of the king’s thegns, was struck down, and having lain as if dead all that day and the next night among the bodies of the slain, at length he came to himself and revived, and sitting up, bound his own wounds as best as he could. Then having rested awhile, he stood up, and went away to see if he could find any friends to take care of him; but in so doing he was discovered and taken by some of the enemy’s army, and carried before their lord, who was one of King Ethelred’s nobles. Being asked by him who he was, and fearing to own himself a thegn, he answered that he was a peasant, a poor man and married, and he declared that he had come to the war with others like himself to bring provisions to the army. The noble entertained him, and ordered his wounds to be dressed, and when he began to recover, to prevent his escaping, he ordered him to be bound at night. But he could not be bound, for as soon as they that bound him were gone, his bonds were loosed.
Now he had a brother called Tunna, who was a priest and abbot of a monastery in the city which is still called Tunnacaestir after him. This man, hearing that his brother had been killed in the battle, went to see if haply he could find his body; and finding another very like him in all respects, he believed it to be his. So he carried it to his monastery, and buried it honourably, and took care often to say Masses for the absolution of his soul; the celebration whereof occasioned what I have said, that none could bind him but he was presently loosed again. In the meantime, the noble that had kept him was amazed, and began to inquire why he could not be bound; whether perchance he had any spells about him, such as are spoken of in stories. He answered that he knew nothing of those arts; “but I have,” said he, “a brother who is a priest in my country, and I know that he, supposing me to be killed, is saying frequent Masses for me; and if I were now in the other life, my soul there, through his intercession, would be delivered from penalty.”
When he had been a prisoner with the noble some time, those who attentively observed him, by his countenance, habit, and discourse, took notice, that he was not of the meaner sort, as he had said, but of some quality. The noble then privately sending for him, straitly questioned him, whence he came, promising to do him no harm on that account if he would frankly confess who he was. This he did, declaring that he had been a thegn of the king’s, and the noble answered, “I perceived by all your answers that you were no peasant. And now you deserve to die, because all my brothers and relations were killed in that fight; yet I will not put you to death, that I may not break my promise.”
As soon, therefore, as he was recovered, he sold him to a certain Frisian at London, but he could not in any wise be bound either by him, or as he was being led thither. But when his enemies had put all manner of bonds on him, and the buyer perceived that he could in no way be bound, he gave him leave to ransom himself if he could. Now it was at the third hour, when the Masses were wont to be said, that his bonds were most frequently loosed. He, having taken an oath that he would either return, or send his owner the money for the ransom, went into Kent to King Hlothere, who was son to the sister of Queen Ethelthryth, above spoken of, for he had once been that queen’s thegn. From him he asked and obtained the price of his freedom, and as he had promised, sent it to his master for his ransom.
Returning afterwards into his own country, and coming to his brother, he gave him an exact account of all his misfortunes, and the consolation afforded to him in them; and from what his brother told him he understood, that his bonds had been generally loosed at those times when Masses had been celebrated for him; and he perceived that other advantages and blessings which had fallen to his lot in his time of danger, had been conferred on him from Heaven, through the intercession of his brother, and the Oblation of the saving Sacrifice. Many, on hearing this account from the aforesaid man, were stirred up in faith and pious devotion to prayer, or to alms-giving, or to make an offering to God of the Sacrifice of the holy Oblation, for the deliverance of their friends who had departed this world; for they knew that such saving Sacrifice availed for the eternal redemption both of body and soul. This story was also told me by some of those who had heard it related by the man himself to whom it happened; therefore, since I had a clear understanding of it, I have not hesitated to insert it in my Ecclesiastical History.
 King of Deira, a sub-kingdom of Northumbria in what is now northern England.
 A warrior of high status who could provide both military and administrative services.
 King of Mercia (r. 675-704), located in what is now much of the English midlands and Welsh borders. Mercia was the major political rival to Northumbria.
 This is describing the concept of ‘feud’, sometimes called ‘bloodfeud’, which was a legitimate means of dispute settlement if the wrongdoer did not make appropriate compensation.
 Merchants from Frisia (now the coastal Netherlands) dominated the North Sea trade networks in the seventh and eighth centuries, and this one may be a stereotype inserted by Bede to represent long-distance trade.
 Ethelthryth had been married to Ecgfrith, king of Northumbria and overking of the aforementioned Aelfwine. She died c. 679 as an abbess and was revered as a saint by the time of Bede’s writing.
- What problem is created by the nobleman’s promise not to kill Imma and how does slavery resolve this?
- How is Imma’s whole experience dictated by his status and how might that experience have differed for someone with less wealth and fewer connections?
- Why does Bede include this story? What does he think is important about it and what does that tell us about his perspective on captive-taking and slave-trading?
Related Primary Sources
- The Capture of Vardapet Vanakan by the Mongols
- Gregory of Tours, “Enslaving Noble Families”
- Laxdæla Saga
- Life of Saint Findan
- Miracles of Saint Opportuna
- Visigothic Manumission Charters
- William of Malmesbury, The Life of Wulfstan
Related Secondary Sources
- Pelteret, David. ‘Slave raiding and slave trading in early England.’ Anglo-Saxon England 9 (1981): 99-114.