- Slaves and Slavery
- One of the most pernicious and persistent practices throughout human history, slavery was found everywhere in the ancient Mediterranean and continued in some form into the Middle Ages. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that the continuance of the practice of slavery and holding of slaves was an essential part of ancient society and that only when slavery was ended, and ultimately transformed into serfdom, did the ancient world truly end. Although slavery persisted into late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, it differed from the traditional Roman practice of holding large gangs of agricultural slave laborers. Still, slaves were found performing agricultural labor in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages in significant numbers, even if they were sometimes hard to distinguish from the local free peasants; they were also found at a number of other tasks, including military. Slavery existed among all the peoples that created kingdoms in the former Western Roman Empire, including Franks, Goths, Lombards, and Vandals.Slavery had been a fundamental component of economy of the Mediterranean in the classical age; in late antiquity, its practice continued to be supported as a natural part of life. Indeed, the great church father, St. Augustine of Hippo, justified slavery's practice in the fifth century by noting that it was the consequence of sin. Although some deeply pious Christians freed their slaves-for example, the sixth-century pope Gregory the Great who, according to the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon historian Bede, purchased a number of Anglo-Saxon slaves to free them and join them to the church-there was no great push by the church for the manumission of slaves. Augustine also provides evidence for its ubiquity in the late fourth and fifth centuries, observing that nearly every household possessed slaves. Indeed, the household slave remained an important functionary, and each soldier generally had at least one or two slaves at his service. In the Roman Empire of the fourth and fifth centuries, slaves continued to be used in a number of other places, including mines, quarries, foundries, and weaving factories. They were, or course, also used as laborers on the farms of the empire, but not in great gangs housed in barracks, as they had been during the early days of the empire. They were often given small plots of land to work to encourage their productivity and also to preserve the land as taxable property. In fact, it was forbidden by law to sell a slave without his property. As a result of this, the slave and free peasant became increasingly difficult to distinguish, with the slave better off in some ways than the peasant. In one of his letters, Augustine voiced the concern that the peasant would abandon his place and join the ranks of the slaves.Despite their many uses, slaves amounted to no more than 10 or 12 percent of the population. Nevertheless, there still existed a lucrative slave trade, which involved commerce in slaves gathered mainly from the frontier areas of the empire in modern western Hungary and Morocco. Slaves were obtained through inheritance, but more by conquest or trade. Indeed, as the various barbarian peoples entered the empire they sold their compatriots or, more often, the people they had conquered. The invasions themselves led to the continued slave trade, as many Roman citizens fell into slavery. Alaric, during the Visigothic invasion of Italy and sack of Rome, captured many slaves. The invasion of Attila and the Huns also led to the capture of many slaves, as did the invasions of the Vandals, Odovacar, and Theodoric the Great.In the immediate post-Roman world, slavery existed in various forms among the various successor kingdoms established by the Germanic peoples who had moved into the empire. Among the Visigoths, slaves were found working the royal estates in Spain and as skilled laborers in the household. Slaves also served in the Visigothic army, although their rank and treatment was little improved by their military service. A noblewoman would be flogged and burned alive for having sexual relations with a slave. The same fate awaited the slave, but a free nobleman could father as many slave children as he wished. In the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy a slave's life was a harsh one, and slavery was primarily rural. Slaves were chattel with very few rights or privileges, who could be killed by their owners or burned alive for having sexual relations with a widow or causing a fire. Slaves could not legally marry and could be transferred at will from one estate to another. They could even be assigned to a peasant, whose treatment could be worse in practice than that of some distant owner.The practice of slavery continued in Italy after its conquest by the Lombards in the sixth century, and their invasion of the peninsula brought them many slaves, which provided them a larger slave workforce than that of the Goths or Romans before them. Testimony to the size of the slave population in the Lombard kingdom is found in the numerous references to them in Lombard law. A seventh-century law code, the Leges Rothari ("Laws of King Rothari") identifies the existence of slaves of Germanic and Roman descent. The Roman slaves were often skilled and so valued more highly than their Germanic counterparts, who generally worked the fields as agricultural labor, though both Roman and Germanic slaves did serve as farmhands. Slaves were used for household and agricultural labor, and there was a monastery that owned a large number of female slaves who wove cloth. The life of the slave improved by the time of King Liutprand, in part because of the influence of the church after the conversion of the Lombards to Catholic Christianity. The marriage of slaves was now recognized as legitimate, part of the fine for killing a slave was given to the slave's family, and slaves could be freed to join the clergy.In the Frankish kingdoms slavery in some form or other existed into the ninth and tenth centuries, but the distinction between a slave and serf became increasingly blurred. There is evidence that slavery existed from the earliest days of the Merovingian dynasty. The Salic law describes certain legal processes involving slaves, and the sixth-century Frankish historian Gregory of Tours tells of the brutal treatment of slaves, including the burying of two alive, by the Frankish noble Rauching. Of course, Gregory held Rauching up as an example of the worst treatment of slaves, and not all slaves endured such debased conditions. Indeed, the sixth-century queen Fredegund may have been a slave, or at least a servant at the royal court, and the seventh-century queen (and later saint) Balthild was a slave, even though of royal birth. The extent of slavery during the Merovingian period remains uncertain, however, because of uncertainties in the sources themselves and vagueness in terminology. It is likely, though, that slavery was not that extensive under the Merovingian dynasty, as records from the early days and as well as the later period of the dynasty indicate. The records of bishops at either end of Merovingian history reveal a small percentage of slaves on episcopal estates. Slavery was most likely hereditary, but there are records of frequent manumission of slaves. Aside from Gregory's tale of Rauching, the evidence suggests that slaves were not poorly treated, in part because of a labor shortage the kingdom suffered, so that both the free peasantry in the countryside and the slaves were most likely well treated.Slavery surely continued under the Carolingian dynasty, though in a much changed form from classical slavery; there is evidence revealing the transformation of slaves into serfs. The morality of slavery was much discussed by Carolingian scholars, who often borrowed from Augustine and the other church fathers. The most important of the Carolingian scholars, the Anglo-Saxon Alcuin of York, justified slavery in the very terms used by St. Augustine, and others recognized it as a natural part of the divine order of things. There is also much evidence of an active slave trade in the Carolingian Empire, and the trade was carried on by both Jewish and Christian merchants. Slaves came from the border regions of the empire, including Saxony and the Slavic lands, but it was not uncommon for an unfortunate to be captured while traveling the highways and sold into slavery. The conquests of Charlemagne and other Carolingian rulers were another source of slaves, as captives of war who were not ransomed were kept as slaves. The number of slaves was most likely not that great, seldom more than 10 percent on records from the great estates, but there were concentrations of slaves on the estates employed in a variety of occupations. Alcuin, for example, appears to have had large numbers of slaves at work on the monasteries under his control, and records from a number of other great estates indicate that about 10 percent of the workforce was made up of slaves. Carolingian slaves served as traders and bodyguards, but their most important duty was as agricultural laborers. In their role as farmers, the slaves of the Carolingian era show signs of becoming the serfs of the later Middle Ages.See alsoAlaric; Alcuin of York; Anglo-Saxons; Augustine of Hippo, St.; Balthild, St.; Carolingian Dynasty; Franks; Fredegund; Gregory the Great, Pope; Gregory of Tours; Liutprand; Lombards; Merovingian Dynasty; Odovacar; Ostrogoths; Salic Law; Theodoric the Great; Vandals; VisigothsBibliography♦ Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People with Bede's Letter to Egbert and Cuthbert's Letter on the Death of Bede. Trans. Leo Sherley-Price. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1991.♦ Bloch, Marc. French Rural History: An Essay on Its Basic Characteristics. Trans. Janet Sondheimer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.♦ ---. Slavery and Serfdom in the Middle Ages. Trans. William R. Beer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.♦ Bonnassie, Pierre. From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe. Trans. Jean Birrell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.♦ Cameron, Averil. The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity, a.d. 395-600. New York: Routledge, 1993.♦ Dockès, Pierre. Medieval Slavery and Liberation. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.♦ Duby, Georges. The Early Growth of the European Economy: Warriors and Peasants from the Seventh to the Twelfth Century. Trans. Howard B. Clarke. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974.♦ Gregory of Tours. The History of the Franks. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1974.♦ Wallace-Hadrill, J. M. The Barbarian West, a.d. 400-1000. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.♦ ---. The Long-Haired Kings. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982.♦ Wood, Ian. The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450-751. London: Longman, 1994.
Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.