Medieval slavery and unfree villeinage

peasantIn England (where I am writing from), slavery has been absent from our culture for a long time. However, it is by no means entirely absent from our history, and was certainly present during the Angevin period I am currently writing about, in various forms.

The answer to the question how much slavery there was though, really depends on how you define it.

‘Proper’ slaves

Early in our period there was undoubtedly slavery as it is traditionally understood – ie slaves chained together and girls raped before being sold.

Pirates would descend upon the North coast of Devon, taking slaves for Ireland, and Bristol apparently had a roaring trade, buying up slaves in England for sale to Ireland.

This trade was eventually stopped by Wullfstan, Bishop of Worcester and Archbishop Lanfranc. This was confirmed by the Council of Westminster in 1102:

Henceforth let no one dare to engage in that wicked trade, which has until now been customary in England, namely the selling of human beings as if they were brute beasts

Many took it that this was the civilising influence of the Normans – other countries, such as Scotland and Ireland, who were without the benefit of a Norman aristocracy and rulers, continued with the practice, although it reduced over time.

But what about unfree peasants? Weren’t they slaves too?

Unfree peasantry

There is no doubt that many in medieval England were effectively slaves, tied to the land and not allowed to leave. But it is a confusing picture, not helped by the terminology of the time.

Domesday refers to slaves, and shows that there were more of these in the time of Edward the Confessor than at the time the survey was taken. Slaves could also be freed by a process called manumission so over time their number declined.

However many referred to by other names were effectively slaves. Their lives were at the mercy of their Lords and they were not allowed to leave.

Many of course did run away. If they were lucky, and reached a town and stayed there for a year and a day, their status would change and they would become free. This is often mentioned in the Cadfiel books.

Others, less lucky, would be captured by their Lord and forcibly brought back. They would often then be treated very harshly, and there are records of Lords holding serf’s in chains to prevent their running away again.

Defining freedom

A man’s free or unfree status became more important after the legal reforms brought about by Henry II as only free men could use the Kings Courts.

As the Kings Courts and the common law became more important, it was necessary to find a way to tell the free from the unfree. Important signs were:

  • Payment of merchant – which was a payment for permission to give a daughter in marriage
  • Tallage – which was the right of the Lord to make an arbitrary levy at annual or longer intervals, and
  • Uncertain labour services. For example if the villein had to turn up to work on their Lords land for a certain number of days in the week without knowing exactly what work they would be doing.

Although these were all important, they were not absolute signs. Probably the surest sign was the right to bear arms.

This was the mark of a free man, and when a master or lord freed one of his men, he would place an appropriate weapon in his hands.

There was also a significant difference between someone who was a villein because of the nature of his tenure of land, and someone who was born unfree – villeinage of the blood.

Consequences of unfree status

Baker refers to three main consequences:

  • The first was that the villeins property was subject to seizure by the lord. Villeins could hold property but only subject to the lords will
  • The second was that the lord could exercise corporal punishment. However this was limited. He could put a villein in the stocks but did not have the right to kill, main or rape him
  • The third was that already mentioned – the villein could not run away and could be restrained by force.

However although freedom was definitely preferable, in most cases, to being unfree, it was not quite the same as traditional slavery. An unfree villein still had rights. Even though he was unable to use the common law courts, he could still use the manorial courts.

And as Bartlett points out, during this period (unlike the later medieval period) there were no large scale revolts and lower class uprisings were virtually unknown. Which may or may not be significant.

Peasant picture is a section taken from a larger picture on Wikimedia

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