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Who were the slaves in medieval England?

Who were the slaves in medieval England?

Who were the slaves in medieval England?

Slavery in Anglo-Saxon England, pre-1066, was slavery. Full stop. We are not talking about serfdom, or indentured servitude, or another different institution. Now this does not mean that slavery in England was the same as it was in other historical contexts. The numbers of slaves in the Antebellum South were much much higher as a percentage of the population than in England, but nevertheless they were present.

According to Pat Duchak (citing an earlier work by Dorothy Whitleock among others) the slave trade in England was outlawed in 1102 by the decree of a council in Westminster, and slavery disappeared rather rapidly from England in the following years.

What was slavery like in Anglo-Saxon England before it was banned by the Normans?

Slavery was an integral part of Anglo-Saxon England from its very inception. Law codes, penitentials, and wills all attest to slavery as a widespread practice. However this was not necessarily the same kind of slavery that is naturally assumed by people today. Americans especially often associate all slavery with the race based chattel slavery of the Ante-Bellum South, but this is not always the case historically.

Slavery in Anglo-Saxon England was not an institution that belonged to any specific ethnic group, religion, and so on. Slaves could be captured in war, become penal slaves due to violating certain laws such as working on Sundays, they could be sold into slavery by their own families to help ends meet (or to avoid starvation, Duchak recounts one episode where a former master frees all of the slaves that they acquired due to a recent famine), or they could be born into it. The slave trade itself, buying slaves from abroad, was also quite well established and predominated on the east coast of England towards Wales and Ireland, indicating that many slaves were coming from these regions (or were being bought from Norse middlemen who were operating in this same area).

There also seem to have been many avenues for escaping the condition of slavery, buying your own freedom through ransom, manumission was highly prized as an example of pious action, slaves were often freed as even freedmen had extensive social and legal connections to their emancipator, and in certain cases the law allowed people to leave slavery such as if a woman (who was not a slave) did not wish to remain with her husband who became a slave. Archbishop Wulfstan even recounted that some runaway slaves were welcomed into Danish armies, admittedly this may have been a rhetorical flourish on his part (it’s hard to believe that Wulfstan at this point was intimately acquainted with the composition of Danish armies).

Slaves also seem to have had some limited protections, in theory. Anglo-Saxon laws often require payment made for offenses and crimes against slaves, and it seems that their ability to own property of some sort was protected. One Anglo-Saxon penitential even mentions that a man who has sex with a female slave must not only perform six month of fasting as penance (the penalty for sex with a virgin was one year of fasting, and with a “vowed virgin” three) but he must also free the slave. This lower tier of reparations to slaves is common in Anglo-Saxon law codes. Now it is important to remember that law codes and penitentials are normative sources, meant to describe how law should be, and they do not necessarily what was done on a day to day basis.

Slavery had been under scrutiny in the preceding decades before being outlaws as well however, according to William of Malmesbury, the last Anglo-Saxon Bishop, confusingly named Wulfstan (not the much more famous Archbishop Wulfstan), had successfully shut down the slave market in the city of Bristol. William claims this was an example for all of England, but we find it somewhat difficult to believe all the slave markets in England shut down because of this one event. However this example too dates to the post-Conquest era. Before the Conquest there seems to have been no England wide initiative to outlaw the trade. it was deeply ingrained and involved with not only lay culture but also with Church life as well.

1. The Church and Slavery in Anglo-Saxon England by Pat Dutchak
2. Written by u/Steelcan909.
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