The ‘Dark Welsh’ as Slaves and Slave Traders in Exeter Book Riddles 52 and 72

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The imagery of captivity found within Exeter Book Riddles 52 and 72 has been understood to link Welsh slaves with the cattle they herd, for each riddle features an ethnically distinct “dark Welsh” figure performing agricultural work. This article argues that key details suggest that these captives can also be read as humans, alluding to the historical roles of the Welsh as both slaves and slave traders in Anglo-Saxon England. While scholars have long realised that these riddles call attention to ethnic and class difference by linking racially distinct Welsh servitude to hard manual labour, particularly to oxen, the Welsh were also active slave raiders of their own people. In their portrayals of ethnically distinct Welsh who control bound captives, this article argues that these riddles also allude to the role of the Welsh in the slave trade as brokers of human merchandise. These riddles, then, reveal the complexities of the period by illuminating the contradictory identity of the Welsh as both victims and perpetrators of the slave trade in Anglo-Saxon England.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)235-255
Number of pages21
JournalEnglish Studies
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 26 Feb 2014


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