Paradigms of Piracy: Private Law and Social Order in the Premodern World

Paradigms of Piracy: Private Law and Social Order in the Premodern World

Piracy has hit media headlines around the world in the last 5 years, an apparent anachronism from a different age suddenly emerging into 21st-century conflicts off the Horn of Africa. Simultaneously, Hollywood has revived the Caribbean stereotype of romantic pirate captains in their most successful incarnation for decades.

Using this contemporary contradiction as a touchstone, this international collaborative project explores piracy as a way of life central to premodern societies, which has left deep social, political and economic legacies down to our own times. In outline the project contains three tiers of analysis, with an initial focus on the Nordic cultural sphere that has been neglected both in pirate research and premodern studies.

The project first considers models of pirate community applied to the early Viking Age and the beginnings of the Scandinavian expansion across the then-known world – a revision of the Viking stereotype and at the same time a fundamentally new perspective on a critical phase of Northern history. What exactly happened in this crucial half-century from the 790s to the 840s, and in precise socio-political terms, who actually were the men (and perhaps women) who brought the kingdoms of western Europe to the brink of extinction?

A second theme moves forward in time to examine the archaeology of the 14th-century Vitalian Brotherhood through planned excavations of one of their pirate fortresses on Gotland, occupied until its destruction by the Teutonic Knights. Beyond Scandinavia and the Baltic, a third theme contextualises research into pirate societies across the world, through workshops held overseas. This involves a comparative geographical range extending from the Caribbean, Bahamas and the American seaboard in the west to the South China Sea and the Inland Sea of Japan in the east; chronologically, the research would span the whole period from the early Middle Ages to the 18th century. A particular goal is the identification of material signatures of pirate activity, especially on terrestrial (as opposed to the more common marine) sites.

Is it possible to develop a predictive model of pirate archaeology?

Image: Reconstruction of a ninth-century Viking pirate, commissioned for the project and based on new research on clothing and equipment from chamber graves in the urban cemeteries of Birka, Lake Mälaren, Sweden, together with archaeological and textual evidence for dental modification, eye makeup and skin decoration. Drawing by Þórhallur Þráinsson.