Thursday, 18 September 2014


The Rector's Palace, Dubrovnik
Most of my research since I started my DPhil has been on violence and misbehaviour.  With topics such as these, and now slavery, it's inevitable, I guess, that some of the material will be quite upsetting.   As historians, we're always taught the importance of objectivity - we're not supposed to pass moral judgement on what we study, we're supposed to be able to rein in our emotional reactions. But I think that it's actually really important to maintain a little bit of judgementalism, and to allow ourselves to feel in response to the stuff we study.  It's all to easy for our emotions to become numbed, and to forget the sheer human impact and trauma of many historical events.

Anyway, what I found today was thoroughly distressing.  Two young girls named Juiça and Dragna, aged 10 and 11, sold into slavery by their own fathers (Diversa Cancellariae, 33, fol 129r, 1398).  The poverty of a parent who will sell their child is unimaginable really.   Both are described as coming from Bosnia, both were apparently 'Patarenes', a heretical Bosnian sect.  Why would the contract bother to mention their heresy?   Because enslaving fellow Christians was against canon law - so these children had to be defined as 'other', as un-Christian and un-saved.  The contracts state that the new owners have the right to sell the girls on should they wish.  The contracts stipulate that 'eius mandatis hobedire et facere quocumque michi possibilia comisseriit faciendam,' and 'ac de me omne aliud sui velle faceret' (I must obey all his demands, and do whatever he tells me to the best of my ability... and that he may do with me whatever he pleases').  You'll notice the first person here.  The contracts begin 'Ego Juiça', 'Ego Dragna' - 'I Juiça', 'I Dragna'.  These girls are apparently agreeing to, and certifying their own loss of liberty.  The clauses state that they have done this of their own free will, in full knowledge and understanding, un-threatened by the use of force.  It would require an outstandingly blinkered vision to believe that this is true.  And it's an extreme example of the hypocrisy of these contracts: the moral, the religious and the legal have parted ways, but contemporaries did their best to blind themselves to this fact.  Even on their own terms, the contracts are self-denying - written 'on behalf' of the children in order to demonstrate their consent, they fail to mention that under-age persons did not have the legal right to make a contract anyway.

Everything is abhorrent here.  Slavery.  Child labour (and potentially worse).  And the moral obfuscation of pretending the children are complicit in their own tragedy.  And yes, I'm judgemental.

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