Wednesday, 3 September 2014


"Dubrovnik IMG 9664" by Bjoertvedt . 
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - 

Another intriguing day in the archives.   I'm looking at records (mainly contracts) from the 1280s at the moment.  Here's a standard contract from 1280 of the sale of a slave:

Die xxiiii October Ragusii. Juannus filius Clapote presentem et consentietem ancillam suam Constanisclavam de Bosna vendidit Michaeli Lucari c per s. dr. gross. quinque et  dimidem. Diffinite ad mortem.   Testis Sersius Clementis Iudex. (fol. 28r, Debita Notaria I).

24th October, Ragusa.   Juannus son of Clapotus, sold his slave Constanisclava from Bosnia, who was present and consenting, to Michael Lucarus for five and a half gold coins. Valid until death.  Witnessed by Sersius Clementis, judge.

Why bother to include the presence and consent of the slave?  And what kind of consent could this possibly be?  In a sense, this is part of the moral obfuscation of slavery in the thirteenth century.  Canon law said that enslaving fellow Christians was wrong, but it didn't straightforwardly exonerate the enslavement of those of other religions either.  Legally, slavery might have been just about acceptable, but the formula 'presentem et consentientem' - the need to claim that the slave was perfectly ok about what was happening to him or her - suggests that morally people knew it to be problematic.  The apparent consent of the slave seems to me like a sop to conscience.

It's something more than this too, for it tells us much about why and how people became enslaved.  Many were certainly captured as a result of war or raids.  But today, I found increasing numbers of cases in which people were selling themselves, or their children, into slavery as a result of extreme poverty.   In such cases, it certainly happened with their consent  - they initiated the transaction - but that doesn't mean that this was a real choice.

On 12th June 1281 for instance, 'Ego quidem Dabrenus filius Zueti Tragurini confiteor quod mea bona voluntate dedi et vendidi me pro servo Elye Blasii de Rasti pro s. dr. grossi quatuor et dimidi diffinite ad mortem, ut dictus Elias de presenta mea velle suum faciat'. (fol. 57r).

I, Dabrenus son of Zueti Tragurinus record that I gave and sold myself, of my own free will, as a slave to Elias Blasius of Rastus for four and a half gold coins, valid until my death, so that the said Elias can do with me as he pleases. 

We tend to define slavery not just as ownership of other people, but the total abnegation of their right to choose.  Whilst the idea of consent in these Dubrovnik cases is often just a formula, it also reminds us that 'choice' and 'consent' aren't straightforward: saying that someone did something of their own free will ignores the circumstances which limit that choice and can sometimes be a convenient way of side-stepping more disturbing realities.

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