When the western Roman Empire "fell" in the fifth 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, the primary difference being that he was bound to the land instead of to an individual owner, and could not be sold to another estate.
But slavery didn't go away.
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 to set 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, ten 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 in 725 the price of 12 new gold solidi for a slave boy (referred to as "it" in the record). 12 solidi was much less than the cost of a horse.
- In the early ninth 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.
The ethics of the Catholic Church concerning slavery throughout the middle ages seems 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. Why?
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 society -- all society -- would be about as likely as abolishing the use of horses for transportation.
Then there is the Christian philosophy itself. Christianity had spread like wildfire partly because it offered life after death in paradise with a Heavenly Father. Yes, 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. And Christianity did indeed have an ameliorating effect on slavery.
Perhaps the world-view of the medieval mind can explain a great deal. Freedom and liberty are fundamental rights in twenty-first-century western civilization. Upward mobility is a possibility for everyone in America today. But 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 it was the powerful nobility or the largely impotent peasantry -- offered limited options and strongly-ingrained duties. Men could become knights like their fathers (or farmers like their fathers, 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 within each class and more personal choice than most people realize; and, 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.
Most would not recognize that, one way or another, medieval society had a way of keeping its people in chains.
Guide note: This article was originally posted in January, 1998, and was updated in November, 2011.
Sources and Suggested ReadingThe links below will take you to a site where you can compare prices at booksellers across the web. More in-depth info about the book may be found by clicking on to the book's page at one of the online merchants.
Slavery in Germanic Society During the Middle Ages
by Agnes Mathilde Wergeland
Slavery and Serfdom in the Middle Ages
by Marc Bloch; translated by W.R. Beer
Visit merchant site
Life in Medieval Times
by Marjorie Rowling
Facts were also checked with The Encyclopedia Americana.