Slavery and Chains in Medieval Times

Slave Shackles
Slave Shackles. Photo by Slave Shackles, made available through the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

When the Western Roman Empire fell in the 15th century, slavery, which had been such an integral part of the empire's economy, began to be replaced by serfdom (an integral part of a feudal economy). Much attention is focused on the serf. His plight was not much better than the slave's had been, as he was bound to the land instead of to an individual owner, and could not be sold to another estate. However, slavery didn't go away.

How Slaves Were Captured and Sold

In the earliest part of the Middle Ages, slaves could be found in many societies, among them the Cymry in Wales and the Anglo-Saxons in England. The Slavs of central Europe were often captured and sold into slavery, usually by rival Slavonic tribes. Moors were known to keep slaves and believed that setting a slave free was an act of great piety. Christians also owned, bought, and sold slaves, as evidenced by the following:

  • When the Bishop of Le Mans transferred a large estate to the Abbey of St. Vincent in 572, 10 slaves went with it.
  • In the seventh century, the wealthy Saint Eloi bought British and Saxon slaves in batches of 50 and 100 so that he could set them free.
  • A transaction between Ermedruda of Milan, and a gentleman by the name of Totone, recorded the price of 12 new gold solidi for a slave boy (referred to as "it" in the record). Twelve solidi were much less than the cost of a horse.
  • In the early 9th century, the Abbey of St. Germain des Prés listed 25 of their 278 householders as slaves.
  • In the turmoil at the end of the Avignon Papacy, the Florentines engaged in insurrection against the pope. Gregory XI excommunicated the Florentines and ordered them enslaved wherever taken.
  • In 1488, King Ferdinand sent 100 Moorish slaves to Pope Innocent VIII, who presented them as gifts to his cardinals and other court notables.
  • Women slaves taken after the fall of Capua in 1501 were put up for sale in Rome.

Motivations Behind Slavery in the Middle Ages

The ethics of the Catholic Church concerning slavery throughout the Middle Ages seem difficult to comprehend today. While the Church succeeded in protecting the rights and well-being of slaves, no attempt was made to outlaw the institution.

One reason is economic. Slavery had been the basis of a sound economy for centuries in Rome, and it declined as serfdom slowly rose. However, it rose again when the Black Death swept Europe, dramatically reducing the population of serfs and creating a need for more forced labor.

Another reason is that slavery had been a fact of life for centuries, as well. Abolishing something so deeply entrenched in all of the society would be about as likely as abolishing the use of horses for transportation.

Christianity and the Ethics of Slavery

Christianity had spread like wildfire partly because it offered life after death in paradise with a heavenly Father. The philosophy was that life was terrible, injustice was everywhere, disease killed indiscriminately, and the good died young while the evil thrived. Life on earth simply wasn't fair, but life after death was ultimately fair: the good were rewarded in Heaven and the evil were punished in Hell.

This philosophy could sometimes lead to a laissez-faire attitude toward social injustice, although, as in the case of good Saint Eloi, certainly not always. Christianity had an ameliorating effect on slavery.

Western Civilization and Being Born Into a Class

Perhaps the world-view of the medieval mind can explain a great deal. Freedom and liberty are fundamental rights in 21st-century Western civilization. Upward mobility is a possibility for everyone in America today. These rights were only won after years of struggle, bloodshed, and outright war. They were foreign concepts to medieval Europeans, who were accustomed to their highly-structured society.

Each individual was born into a particular class and that class, whether powerful nobility or largely impotent peasantry, offered limited options and strongly-ingrained duties.

Men could become knights, farmers, or craftsmen like their fathers or join the Church as monks or priests. Women could marry and become the property of their husbands, instead of the property of their fathers, or they could become nuns. There was a certain amount of flexibility in each class and some personal choice.

Occasionally, an accident of birth or an extraordinary will would help someone deviate from the course medieval society had set. Most medieval people would not see this situation as restrictive as we do today.

Sources and Suggested Reading