Slavery in medieval England: broad continuation between the 12th and 17th centuries

by Judith Spicksley (University of York)

Slavery in England had apparently been replaced by serfdom in the twelfth century, yet writers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries continue to use terms such as ‘slave’, ‘serf’, and ‘villein’ interchangeably. This research seeks to make sense of this historical conundrum.

550px-Reeve_and_Serfs
Reeve and serfs in feudal England, c. 1310. From Wikimedia Commons <http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Serfdom&gt;

Historians of medieval England have suggested that slavery had disappeared by the twelfth century. Explanations include the growth of a new notion of chivalric behaviour, and the liberalising effects of an expanding Christianity, in which enslavement of fellow Christians became unthinkable.

But most emphasis has been placed on the effects of economic development, through a combination of technological change, demographic expansion, market growth and a shift in the nature of agricultural production.

In the view of many commentators, serfdom – the system of unfree labour associated with the manorial system – replaced slavery as the main method of restricting the freedom of the individual. Slaves were of unfree status, but serfs, who were given access to land in return for providing a varied mix of labour, goods and cash – were of unfree tenure.

The term ‘serfdom’ has wide application across a range of European manorial systems, but in England, it is usually referred to as ‘villeinage’, since this was the name of the common law institution that developed in the twelfth century.

While there has been considerable debate about the causes of slavery’s decline, there has been much less disagreement about its timing. More recent research has suggested that domestic slaves – mostly women – were retained and underwent something of a revival in southern Mediterranean towns in the later medieval period. There are also examples of young women who were kidnapped and sold as prostitutes in England.

This research suggests that for a number of reasons, we have missed the broader continuation of slavery between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries. In part this is because it did decline, but it also became less visible.

On the one hand, the economic roles undertaken by slaves were no different from those done by individuals who were free. On the other hand, the institution of villeinage used a new language to define itself: the unfree were villeins, bondmen and nativi, and were not identified as ‘slaves’.

It is also clear that there was an overlap between unfree status and unfree tenure that has not yet been adequately investigated. Later histories have been heavily influenced both by the transatlantic slave trade, which provided an unforgettable image of the ‘slave’, and by the emergence of two major theoretical approaches: classical economic theory; and the Marxian materialist dialectic.

Together these factors have been instrumental in bringing about a reluctance to translate the Latin word servus as ‘slave’ in the legal texts, literature and documentary evidence of late medieval England, and give preference instead to the language of villeinage.

Slavery may have changed its appearance in the late medieval period, but in law, little had changed. Those of unfree status still owned nothing, could devise nothing and were at the will of their lords; moreover, their children inherited their unfree status.

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