Health warning: the reviewer got a bit carried away and has written a rather long review – you may want to make yourself a cup of tea before starting it.
What is it about?
Professor of Medieval History at King’s College, London, Alice Rio, looks at unfreedom in the early Middle Ages, focusing on Western Europe in the period 500 to 1100.
This period of history is bookended by iconic forms of unfreedom: the period before is associated with classical Roman slavery, which involved an all-encompassing form of domination by a slave owner. From the 11th century onwards, Western Europe is associated with both serfdom (compared to Roman slavery, arguably less comprehensive in terms of control but perhaps applying to a larger swath of the rural population) together with, in Southern Europe, a revived chattel slavery dealing with religious outsiders (principally Muslims but also Greek Orthodox).
The classical and later medieval forms of unfreedom described above are readily known and relatively easy to picture and describe. What came between them, and how one state of affairs developed into another, is a complex question which has long fascinated historians.
Isn’t it just the ‘bit in between’?
In Alice Rio’s view, previous historians have tended to focus on early medieval unfreedom as merely a period of transition. If there is a central premise of this book, it appears to be that unfreedom in the early Middle Ages is a topic in its own right, with characteristics which warrant independent analysis and consideration. Rather than being just the ‘bit in between’ (part classical and part medieval but not fully either) it exhibits characteristics which distinguish it significantly from both. In particular, it was a period of experimentation and diversity. Some of that experimentation would form of the basis of later medieval serfdom, but other experiments responded to the particular circumstances of the time and differ significantly with both classical slavery and medieval serfdom. Part of what makes unfreedom in this period difficult to picture is precisely because it was more varied and less consistent in usage than the periods which came before and after it.
Alice Rio’s focus is on the strategies adopted and decisions made by individuals and institutions to achieve their own objectives. I found this approach refreshing and enlightening. By avoiding grand sociological theorising, her observations felt concrete, plausible and grounded in real life situations.
Breaking down the book
The book is divided into three parts, with separate chapters within those.
Part I looks at how status labels became attached to individuals: Chapter 1 focuses on raiding and slave trading; Chapter 2 looks at other ways into forms of unfreedom, such as self-sale, debt slavery and penal slavery; and Chapter 3 looks at freedmen and manumission.
Part II considers wider trends, particularly the use of unfreedom to achieve economic objectives, with household service considered in Chapter 4 and estate tenants considered in Chapter 5.
Part III (consisting of one chapter, Chapter 6) looks at the law and the institutional framework.
Each Chapter in Parts I and II is divided into different geographical regions, with a particular focus on the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, Francia and Anglo-Saxon England, with other regions drawn upon (such as Ireland, Wales and Byzantine Europe) where relevant or useful for comparison. This flexible geographic approach was, to my mind, a strength, allowing Alice Rio to illustrate characteristics and trends by comparison (one criticism I have of some academic history writing is that by merely describing a state of affairs at a particular point in time without any temporal or geographic comparison, it can be difficult to appreciate what makes such information of particular interest or relevance).
Each Chapter has its own conclusion, and there is an overall conclusion at the end of the book drawing together the various themes discussed. This is extremely helpful in making sense of what can, at times, feel like a smorgasbord of evidence and analysis.
Chapter 1 – raiding and slave trading
In Chapter 1, Alice Rio explains that, pre-eighth century, early medieval European slave raiding tended to be frequent but low level. The Irish may have occasionally raided Wales and England and took home hostages for either ransom or household slavery (as happened to Saint Patrick) but there didn’t exist the type of international slave market which would have made large scale operations profitable. This all changed from the eighth century onwards with the advent of the Muslims and Vikings, the former providing the demand and the latter the supply (or, at least, the trade conduits) to reinvigorate an international slave market, dealing mostly with Slavs as slaves (perhaps to the extent of explaining the etymology of the word slave in most Western European languages). Contrary to some previous historiography, Alice Rio contends that more centralised polities such the Carolingian Empire and Anglo-Saxon England had a peripheral role in such slave trading, focusing instead on maximising profits on land with the use of domestic labour (which they were reluctant to sell into slavery as they were more valuable working the land). This may explain, to some extent, the moralising of some later Frankish and Anglo-Saxon clerics regarding slave trading. Southern Europe (southern Italy/Spain) presents another picture, with more religiously mixed populations giving rise to some slave trading in the later period in Muslim populations. The overall picture is that slavery involving being bought and sold became increasingly associated with ‘outsiders’ (particularly of the religious type) and there was a growing distinction with other forms of unfreedom which did not involve being bought and sold.
Chapter 2 – forms of unfreedom
In Chapter 2, Alice Rio looks at different ways in which native populations may have ended up in forms of unfreedom, particularly self-sale, debt slavery and penal slavery. The picture here is one of extreme diversity of practice and terminology. Making sense of the evidence in this context can be challenging, but Alice Rio finds common themes in what she describes as the ‘commodification of status’ and the increasing use of the language of gift to describe the actions of both the person entering into slavery and those becoming their masters. The Romans took a fairly strict attitude to freedom: a person was either free or not free. For a free person to sell themselves into slavery was shameful and illegitimate (although the punishment was to remain a slave, so the outcome was the same). Early medieval attitudes to self-sale were much more permissive and reflected the Christian view that the person entering slavery was a victim of his or her circumstances, and the lord accepting their slavery was performing an act of piety. A person selling themselves into slavery might do so for the promise of some food to prevent starvation; some land and/or the right to some of the produce of it; or for the protection and legal representation their new lord may offer. Debt slavery and penal slavery overlap since penal slavery invariably arose when a person who committed a crime could not pay the debt to the aggrieved party levied as a result (and so became their slave instead, in contrast to Roman style penal slavery which was owed to the state). What we are witnessing is the opportunistic use of the status of unfreedom to achieve the objectives of the persons involved.
Chapter 3 – freedmen and manumission
Freedmen and manumission are considered in Chapter 3. Previous historians have seen the evidence from this period as pointing to ever greater restrictions being placed on freedmen, and as this forming the genesis for later medieval serfdom with the increasing blurring of the distinction between free and unfree tenants. Alice Rio rejects this argument. Again, what she describes is a multiplicity of different trends pointing in different directions. She does engage with the evidence for more ‘strings attached’ to manumission: for example, she describes instances of a lord gifting land to a monastery on his or her death; some or all of the tenants may be manumitted, but with obligations associated with the memory of the lord, for example by paying symbolic dues on particular feast days, with some of those dues earmarked for the continued memorialisation of the donor. Those obligations might be hereditary and come with restrictions on the freedmen moving from that land. In that sense, the donor was using the freed tenant to embody the memory of the patron. Furthermore, the connection of the freedman with the monastery might provide the freedman with a form of protection and legal representation. This may not have been necessary in the Roman period, with a relatively strong state and more opportunities for freedmen to integrate themselves into a developed commercial economy, but became relevant in the context of the relatively weak states of the early medieval period and the greater difficulty a freedman might face in achieving economic independence.
Part II looks at broader trends, with Chapter 4 considering household slavery and Chapter 5 estate communities.
Chapter 4 – household service
Again, the overall theme is diversity. For example, in Chapter 4, Alice Rio points to the way that, towards the end of this period, household slavery in Southern Europe becomes increasingly associated with religious and cultural outsiders, particularly Muslims and may, as a result, have become taboo for those who considered themselves ‘insiders’ (i.e. Christians living locally). In contrast, Francia appears to show evidence of a great fluidity of personnel between household and estate, with landlords utilising the resources available to them flexibly, in what they perceived as the way best suited to achieve their objectives at any particular time.
Chapter 5 – estate tenants
In many respects I found Chapter 5 the most interesting in the book, as it appeared to provide some form of trajectory from early medieval forms of unfreedom to the type of later medieval serfdom that Alice Rio described in her introduction (a link which, as I mention later in the review, I felt somewhat lacking in the book as a whole). The early medieval period witnessed the end of the type of classic latifundia model of large scale direct exploitation of slave labour for cash crops which was seen during the Roman period. The early medieval economy was simply not developed enough to make it worthwhile. Instead, it became replaced by a multiplicity of practices, but with unfree labour typically only used directly on a small enough scale to be manageable (often a single household and farm) with the majority of the estate’s lands exploited indirectly through tenants who paid dues. Then, from about 800 onwards in Northern Francia and Northern Italy, historians such as Chris Wickham (I recommend his excellent The Inheritance of Rome) have described the emergence of the bipartite estate, with tenants responsible for not only the cultivation of their own land but also for cultivating the landlord’s reserve (the demesne of Norman England). This eventually gave rise to something akin to this system across most of Western Europe by the eleventh and twelfth centuries (under the more generic term of ‘manor’, this model being somewhat more flexible, with labour dues from tenants satisfied by either direct labour service or a monetary or non-cash equivalent as suited the landlord at that time).
Alice Rio states that her aim is not to provide an agrarian history of this period, and instead she focuses on how an intensification of demand by landlords on their tenants (presumably arising from these agrarian economic trends) lead to increasing conflict and renegotiation between landlord and tenant. Status labels were an integral part of that process. To give a simple example, a landlord (often institutional landlords such as churches, where much of the evidence comes from, presumably because they were good at keeping records) might ask a tenant to do more work on that landlord’s reserve. The tenant might resist. The landlord might then claim that the tenant and his ancestors had performed that work and that, furthermore, they did so as ‘unfree’ tenants (to which various terminology might be applied). A dispute might arise, and as part of that dispute the landlord might be able to get other, different tenants, to confirm that the tenant and his family were indeed ‘unfree’. Those other tenants might be offered an inducement to testify on behalf of the landlord (by being offered free status or other benefits) in what appears to be a type of ‘divide and rule’ strategy (my wording, not hers) on the part of landlords. Eventually the tenant might agree to do the extra work originally asked of them, in exchange for the landlord dropping their claim that they and their family are unfree. This is the type of scenario that Alice Rio appears to find in the evidence from this period. It is possible to pick holes in her reading of the evidence: for example, how do we know the landlord was always lying and the tenant always telling the truth? Notwithstanding this, the picture she presents is a compelling one, and does seem to make sense of the evidence available.
Chapter 6 – the law and the institutional framework
In her final chapter, Chapter 6 of Part III, the author looks at the institutional framework; what were the rules and concepts that prevailed? This might be formal laws given by kings, Church statements or simply norms of practice prevalent among landlords. The general trend she describes is of the church and state being somewhat conservative in their legal concepts, often drawing upon late antique precedents. But, for Alice Rio, this conservatism is not in conflict with landlords, but rather provided landlords with what she describes as ‘instruments of exploitation’. An example might be rules regarding marriage between unfree tenants. In theory, the law took a very strict approach to this. In practice, landlords could interpret the rules as they saw fit, allowing marriages to go ahead provided they got what they wanted, often a compensatory payment of some sort. But, of course, that was up to the person who owned them: in one case narrated by Gregory of Tours in the sixth century, two unfree lovers who belonged to the dux Rauching fled to a church to be married. The priest returned them to their owner on condition he allowed them to remain together. Clearly a sentimentalist, the dux Rauching agreed and upon the slaves being returned to him he kept to his word, burying them alive in the same coffin.
The concluding chapter
In her conclusion, Alice Rio describes the end of this period as a lessening of diversity in uses of unfreedom. Of the many conflicting and varying trends of unfreedom in the early medieval period, one became dominant, partly because it was the one most suited to the requirement of the largest and most powerful landlords (who, perhaps inevitably, had the most influence on the development of law). The dominant model from the eleventh century onwards became that of the unfree tenant: tied to the land; perhaps having more rights than a Roman slave, but such rights being ‘conditional’ (for example, on payment) and therefore serving as a tool of domination by the landlord. This eventually became codified into a set of rules by a new generation of legal scholars into the system we recognise as serfdom.
What is it like to read?
This is an interesting and thought provoking book. Alice Rio provides a rare combination of scholarly knowledge together with an ability to set out an argument coherently and clearly. She is a good writer, a gift not necessarily common in all academic historians, and her approach, grounded in evidence and the experiences and actions of individuals and institutions, is realistic and convincing.
A minor criticism…
If I had to levy one minor criticism of this book, it is that, whilst she is very convincing at presenting early medieval slavery as a standalone phenomenon, the connections she makes between that and what came before and after are less developed. This applies particularly with respect to the connections between early and later medieval forms of unfreedom. Regarding the transition away from the Roman model, whilst it is not a focus of the book, the picture she presents is a convincing one: i.e. that a weaker state and less developed commercial economy made the style of slavery prevalent in the Roman world unsustainable in the circumstances found in early medieval Europe.
Where I was left with questions unanswered was the transition from early to later medieval forms of unfreedom. In her conclusion, she describes the ‘homogenization in the preferences of lords’. But what explains that homogenization? Why did strategies of unfreedom that were useful to lords in the early Middle Ages cease to be relevant? I think there are answers in the book: changes to the agrarian economy as described in Chapter 5; the fact that large landlords tended to be at the forefront of such economic changes and therefore had a prevalent influence on the development of the law in this area; and perhaps that stronger and more legalistic states lead to a greater and more consistent codification of the law in this area (and such states were more activist in enforcing those laws), narrowing down the opportunities for experimentation. However, whilst these arguments can be found in (or inferred from) the book, I found it odd that these strands were not drawn together in the conclusion.
Where did all the serfs come from?
A separate question might be how prevalent serfdom was compared to forms of unfreedom in early medieval Europe. If it was more prevalent, how did formally ‘free’ tenants find themselves as serfs? Was this linked to the types of disputes described in Chapter 5? But I find it difficult to understand how such processes could be systematic enough to effectively ‘enslave’ an entire class of free peasants, particularly as Alice Rio herself appears to describe a type of divide and rule strategy by lords which would, presumably, have resulted in some ‘winners’ (i.e. free tenants) as well as some ‘losers’ (i.e. unfree tenants or those with greater labour obligations).
Perhaps this is a topic of a different book. If Alice Rio ever writes it I would read it, based on the quality of this book.
A thought-provoking history book that I would have no hesitation in recommending to anyone that enjoys history that is both well written and scholarly.