I'm a medieval historian at St John's College, Oxford. I'm also Mummy to a wonderful little boy. I started this blog on my return to work after maternity leave, in order to remind myself of the importance of studying history. My aim is to use the challenges and dilemmas of the past to throw critical light on the present.
Thursday, 4 September 2014
SLAVERY 6 - NUANCES
It's one in the morning, so this will be quite quick!
The view from just outside our flat.
One of my main goals is to examine the terminology of slavery contracts really carefully, and to scrutinise the shift from clear slave-owner relationships to a more complex form of indentured labour which became more prominent in the fourteenth century. In other words, we seem to see a shift from contracts which describe the outright sale of one person to another 'diffinite ad mortem' ('valid until death'), to contracts which describe the purchase of someone's labour for a fixed number of years (typically around twelve years). There's loads more to be said about this - how do we distinguish apprenticeships from indentured labour? was the shift really so straightforward? and, most obviously, did labour contracts as opposed to slavery contracts actually make any difference to the worker?
My gut instinct is to say 'no'. Selling oneself (or one's child, or one's brother - I came across several cases like this today) for twelve years implies to me a pretty horrific form of slavery - the loss of twelve years of one's life, the surrender of all one's rights for that time, and the knowledge that at the end of it, one is, once again destitute (at least most slaves were fed and clothed in their old age).
But today, whilst trawling through looking for cases of slaves who'd been freed (again, another fascinating topic, and, sadly, not one which sheds much positive light on human nature), I noticed one Obrada de Trebotich (fol 100r., Diversa Notariae I). She managed to buy her freedom from her owners, Stanissa and Rossinus de Bereia, on payment of seven pounds. Where did she get the money from? By selling herself for seven years to Marinus Fuschus de Zerepo.
This brought home to me very forcefully that the distinctions between these different kinds of contract really did matter. It must have been incredibly challenging for Obrada to manage such a transaction, so it must have meant a lot to her. Freedom, sad to say, seems to come only in degrees.