The Slave Free Centuries February 22, 2012Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval, Modern , trackback
Slavery is regrettably everywhere in the past.
It underlies all the great achievements of Antiquity: when Plato was discoursing on the immortality of the soul there were Syrian dancing girls and Scythian catamites lining up in the background.
European colonialism grew under the shadow of the chain: it used to be said that the streets of Liverpool and Bristol were stained with slaves’ blood.
And slavery dishonoured the southern states in the Civil War: for every heroic charge of the Confederacy there was a public or domestic Fort Pillow.
But if slavery has mattered in history generally and in European history in particular there is also an unprecedented gap. From about 1000 up to 1500 Europe was perhaps the only part of the world to do away with the institution: five hundred slave free years…
What was it that pushed slavery out of the window? There is no easy answer. Still in the tenth century, only perhaps as many as eleventh percent of Europeans were slaves: that is the number commonly and pessimistically given for Domesday Book. And these numbers were way down on the numbers for the Ancient World and they seem to have been soft. Already back at the dawn of the Middle Ages writers had begun to attack the idea of owning human beings and these criticism grew in pitch till, by 1100, slavery was illegal in much of western Europe. Naturally the thuggish Vikings continued their slaving ways, but you could expect no better of them…
Even when Europe began to experiment with slavery again in the late renaissance and the age of exploration it did so with non-Christians and it preferred to do so outside of Europe on the jungled colonies in the Caribbean or on African islands. The fact that slavery was reduced to certain racial, geographic and religious limits suggests that late Medieval Europe ‘knew’ that slavery was not normal and gave into the temptation of sugar growing and black page-boys in Edinburgh saloons, but with justifying, pontificating exceptions.
When the heroic anti-slavery movements of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries stepped into the breech they, not their slaving rivals, could claim to be the true defenders of the western tradition. They were unquestionably defenders of a tradition.
How can we explain this extraordinary rejection of slavery for the best part of five centuries?
One answer is Christianity. However, there is no criticism of the institution of slavery in the gospels: ‘in Christ we are neither slave nor free, man nor woman’. Slavery was perhaps too strong an institution for the new religion to take on: it is interesting to see that Christian writers were far more concerned in stopping villa owners sleeping with their Syrian dancing girls than freeing the same. It is striking too that the first anti-slavery writer is, if Beachcombing’s memory serves him correctly (?), Gregory of Nazianus in the fourth century: while St Patrick who had been a slave in the fifth century – an escaped slave no less – stayed well away from the question.
The depressing but convincing answer to the West’s rejection of slavery is serfdom: in putting together its peasant class medieval Europe created an institution that allowed something akin to slavery but with a minimum of rights for those under its yoke. It might even be said that serfdom in its various forms allowed more of the population to be ‘enslaved’ to a lesser extent and gave more hours of labour to the estate owners.
In the small Italian village that Beach is happy to call home there are men and women still alive who remember the period, in the early twentieth century, when marriages between contadini were only possible with the nod of the local aristocracy and where births in tenant families were recorded with the cabbages and spring lambs in the factor’s ledger.
So why did Europe turn from slavery: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
Ricardo with some thoughts on slavery: ‘Serfdom does seems to be ‘cleaner’ for consciences that slavery. I think we still are too close to those society arrangment in time. Even in the 80s you could get stabbed in my village for asking a man who his father was (well, not so common but doing the question to the ‘right’ person could get you in such predictement). A large differential between those who had lands and money and those who served them meant that lots of people had incognito fathers (who everyone knew who they were in fact, albeit not officially admiting so)… I got into a discussion the other day about the civilization of ours and some idea is still nagging me, that the most tolerant societies (at least for their own members) are, on average, from merchant pendant.’ Here’s to the merchants. Thanks Ricardo!
23 may 2012: Ricardo writes ‘I remember of a story about the end of the use of Brazilian indians as slaves. I heard it but cannot attest its veracity. It is said Padre António Vieira was defending his case in an audience, in Europe, with a couple of indians present. These were very serious and not expressive at all. The business was not getting in the right direction until someone entered the room and fell by accident. The indians started laughing, proving they were humans and could not, in the eyes of God, be used as slaves. Well, I like the story but Africans are known to smile and that didn’t stop slavery. I think the most probable reason were the physical conditions of the indians and their high attrition in the bad conditions of work, making them not a very good investment for their slave masters. Like when I washed the dishes slowly and badly so to be expelled by my irate mother to do other tasks…’Ricardo