Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Medieval Slavery Existed, Alas

The University Bookman once examined a new edition of Regine Pernoud's Those Terrible Middle Ages! Debunking the Myths. While sympathetic to Pernoud's popular history written against popular legends, Glenn W. Olsen rebuts her belief that slavery had disappeared in medieval times:
Cornelius Buckley’s poorly informed and imprecise preface to this book accepts at face value what Pernoud has to say about slavery; but Pernoud has clearly been left behind by research on this subject over the last twenty-five years. Perhaps it is sufficient to refer to the work of Steven Epstein, past and forthcoming. In brief, according to Pernoud slavery disappeared over the course of the Middle Ages. (Buckley speaks of it being abolished.) This used to be a common view, and there is some truth to it. Manumission was an act of piety, and many were indeed manumitted. The ancient slave gradually became the medieval serf. But slavery never disappeared. We find internal slave markets in France itself in the early Middle Ages, and slaving on the edges of Europe in every century. In recent scholarship, the English have finally received full recognition for the slaving they practiced all through the Middle Ages in Ireland (see Robert Bartlett’s The Making of Europe). Slaving flourished across the frontiers between Islam and Christendom, and we are beginning to understand how common late-medieval domestic slavery was, especially in the cities of the Mediterranean.

I'm glad Irish history still preserves us from taking anglophilic mythmaking too seriously.

You'll often find this disbelief in medieval slavery in Chesterton's and Belloc's work. They depict the low state of the English commoner as a novelty introduced by the landowners' near-monopoly engendered by Henry VIII's confiscation of monastic lands.

It's really too bad the story of Christendom's free peasants is overstated. If Merrie England didn't exist, it should have.


The Sanity Inspector said...

If I were born even two generations ago, I'd be a tobacco farm laborer or something equally glamorous. If I were transported back into the Middle Ages, it'd be highly unlikely that I would be an Erasmus or an Aquinas. Whatever I would be, it'd probably be something nasty, brutish, and short.

Anonymous said...

O.k. but slave markets are not serf markets. And if you were an industrious peasant, Sanity, you may well have been the coq du ton village.