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Slavery in England had apparently been replaced by serfdom in the twelfth century, yet writers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries continue to use terms such as ‘slave’, ‘serf’, and ‘villein’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.

Reeve and serfs in feudal England, c. 1310. From Wikimedia Commons <;

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.

The long-term negative impact of slavery on economic development in Brazil

by Andrea Papadia (London School of Economics)

Jean Baptiste Debret (1826). From “The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record”,


Slavery has been at the centre of many heated debates in the social sciences, yet there are few systematic studies relating slavery to economic outcomes in receiving countries. Moreover, most existing work on Brazil – which was the largest slave importer during the African slave trade and the last country to abolish the practice – has failed to identify any clear legacies of this institution.

This research overcomes this impasse by highlighting a distinctly negative impact of slavery on economic development in Brazil. More precisely, it illustrates that in the municipalities of the states of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, where slave labour was more prevalent in the nineteenth century, fiscal development was lower in the early twentieth century, long after slavery was abolished.

The identification of this negative effect is tied to separating the true effect of slavery on fiscal development from the fact that the huge expansion of coffee production that Brazil underwent from the 1830s attracted large numbers of slaves to booming regions. In fact, the research shows that:

  • A naïve analysis of the data would suggest that for relatively low levels, more slavery in the nineteenth century was associated with higher successive fiscal development.
  • For population shares of slaves above 30-35%, more slavery was clearly associated with lower fiscal development.
  • Taking account of the impact of the coffee boom on both the demand for slave labour and development, slavery was unambiguously associated with worse developmental outcomes later on.
  • Comparing two hypothetical municipalities – equal in all respects except for their reliance on slave labour – one with 30% of slaves among its citizens would have had revenues 70% lower compared with one with 20%.
  • These results persist even when taking account of a wide variety of other factors that could explain difference in fiscal development across municipalities.

Fiscal development is widely considered as an essential building block in the creation of modern states able to foster economic growth by providing public goods and protecting the rule of law. While the historical process of fiscal development on the European continent is relatively well understood, in other parts of the world the study of the evolution of fiscal institutions is still in its early stages.

There are many reasons why a high incidence of slavery would hamper fiscal development and the provision of public goods:

  • First, a higher incidence of slaves in the population will translate into lower political representation for the masses, even in only partially democratic regimes such as nineteenth and early twentieth century Brazil.
  • Second, the provision of key public goods, such as education, will be less salient in areas that rely heavily on slave labour. These areas will also be less keen to attract workers from other areas of the country and abroad, thus making the provision of public services to their citizens less important.
  • Finally, slavery might make resource sharing though taxation more difficult due to increased ethnic, geographical and class cleavages in the population.

The history of Brazil, which was characterised by large-scale use of slave labour from the sixteenth century until the nineteenth century, provides an idea testing ground to investigate how this clearly extractive institution affected the developmental path of countries and their subdivisions.

The research shows that by accounting for confounding effects due to Brazil’s coffee boom, the pernicious effects of slavery on a key factor for economic growth – fiscal development – can be strongly identified.

New Researcher Prize: “Why sell oneself into (temporary) slavery?”

by Alexander Persaud, PhD student, University of Michigan
Winner of the New Researcher Prize – Economic History Society 2017

Free labour dominates our thinking about markets today, yet unfree labour has been and continues to be an important part of the economy.  For example, large numbers of workers from the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia work in the Middle East under the kafala systemWest Germany recruited Gastarbeiter for decades in the mid-20th century.  Although not widely publicized, the US maintains guest worker programs that tie individuals to a particular employer for a set period and wage.
The existence of these and other contractual forms prompts the question, why do workers voluntarily forego their options and become temporary slaves?  In order to answer this, I turn to an historical example of bonded-labour contracts and international migration:  Indian indentureship in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  I turn to new, unique, individual-level data collected and collated by me on roughly 250,000 Indian indentured servants sent around the world.
A key tenet of the indentureship contract is a guaranteed, fixed wage.  This in turn points to a key driver of unfree labour contracts:  uncertainty about the future and fear of bad economic outcomes may make temporary slavery a viable strategy.  The certainty from the contract outweighs the losses from lack of mobility.
This research traces Indians back to their home districts and calculate measures of volatility (to proxy for uncertainty) at the time of departure. It then models out-migration as a result of push factors (low wages, high prices, and volatility) vs. the pull factors from the guaranteed overseas wage.
The research finds that migration is consistent escaping volatility.  Districts in India with higher volatility were more likely to send immigrants and sent higher numbers than low-volatility districts.  The results were not uniform, though.  Castes heavily involved in owning and investing in land responded more than subsistence-only castes.  This reflects the different time horizons across castes.  Finally, Indians who left from more volatile areas were less likely to return to India.  Thus, not only did volatility affect Indians at the time of departure but also years later at the potential time of return.
Overall, volatility matters.  It caused Indians to sell themselves into temporary slavery and may have important other effects for people near subsistence who are unable to protect themselves against major economic shocks or even minor fluctuations.  More generally, this research highlights how uncertainty about economic conditions, not merely average wage differentials between markets, affects migration and labour choice.