Society News: Slavery in Anglo-Saxon England

In this series of posts about what Anglo-Saxon society was like in 7th century England, I have been covering the various classes and people groups including Kings and Queens, the upper class, the church, coerls, and others. 

Finally we have reached the bottom of the rung, that being the class of slaves.

Slavery is common to all societies throughout history, and it was no different in 7th century England. People could be bought and sold as slaves at that time, and in some cases they even sold themselves into slavery.

So, it was not an usual thing. Perhaps the most famous slave of the Early Medieval period in England was St. Patrick. HIs Confessions detail his early life. Born as the son of a wealthy Christian Romano-British family, while he was a young boy Patrick was captured by Irish raiders who carried him back to their island home where he worked as a slave. It was while shepherding his master’s sheep that he had the vision from God that propelled him to escape and make the dangerous journey back home to England. Eventually he came back to Ireland as a missionary and became Ireland’s most famous saint.

Patrick’s story illustrates just one of the many ways you could find yourself sold into slavery. Raids between warring kingdoms were common, and along with the cattle or sheep that might be taken, sometimes people were taken, too. Another way to become a slave would be to be part of a losing group of fighting men in a battle. Those who weren’t killed would either be taken as slaves and sold for profit, or kept as hostages, if they were part of a noble family who could afford to pay for their release. However many of the warriors would generally be killed in battle, as it was shameful to survive if your lord was killed. This meant it would be the surviving women and children who would then be taken off as part of the battle booty and sold as slaves.

A person could also be born into slavery, if their parents were slaves. There was also penal slavery, in which a person could be made a slave as a punishment for a crime committed.

Finally, you could sell yourself into slavery, as mentioned above. This might sound like an odd thing to do, but actually it was a way to survive in times of famine or other difficulty.   By selling yourself and your children into slavery you were ensured of a roof over your head and a food to eat. Keeping in mind that everyone in this society worked hard, from the kings and nobles down to the lowly slave, it meant that often the amount of work you would have to do did not differ much between slaves and freemen and women. The idle upper class did not come along until centuries later.

Bede tells us that the Augustinain mission to England came about because Pope Gregory saw some fair-haired children in the slave market in Rome. Taken by their fair hair and curls, he inquired where they were from. Hearing they were Angles, he declared, “Not Angles, but angels!” and resolved to send missionaries to their land to teach them the Gospel of Christ. Image from Lawrence OP, on Flickr

Slaves were the one class of people who had no weregild, but that didn’t necessarily mean they were unprotected by law. In fact, slave-owners had a duty to feed and care for their slaves, which is why selling yourself into slavery was a viable option for those who faced starvation otherwise. Slave-owners were also legally responsible for the actions of their slaves, so owning slaves came with some heavy responsibilities.

Although they had no weregild, slaves were valuable as property, and so if someone killed or injured a slave, recompense would be made to the owner. However, killing your own slave had no legal ramifications, but it was still seem as murder under church laws and therefore if the owners were Christian, they would face the sanction of the church. The Church also frowned upon selling slaves outside of England, as they would be exposed to heathen religions and ways, and so as Christianity flourished the selling of slaves overseas lessened, but of course never stopped completely.

The Church also often would buy slaves on the market and free them as an act of charity. Often these slaves would then enter a monastery or convent, which would make sense, as they could be far from home and family who could shelter them.

The laws of Alfred the Great in the 9th century shows us that slaves were allowed some time off on certain feast days, and that slaves were encouraged to better their lot by selling gifts they may have recieved in order to eventually buy themselves out of slavery. We don’t know for certain, but I would suspect that customs were not much different in the 7th century, even though they had not been codified by law.

Slaves were also freed as acts of compassion and religious observance by thier owners on special feast days, or as part of the owner’s will. The ceremony to free someone was a solemn affair, with witnesses and legal documentation.

The amount of slaves during the Early Medieval period in England was considerable. By the time of the Norman conquest and the Domeday Book was compilied, around 10% of the population were slaves. However, the Viking occupation perhaps increased that number over what it had been in Anglo-Saxon times, but we can’t say for sure.

Life was hard in the 7th century, and slaves had it harder than most. But they had food, shelter, some protection by law and the Church and the opportunity to better their lot, and so I suppose one could say they had it better than other people who became slaves in other times and places. 

Still, I suspect they would rather be at the top of the ladder than at the bottom, if they had the choice. 
 

 

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