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Slavery in Early Mediaeval England.

Slavery in Early Mediaeval England. By David A. E. Pelteret. Studies in Anglo-Saxon History, VII (Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 1995. xvi plus 375 pp. $75.00).

Certain things will be expected of a book that is in the main a study of Anglo-Saxon slavery, and most of these expectations are well answered in Pelteret's work. There is, first of all--to list the cliches in order--the textbook statement regarding period and chronology: the North German tribes who invaded post-Roman Britain (in numbers we still have not established for certain) fall into the historiographical murk, or relative blankness, of the "Dark Ages," and so our data on society and economy (and slavery's position) are not likely to be plentiful or even apparent. Then there is the assumption that in the post-Roman 'tribal' period slavery as such is a nugatory phenomenon, since 'history' causes its disappearance just as the ancient world and its economy and society and arts and artifacts disappeared, in a dialectical fashion. Finally, there is the dramatically fatal terminus of Anglo-Saxon society and civilization as it appeared in 1066, with the triumph of a Norman invader bringing with him Continental manorial forms and privileges--and the advent of serfdom. All, as it happens, are proven to be pretty much wrong as assumptions go.

What Pelteret lays out, in an excellently detailed but occasionally confusing narrative-structural scheme, is a picture of a lively early-medieval 'conquest' society with a varied and sizeable unfree component, and also a society that moved and developed toward the estate-centered, true 'medieval' socioeconomic mode well before the violent advent of William the Bastard and his motley Norman and mercenary crew. So far as reaching the earliest layers of Anglo-Saxon society and reality, we do have the predictable problem of sources, though there are some; even when the sources are available "we won't get to know individual slaves" (40)--which is true, of course, for almost any slave-holding context. The earliest data seem to identify a preponderence of Welsh (Briton) slaves, both in terms of the descriptive words used (as, wale for slave-woman) and the physical descriptions; these undoubtedly would have been British war-captives, and war-captives probably make up the original core of any slave-population, anywhe re--the unfortunate "captives of the spear." (The Anglo-Saxon population was by no means safe from this fate, as would become clear when the fearfully destructive Viking raids and larger expeditions began in the early 9th century). From the first we ought to be aware that Anglo-Saxon servile terminology was at least somewhat affected by a literary traditon that emphasized 'kenning,' that is elaborate poetic decoration and variation (it is of interest that the Norse terminology was not so affected--a prael is a prael-and that the greatest Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, has almost no slaves to be seen in it at all). In any case, Pelteret helpfully adds a 70-page Appendix listing the Anglo-Saxon terminology for slavery and for freedom, from aeht (something owned, property) to wite-peow (penal enslavement).

The chief themes governing early medieval Anglo-Saxon slavery are a) slavery, here as elsewhere in the pre-modern world, was "a natural part of the social order" (64) and unquestioned; b) that enslavement--especially by capture in war or raid--might fall on anyone, and c) that the very earliest data already show shifts and shadings in and rising out of the older 'tribal' concept of status and personal freedom (and servitude). These themes are drawn from a body of evidence that bears on slavery in different ways, obviously depending on the intent or focus of the evidence; legal codes on the one hand, religious documents (wills would be counted in this category, and more clearly the newly-introduced 'penetentials') on the other hand will tell us different things about the slave. Not much of what these data do tell us will be any sort of surprise to specialists in the study of early medieval or any other type of (or period of) slavery. Enslavement could come about through various instrumentalities: by birth, by capture, by self-enslavement (often because of debt--and a man might first sell his children into slavery) or as a penal judgement. We do see some odd entries, such as the fact that penal slavery was the punishment assigned (according to Bishop Wulfstan) for incest the man becoming the king's property, and the woman the bishop's--unless a fine were paid. The Will and Testament of King Alfred the Great also appears to give evidence that a priest might be a slave, which is surely taking the Christian principle of "the equality of believers" pretty far.

Anglo-Saxon England provided a rich slave-trove for the Vikings who sent their captives eastward, especially to the Islamic lands, but slave-trading was not at all a Norse monopoly; the Church naturally had a stern opinion about all this (the enslavement of Christians)--and in fact in 1102, fifty years after the Conquest, slave-trading in England was outlawed. We ought to note that the Church also approved and encouraged manumission as a duty of the God-fearing Christian slave-owner, though we get the impression (and there is nothing too surprising here) that manumission was often offered to those slaves who were past their working peak and value--and manumission was surrounded by legal and not just clerical strictures and rules. It is also true that as a 'conservative' institution the Church itself did not free its own slaves very frequently.

Variable terminology and strange or unique Anglo-Saxon entries aside, the prime value of Pelteret's book, besides the simple collocation and dissection of the data bearing on early-medieval servitude, is to show the gradual coalescence of the unfree strata in the older Anglo-Saxon society with segments of the free 'laboring' strata, all moving toward what we eventually have to call serfdom--the serf defined as personally free yet tied to the estate, or manor, in some way. The older 'tribal' sort of slaves--identified as the lowest or third category in the triplex social formula (nobles, ceorlas, slaves) that fits the Anglo-Saxons into Georges Dumezil's reconstruction of ancient and primary Indo-European patterns--were very rarely totally 'owned' or counted merely as property, and by the time of Alfred's laws (late 9th c.) they surely possessed "certain minimal rights." Yet what Pelteret calls "the lower ranks of the free" were simultaneously losing the tribal bond (and the definition of their low but free sta tus) and were increasingly bound to the estate-holder, and thus "tribal definitions of status" became increasingly "irrelevant" (126). By 1066 "free" laboring individuals were more and more subject to "customary manorial obligations" (179) and, in fact, the land one "held" from a superior--land that at least partly supported the holder or worker of it--made one, by definition, subject to that defined superior--and their freedom of movement was consequently curtailed. Anglo-Saxon England was of course at all times in economic, social and political contact with the Continent, but the movement toward a "feudal" system did not have to be imported from the Continent, it seems to have been easily home-grown.

The slave defined as such did not disappear, of course. The great post-Conquest 'census,' Domesday Book, providing our single greatest repository of social and economic data about the kingdom, demonstrates this, though not without equivocation: Pelteret shows the ambiguity and the nonutiliry of this collection of documents when we are looking for the remnants of true slavery (Domesday's servi were precisely that--slaves). Then the English kingdom had two borders, west and north, and war and desultory raiding produced a small but steady current of war-captives-nor did this traffic run only one way: in the late 12th century, as we read elsewhere, King David of Scotland took so many captives back across the border from the north of England, after one especially productive raid, that "there was not a household in Scotland that did not have an English servant"--that is, a slave.

What Pelteret has produced is a valuable though not definitive work of reference, written briskly and without pretence, though betraying an occasional eccentricity (as in consistently writing the word "Christian" with a lower-case "c," for no reason I can detect). He is driven by the evidence to stress the synchronic analysis over the diachronic narrative, and this can lead to repetition, and the mild confusion or disorganization 1 have already mentioned. He displays no ground-breaking new theory of the slave or of slavery--his Conclusion follows the lead of M. I. Finley's analysis of the servile typology of ancient Greece--but if his book breaks no ground it does break, or at least bend, two other barriers: it shows that Anglo-Saxon and Continental socio-economic realities were more parallel than opposed in their basic formulation, and it shows the continuity one should expect between the 'tribal' (and this still is a valuable concept) and the 'feudal' systems or modes. All in all, a well-executed examinatio n of a difficult early medieval phenomenon, an examination rich in produced data and subtle in differentiation and explanation.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Miller, Dean A.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2001
Words:1486
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