Early Medieval Boat People


  • population of Roman Britain variously estimated between 2M and 5M
    • question - what was the population levels of Roman Britain at various points in history
    • Assume population in 410 was ~ 4M
      • population level not reachieved to early Tudor period
        • what was the population before the Black Death - one third of population died in Black Death
          • did population level reachive 4M before Black Death?
    • Domesday book suggests population of England around 1M
      • suggests severe population drop albeit over 600 year period
        • abandonment of settlements
        • reduced occupation levels

Reasons for population decline

  • plague of Justinian
  • supposed plague in C7 (smallpox ?)
    • jointly supposed to have killed 50% of population of Europe
    • abandoned farmsteads and communities in Gaul
      • any disporportionate effect on romano british as compared with saxons?
  • crop failures
  • reduced replacement rates due to
    • shortened overall lifespan due to poorer nutrition
    • higher infant mortality due to poorer living conditions
    • reduced fecundity due poorer nutrition
  • increased death rate due to conflict
  • emigration


  • know church in Galica appointed a Bishop specifically to look after needs of Britons
    • how big a population required a Bishop
  • Brittany - name change suggests impact of migration
    • what records do we have of actual migration
  • did bulk migration to Brittany (and Galici) happen mostly after 565 (Plague of Justinian) when there was free agricultural land for refugees to homestead on


  • on tin trading route with cornwall
  • migration occurred before Plague of Justinian (date of appointment of bishop)
    • how many people on a tin carrier as passengers
    • how many maximally crowded onto boats
    • how many boats per annum
      • if british population in Galicia 10k
        • 200 boats if 50 passengers
        • 500 if 20 passengers
        • if population 100k 2,000/5,000 - seems too many voyages though possible cf Vietnamese boat people
      • impact though less than 3% if population 4M
        • disproportionate number of younger fitter and richer
          • any comparisons with population mix of contemporary refugees compared with population in refugee camps?


  • assume frequent contact - more frequent than Galicia due to shorter sea crossing
    • imples more more liklely to make voyage (100k rather than 10k)
    • impact on overall population still likely to be small


  • 20 to 30 passengers maximum
    • passengers probably camped on deck - certainly case in Mediterranean until C10
    • cf 27 boat people on similar size boat sailing from Vietnam to Darwin

Tin Trade

Recent Analogues

  • Vietnamese boat people
    • long voyages on poor overcrowded boats
    • possibly best analogues
  • Australian Boat People
    • role of people smugglers and organised trade
  • Remnant Jewish population to Palestine after end WW2
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