Following on from the article on Christianity and the ancient world, I thought I would examine the relationship between Christianity and slavery in the Middle Ages. For many non-Christians, the perception of the Middle Ages was a period of superstition and feudal oppression, when the great lords exploited their serfs, aided by the Church, which justified their subordination. The most blatant example of this image of the Middle Ages recently was in the Hollywood film, King Arthur of about four years ago. In one scene, Arthur is shown freeing the oppressed peasants on a Roman villa from oppression and physical torture by Roman Catholic priests.
Ecclesiastical Ownership of Slaves
Now there is clearly some truth in the charicature. The social structure of the Middle Ages was very hierarchical, with most of the population living in some kind of bondage, either as slaves or serfs – individuals with more rights than slaves, but still tied to their masters. Christian churches and the clergy often possessed slaves, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of them on a single ecclesiastical estate. 1 Pope Gregory I (590-604) barred slaves from marrying free Christians, while Gregory XI in the 14th century would sometimes order the enslavement of an opponent after excommunicating them. Christian theologians also used Biblical authority to support slavery as an institution. 2 Nevertheless, Christian theology also viewed slavery as unnatural and demanded slaves’ humane treatment. 3 It also sought to reform and abolish certain aspects of the slave trade, while some theologians even challenged the legitimacy of slavery altogether.
Church Opposition to Slavery and the Slave Trade
Serfdom and slavery certainly existed in ancient Celtic society. A set of four slave neck rings, dating from the 1st century BC, were recovered from Llyn Cerrig Bach in Anglesey in 1942/3. 4 Ancient Irish law recognised the existence of seven types of serf, including those who were unable to pay their honour price, enech, as free men and so sold themselves to a master. 5 Nevertheless, the founder of Christianity in Ireland, St. Patrick, had rejected all forms of slavery ‘apparently the first public person in history to adopt such a categorical stance’. 6 Indeed slavery was gradually suppressed in Europe from the fourth century AD to the High Middle Ages, when it was virtually unknown in northern Europe. 7 Some of this decline can be traced to the influence of Chistianity and the church’s intention of protecting Christians from enslavement. Canon Law prevented non-Christians in Europe from owning Christian slaves. 8 This prohibition was eventually extended to include Christians, so that although slaves were bought and sold as late as the 10th century, this was increasingly rare and expensive, partly through the Church’s prohibition on the enslavement of Christians. 9
Church Encouragement of Manumission
The Church also had strong moral objections to certain forms of slavery, and encouraged their manumission as a pious act. In Anglo-Saxon England, the Council of Chelsea of 816 stipulated that penal slaves should be freed on the death of a bishop, and secular lords also included provisions in their wills freeing their slaves. 10 The earliest known English manumission was by the Bishop Wilfred on his estate in Selsey c. 681-6. 11 As Wilfred’s overlord, king Ethelwealh, had given him the inhabitants as well as the land, Wilfrid freed the slaves there after he had baptised them. ’Among them [the inhabitants] were two hundred and fifty male and female slaves, all of whom he released from the slavery of Satan by baptism and by granting them their freedom released them fom the yoke of human slavery as well.’ 12 Most surviving Anglo-Saxon wills contain instructions for the manumission of slaves, and in total there are about 120 manumission documents for the period. 13 Sometimes this was in general terms, such as ‘and all my men are to be free, and each is to have his homestead and his cow and his corn for food’. 14 Other wills specifically name the individuals who were to be freed. Thus the Anglo-Saxon lady, Wynflaed, instructed that a number of her slaves should be specifically freed in her will of c.950.
‘And they are to free Wulfwaru, to follow whom she pleases; [and ...]ttryth also; and hey are to free Wulfflaed on condition that she follow Aethelflaed and Eadgifu … And thy are to free Gerburg and Miscin an Hi[...] and the daughter of Burhulf at Chinnock, and Aelfsige and his wife and his older daughter, and Ceolstan’s wife. And a Charlton they are to Pifus and Edwin [...] and [...]‘s wife. An at Paccombe they are to free Eadhelm, and Man, and Johanna, and Sprow and his wife, and enefaet, and Gersand, and snell. And a Coleshill they are to free Aethelgyth, and Bic’s wife, and Aeffa, and Beda, and Gurhan’s wife; and they are to free Wulfwaru’s sister, Brihtsige’s wife, and [...] the wright, and Aelfwith’s daughter Wulfgyth. An if there be any pernally enslaved person besies these whom she enslaved, she trusts to herchildren that thy wil release them for her soul['s sake].’ 15
The law code promulgated in 695 of King Wihtraed of Kent stipulated that manumissions should be performed in church, though slaves were also manumitted at the crossroads in Devon and Camridgeshire. 16 Even there slaves were commonly manumitted in front of members of the clergy. ‘Eadgifu freed Wulfric at the cross-roads, three weks before midsummer, in the witness of Brihstan the priest and of Cynestan and of the cleric who wrote this.’ 17 Slaves could be freed at the tombs of saints, and most manumissions stated that they were performed for the good of the soul of the person granting the slave their freedom. 18 Manumissions were not only recorded in wills. They were also written in gospel books and service books, such as in the Welsh Lichfield Gospels, written before 840. This ‘gave sacred authority to and permanent, written public recognition of the act whil also acknowledging the manumittor’s charity.’ 19 Thus it’s true to say that the redemption of captives and the manumitting of slaves were Christian acts of mercy much encouraged by the Church.’ 20 In the words of the act of manumission for an eleventh century serf, ‘whoever, in the name of the holy and undivided Trinity, moved by charity, permits anyone of his servile dependents to rise from the yoke of servitude to the honour of liberty, may surely trust that in the Last Day, he himself will be endued with everlasting and celestial liberty.’ 21
Church Protection of Slaves and their Rights
Slaves in Anglo-Saxon society, like the later serfs, possessed rights, which the Church actively protected. The Church was well aware of the hardship of the slave’s life. The Colloquy on the Professions, written by Aelfric, abbot of Cerne Abbas c. 987-1002 for the children in the monastic school, contains the lines on the work of the ploughman
‘Teacher: Oh! Oh! The labour must be great!
Ploughman: It is indeed great drudgery, because I am not free.’ 22
Stories of the saints included episodes where the saint intervened to prevent the harsh treatment of slaves. 23 In Roman Gaul during the later Roman Empire, aristocratic bishops such as St. Germanus of Auxerre travelled on missions to secure relief from oppressive taxes for peoples as far afield as Armorica (Brittany) and Britain. There were also revolts from the peasants themselves, such as that of the Bagaudae, against heavy imperial taxation and oppression by the authorities between 417 and 454. These revolts were eventually suppressed by the imperial army and, in the 440s, by the Visigoths. While they failed, bishops like St. Germanus succeeded. These bishops in turn Christianised the memory of the earlier peasant rebels, and turned them into something similar to Christian martyrs. 24 Bishop Wulfstan in his Sermon of the Wolf to the English stated that it was because people were being enslaved and the slaves deprived of their rights that had made God send the Vikings to raid and invade them. 25 He lamented that, amongst other crimes,
‘ poor men are wretchedly deceived and cruelly cheated and wholly innocent, sold out of this land far and wide into the possession of foreigners; and through cruel injustice children in the cradle are enslaved for petty theft widely throughout this nation; and the rights of freemen suppressed and the rights of thralls curtailed and the rights of charity neglected; and, to speak most briefly, God’s laws are hated and his commands despised. And therefore through the anger of God we all suffer frequent insults, let him acknowledge it who may; and this harm will become common, though one may not think so, to all this nation unless God will save us.’ 26
People Selling themselves into Slavery for Food
One of the reasons some people became enslaved was because they had sold themselves in order to be fed during a famine. 27 Such people were freed on the deaths of their masters. Thus the late 10th century will of Geatfleda, a benefactress of Durham cathedral, states that she ‘has given freedom for the love of God and for the need of her soul: namely Ecceard teh smith and Aelfstan and his wife and all their offspring, born and unborn, and Arcil and Cole and Ecgferth [and] Ealdhun’s duaghter, and all those people whose heads shed took for their food in the evil days.’ 28
In England, slavery ended in the 12th century after the Norman Conquest. Norman control of the sea made it impossible for English people to be exported as slaves. 29 This was reinforced by the preaching of Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester, who travelled regularly to Bristol, the main slave port in his see, to preach against the trade. In his Life of Saint Wulstan, the 12th century historian William of Malmesbury expressed absolute horror of the trade:
‘You might well groan to see the long rows of young men adn maidesn whose beauty and youth might move the pity of a savage, bound together with cords, and brought to market to be sold. It was a damnable sin, a piteous reproach, that men, worse than brute beasts, should sell into slavery their own lemans, nay, their own blood.’ 30 Eventually the saint’s preaching was so successful that not only did the people of Bristol abandon the trade and become ‘an example to all England’, but they blinded and drove one slave trader who entered the city. 31
Decline of Medieval Slavery
Eventually slavery declined in northern Europe, transformed into serfdom. While the serf was still unfree, they nevertheless enjoyed certain rights denied the slave. Nevertheless, the view contained in Christian theology that human inequality was a result of the Fall inspired radical Christian groups, such as the English Lollards, the followers of the theology of John Wyclif, to challenge feudalism itself. One Lollard verse ran
‘By Heaven’s high law all men are free,
but human law knows slavery.’ 32
Although Lollardy was eventually the suppressed, the medieval period had seen the development of Christian theological opposition to slavery based on the arguments of the ancient Greek and Roman theologians, an opposition that would be revived in the West in the campaign against Atlantic slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries.
1. James A. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law (London, Longman 1995), p. 14; Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments against Anti-Religious Bigotry (San Francisco, Encounter Books 2002), p. 29.
2. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 29.
3. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, p. 14.
4.Francis Pryor, Britain BC: Life in Britain and Ireland before the Romans (London, HarperCollins 2003), p. 424.
5. Michael Richter, Medieval Ireland: The Enduring Tradition (Basingstoke, MacMillan 1988), p. 20.
6. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 26.
7. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 29.
8. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, p. 16.
9. R.H.C. Davis, A History of Medieval Europe – From Constantine to Saint Louis (London, Longman 1988), p. 188.
10. Dorothy Whitelock, The Beginnings of English Society (London, Penguin Books 1974), p. 112.
11. David A.C. Pelteret, ‘Manumission’, in Michael Lapdige, John Blair, Simon Keynes and Donald Scragg, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford, Blackwell 2001), p. 301.
12. Leo Shirley-Price and R.E. Latham, Bede: A History of the English Church and People (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1968), p. 229.
13. Whitelock, English Society, p. 112; Pelteret, ‘Manumission’, in Lapidge, Blair and Scragg, eds., Anglo-Saxon England, p. 301.
14. Whitelock, English Society, p. 112.
15. ‘The Will of Wynflaed, c.950′ in Michael Swanton, trans., Anglo-Saxon Prose (London, J.M. Dent 1993), p. 53.
16. Pelteret, ‘Manumission’, in Lapidge, Blair and Scragg, eds., Anglo-Saxon England, p. 301.
17. Whitelock, English Society, p. 113.
18. Pelteret, ‘Manumission’, in Lapidge, Blair and Scragg, eds., Anglo-Saxon England, p. 302.
19. Pelteret, ‘Manumission’, in Lapidge, Blair and Scragg, eds., Anglo-Saxon England, p. 301.
20. Whitelock, English Society, p. 112.
21. R.W. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages (London, Century Hutchinson 1987), p. 103.
22. ‘Aelfric’s Colloquy’ in Swanton, Anglo-Saxon Prose, p. 169; ‘A Colloquy’, in Kevin Crossley-Holland, ed. and trans., The Anglo-Saxon World (Woodbridge, the Boydell Press 1982), p. 199.
23. Whitelock, English Society, p. 109.
24. Patrick J. Geary, Before France and Germany: The Creation & Transformation of the Merovingian World (Oxford, OUP 1988), p. 37.
25. Whitelock, English Society, p. 109.
26. ‘The Sermon of the Wolf to the English’ in Crossley-Holland, Anglo-Saxon World, p. 266.
27. Whitelock, English Society, p. 112.
28. ‘A Manumission’, in Crossley-Holland, The Anglo-Saxon World, p. 234.
29. David A.E. Pelteret, ‘Slavery’ in Lapidge, Blair and Scragg, eds., Anglo-Saxon England, p. 423.
30. J.H.F. Peile, William of Malmesbury’s Life of Saint Wulstan (Felinfach, Llanerch facsimile reprint of 1934 edition, 1996), p. 65.
31. Peile, Life of Saint Wulstan, p. 65.
32. Southern, Making of the Middle Ages, p. 103.