Friday, June 15, 2007

Medieval Race and Slavery

I'm cutting this from an essay that is currently too long, an essay that begins with a somewhat extraneous riff on why "race" should be a term used to describe the differentiations of peoples in the Middle Ages. Whenever I say this, someone always asks "What about slavery? Doesn't chattel slavery impact the modern use of race in a way that cannot be true for medieval peoples?"

Here are some thoughts. You might also want to read Eileen's post on the Redress Project alongside them, and/or click on "race" in the Quick Subject Links at your right.

It could be argued that a period that did not inherit the legacy of institutionalized slavery based upon skin color could not possibly have conceptualized race in the modern sense of the word.

True, the British Isles of the twelfth century witnessed nothing like the plantation system that would force the movement of millions from sub-Saharan Africa. The first Norman-appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, convinced a reluctant William the Conqueror to prohibit the lucrative slave trade. Yet like most of Europe Britain lived with a memory of institutionalized slavery, the byproduct as well as the catalyst of endemic internal and external warfare.(1) Forced servitude was conducted on a relatively small scale and practiced without regard to national origin. Before their unification into a single kingdom, the Anglo-Saxons enslaved each other as well as their neighbors. The Old English word wealh, destined eventually to become the noun Welsh, could also designate a Briton slave, such as those captured when Æthelstan conquered the southwest in the tenth century.(2)

Slavery was an integral part of the medieval west's plunder economies. Saint Patrick arrived in Ireland not as a missionary but as captive, abducted from his father's estate in Britain when he was sixteen years old. Pope Gregory would never have had his famous encounter with beautiful English boys for sale in the Roman marketplace had not marauding for slaves been an expansive international business. Moriuht, the story of an Irish husband and wife captured by Vikings and sold as slaves, eventually freeing themselves to settle in Normandy, survives in an account by their hostile neighbor, the poet Garnier of Rouen. The church successfully suppressed much slaving activity by the twelfth century, but could not wholly eliminate it. William of Malmesbury writes that Godwine, destined to father the future King Harold, had in his youth been married to a sister of Cnut who accumulated great wealth by purchasing slaves in England and then shipping them for resale to her native Denmark.(3) Welsh warlords forced their human booty -- sometimes Welsh, sometimes English or Norman -- into servitude.(4) The practice was happily continued by their English enemies, although slavery in England vanished long before its disappearance in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland(5). This kind of servitude was not necessarily predicated upon the idea that whole groups are born to subservience because of differences carried in the body and manifested through an inferior culture. Yet slavery in its relation to medieval race is complicated (6). Even when groups did not make judgments about identity based solely upon general differences in skin color or physiognomy, they nonetheless seldom avoided the creation of mythologies that entwined cultural and bodily differences.

(1)David Pelteret puts it well: "Slavery can be said to have been a normal feature of early mediaeval European societies" (Slavery in Early Mediaeval England 15). On William, Lanfranc, and the slave trade, see 78. As Pelteret makes clear, just because slavery was decreed illicit did not mean that it stopped in practice for quite some time. Irish slave markets operated until perhaps 1170, stocked mainly with English captives.

(2)Pelteret, Slavery in Early Mediaeval England 70 and appendix I, "wealh."

(3)William disliked Earl Godwine, and this attack on his Danish first wife may simply be an attempt to render a foreigner as detestable as possible, but William will later accuse the English nobles in general of a similar practice, selling the "common people ... off to distant parts." Deeds of the Kings of the English, 2.200, 3.245.

(4) R. R. Davies, The First English Empire, 122-23. Again, though, the accusation of slaving raids is often made by an enemy in order to represent a group as uncivilized and therefore in dire need of subjugation. Cf. the narration of Welsh rebellion at the death of king Henry in the Gesta Stephani, a pro-English account of Stephen's reign: "[The Welsh roved] as plunderers through the whole district ... old men they exposed to slaughter or mockery; the young of both sexes they delivered over to chains and captivity" (1.9).

(5) John Gillingham, The English in the Twelfth Century 13-14, 45-47

(6) On Iceland see Jenny Jochens, "Race and Ethnicity in the Old Norse World" and on Italy Steven A. Epstein, Speaking of Slavery: Color, Ethnicity, and Human Bondage in Italy.


Karl Steel said...

The church successfully suppressed much slaving activity by the twelfth century, but could not wholly eliminate it.

Do you know on what basis they opposed slavery? Have you checked the exegesis on the passages on slavery in the NT? I know Agobard of Lyons wanted to baptize the slaves of Jews, which would have freed the slaves (apparently Jews couldn't have Xian slaves), but I would be astonished if that hoary Jew-hater Agobard justified this through anti-slavery rhetoric.

What about the distinction between serf and slave? I know from reading Freedman that 'racial' descriptions of serfs are very, very common, at least in the German literature of the late MA. But then there's also something similar about thralls in the "Lay of Rig" in the Poetic Edda. From Hollander's translation:

Gave Edda birth to a boy child then,
(in clouts she swathed) and swarthy-skinned one.
Thrall they called him, and cast on him water
(dark was his hair and dull his eyes).

One his hand the skin was scraggy and wrinkled,
(nasty his nails), his knuckles gnarled,
his fingers thick, his face ugly,
his back hulky, his heels were long. &c (121-122, stanzas 7 and 8).

There's of course a 'racial' (can we call it that) understanding of laborers later: the Wild Herdsman in Yvain, the woodsman in Aucassin and Nicolette, maybe in Rainouart in the William of Orange (I'm think of Rainouart in the kitchen). Also, is that how we should think of the standard disguise of high-class people going in drag (?) as low-class people, namely, staining one's face and hands to make them swarthy? This happens in Tristan, right?, and the Roman de Silence. But, remembering that Hereward the Wake disguises himself as a potter, I checked his story: no 'racial' element ('As he left he changed his clothes, cut his hair and beard, and donned a greasy cloak. Coming across a potter, he took his jars and, pretending to be a potter, made his way to the king's court.' I remember this bit because of the language differences: Hereward, in disguise, learns William's plans to take Ely because William, mistakenly supposing the potter doesn't speak French, describes his plans for conquest openly).

From what little I know about medieval serfdom, we don't get it, do we, until the High Middle Ages, at which point slavery is starting (?) to recede? Or should I say that slavery is starting to transform into something else?

So many questions! So much I don't know! What do the Marxists have to say about the transformation (can we call it that) from slave economies to 'wage slave' economies? And do they propose serfdom as an intermediate step in that transformation?

J J Cohen said...

It's complicated, isn't it? Slavery seems like an inhumane human institution that in the Middle Ages could come and go, in different versions. Off the top of my head I can't remember the justification Lanfranc gave for stopping the trade.

No racial elements in the Hereward story? Hair, clothing and language ARE race! I would definitely label that episode passing.

The differentiation between serfdom and slavery will take a better historian than I am. Clearly earlier slavery transported you against your will; serfdom is about staying put. I'm not sure what to say beyond that!

Karl Steel said...

Hair, clothing and language ARE race!

*slaps forehead* Duh! I thought it just signaled class in this instance, but given William's assumption that Hereward didn't understand French, it's clear that class and race aren't clearly different here.

The differentiation between serfdom and slavery will take a better historian than I am

Part of what I'm shooting at with my questions is muddling the distinctions to cast a different light on the 'freedom' of being (eventually, if we accept the narrative: slave -> serf -> servant -> wage earner) held hostage to a monetary economy. I know there has to be something out there on this, but it's so far from anything I do that I have no idea where to start looking.

Karl Steel said...

...although I should say that I don't want to muddle the distinctions too much. I want to muddle in the interest of thinking things in a different, hopefully productive, hopefully hopeful way; I don't want to muddle things to claim for myself the wretchedness of, you know, being a slave.

Eileen Joy said...

Interestingly, this [i.e., "race" and "racial" ideology] has been a primary, if occasionally discomfiting [for my students] subject in the "Lord of the Rings" & medieval heroic poetry course I am now co-teaching [with Doug Simms, who received a degree in Germanic Studies at UT-Austin a few years ago and is a brilliant teacher]. Unfortunately, for better or worse, and regardless of his copious correspondence indicating that he hated the Nazis and their perversion of the "goodness" and "nobility" of medieval Germanic and Scandinavian [in Tolkien's terms, "northern"] mythology & culture, Tolkien's trilogy lifts racialized stereotypes straight out of particular medieval contexts [i.e. his depictions of the Orcs are pretty much 100% in line with medieval depictions of Saracens and when you read "The Song of Roland" alongside the early battle scenes in "The Return of the King," as we did in class yesterday, well . . . need I say more?].

Sometimes I despair when medievalists want to haggle with each other over what we could call, I guess, the semantics and even the "deep structuralism" and historicism of racism, such that, supposedly, cultures located in pre-chattel slavery Europe [i.e. premodern Europe] cannot be properly said to have practiced racism, at least not in the sense we understand it today, as if different parts of history could be neatly sectioned off from each other, anyway [such that there would ever be a neatly-defined "before" and "after" of anything!]. Obviously, each "time" is not exactly like any other "time," but to say that, in the medieval world--in Anglo-Saxon England, for example--racism, as we understand it [a set of prejudicial beliefs rooted in a perverted understanding of a relation between biology and various "human" capabilities] did not really exist or was mainly a product of perceived and/or actual political or cultural or kinship differences, etc. more so than it was tied to physiognomy is just, um . . . stupid? Are we all reading the same medieval texts, or what?

Now, having said that, it also has to be said, much as in our own time, opinion--popular, official, or otherwise--is never just "one thing." I can imagine a situation in medieval England where the legal codes, let's say, make some very clear distinctions between free men and servants and slaves, which servants and slaves are often designated with "catch-all" terminology, such as "wealh" [which can mean Welsh, sure, but also swarthy/black/low-class/untouchable, etc.], all of which would be a good indication that racial ideology [however misapplied or originally rooted in economic/war contingencies] is prevalent, while at the same time, there might be certain persons preaching against these sorts of designations and the disenfranchisements that accompany them [although let's keep in mind that, just as in the premodern period the Church was often against slavery only so far as that got them fresh converts, the situation might have been the same in medieval Europe--i.e., a certain pragmatism, as opposed to moral and humanist courage, might have driven certain Church officials to be "against" slavery].

I like the way JJC put it in "Medieval Identity Machines" best in his chapter on "Saracen Enjoyment," which I just re-read for my "Song of Roland" lecture yesterday [well, I don't "lecture," but you guys know what I mean . . .], where he basically argues, gently revising Robert Bartlett [I hope I represent this well] that race, both in the Middle Ages as well as now, is always a conceptual category that has at its core both a non-real referent [it is culturally constructed and always political] as well as the *IDEA* of a supposedly "real" biological referent [whether skin color, clothing, eating habits, climate, etc. or any combination thereof]. You cannot separate the two--culture and biology--when talking about race, either then or now, but you can certainly think about all the ways in which each is a kind of phantasm of the other while also recognizing the very real and brutal "playing out" of racial ideologies and politics on real bodies and souls.

That's why I am also always drawn back to the Redress Project at Berkeley, which I thank JJC for linking to in his original post here, because they pose the best set of questions I have ever seen for "thinking through" what it is we think we mean when we invoke the term "slavery," such as [to repeat my post from last summer]:

1. What is slavery? What is the violence particular to slavery? . . . What is the essential feature of slavery: (1) property in human beings, (2) physical compulsion and corporal correction of the laborer, (3) involuntary servitude, (4) restrictions on mobility or opportunity or personal liberty, (5) restrictions of liberty of contract, (6) the expropriation of material fruits of the slave's labor, (7) absence of collective self-governance or non-citizenship, (8) dishonor and social death, (9) racism? We understand the particular character of slavery's violence to be ongoing and constitutive of the unfinished project of freedom.

2. What is the slave--property, commodity, or disposable life?

3. What is the time of slavery? Is it the time of the present, as Hortense Spillers suggests, a death sentence reenacted and transmitted across generations?

4. Is it a time that we can all remember?

RaeRae said...

i'm only weighing in on the serf slave difference part of the argument cause well, i need time to assimilate the rest before responding.

it's my understanding that the main difference between a serf and a slave was that a serf was tied to the land. when the land was bought and sold the serf went with it. a slave could be sold on their own. serfs also had more rights then slaves did, a serf was less likely to be abused by the master of the manor in which they worked then the slave (not to say that abuse did not occur)
the church did take a rather proactive stance against slavery and the abuse of slaves. for example one story i've read (don't ask me where it's been awhile) was about how this priest demanded that a slave owner not seperate a pair of slaves who had married in secret as punishment so the slave owner buried them alive. not the priest's aim but they weren't seperated.