What was penal slavery for in the Middle Ages?

Dr Alice Rio came u p from KCL yesterday, through the snow, to St Andrews to our rather bustly Monday research seminar to talk about precisely this. It is a ‘neglected topic’ so there is not a lot of historiography to fight against here, bar the odd reference in passing. The evidence is also rather problematic – while penal slavery is attested for 500 years or so, dotted around Western Europe, it is never documented in continuous, lovely detail. Still…

The main thrust of her argument was that penal slavery was more about ‘social control’ than the quest for cheap labour. If someone had committed a crime, they could enter a servile status to pay off their debt. The problem was that, often, the debt was expensive. For stealing bees (honestly), when it is proved against the accused, s/he must pay 1800 denarii or 45 solidi. (By 794 prices this would buy you 7.5 horses or 21,600 loaves of wheat bread). Few people could afford that by themselves so they would have to club together with their kin-group or community, who were no doubt unhappy about this. The onus was on the kin-group or community to be ‘self-policing’. Perhaps sometimes these groups would have to make a practical decision about whether or not to support their wayward member, which could be hard.

There could be an emotional side to slavery. Venantius Fortunatus (Carm. V. 14) met a couple in tears at having lost their daughter, so he appealed to Bishop Gregory of Tours to find out if she was really innocent. Gregory himself told a story (Hist. VI. 36) about a priest who was effectively enslaved by a furious family for running off with their daughter – who the family burned alive – until Bishop Etherius of Lisieux ransomed him (to no good end, thought Gregory). There was an element of ‘feud’ to the practice – and Alice was unapologetic about using the word – because to enforce punishment required some kind of threat.

What really came out in discussion at the end was that penal slavery likely only affected those too poor to pay, people from kin-groups or communities too poor to help out, or people who had tested the patience of everyone too far. One could threaten someone of relatively high standing with entering servile status, but likely they would find another way to resolve the case. But even if the reality of penal slavery was socially limited, its existence as a threat seems to confirm the hypothesis that it was part of ‘dispute settlement’ rather than an attempt to coerce the poor into hard labour.

Alice is currently writing a book on slavery and unfreedom in the early Middle Ages.