Sex slaves in the early Middle Ages: what’s the evidence?

Both a cry for help and a blatant attempt for more search hits, you may think, but this keeps coming up in Julia Smith’s book, and I thought some of you reading, probably Magistra but perhaps someone out there who hasn’t yet made themselves known, would know the answer.

Julia’s book is not ashamed to remind the reader, both in a focussed chapter and wherever else it comes up, that in the early Middle Ages women were the victims of a social order that made them inferior to men, both in philosophical terms and in terms of actual rights and capacities. This no-one would argue with and only a chauvinist would say it’s not necessary to mention it so much. I am not that man. But she also repeatedly says that female slaves and lower-class women generally were liable to the victims of sexual exploitation by those of higher rank. Similarly, she talks about young men being sexually active before marriage, and yet stresses female isolation from men before it; the implication that resolves this contradiction is that concubinage with slaves or peasant women is common. Is it? Where do we get that from? The book is constructed with only primary references, and some directed further reading at the end; this is not covered there as far as I can see. So what’s the evidence?

You see, it’s not that I think this didn’t happen, because it’s clearly possible; but I don’t know that we know it did. I remember reading Pierre Bonnassie’s essays on slavery and him saying that we must assume male slave-owners exploited their female slaves as sexual partners, and even that this could be a meaningful relationship, but he did say we must assume, implying that there is little evidence. And it begins to smell a bit like the all-men-are-potential-rapists paradigm. Again, I don’t doubt that this happened; but if the only evidence we have is penitentials setting penances for it, then it might be no more regular than bestiality, which many of them also pay a lot of attention to but which presumably wasn’t that common. And other work on slavery I’ve seen has tried to suggest that the slave was seen as a kind of animal anyway, so it would almost be the same thing to the medieval mind, though I agree with Pierre Bonnassie that Christianity recognising slave marriage and their right to worship must humanise them away from this. Also, I can’t imagine how people make the switch when someone they know has to become a slave for some reason or other, or when a slave is freed. They must always be people however disadvantaged, surely, and it’s not as if that prevents people being beastly (ha! do you see what I did there with my modernistic judgemental tendency?) to their fellow humans.

So, what’s the evidence for these sex slaves? Just penitentials and normative sources? Are we just going on Balthild’s success in being a slave queen (because there aren’t very many other examples like her, are there?) Or is this all just assumption and mirrors?

(No images in this post, because given what search terms I’d have to use, I really don’t want to do it at work…)


Works referred to here are Julia M. H. Smith, Europe After Rome: a new cultural history 500-1000 (Oxford 2005), and Pierre Bonnassie, P., “Survie et extinction du régime esclavagiste dans l’occident du haut moyen âge (IV-XI s.)” in Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale Vol. 28 (Poitiers 1985), pp. 307-343, transl. J. Birrell as “The Survival and Extinction of the System of Slavery in the Early Medieval West, fourth to eleventh centuries” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. J. Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 1-59. I think you could find the slaves-as-beast paradigm in Wendy Davies, “Servile Status in the Early Middle Ages” in M. Bush (ed.), Serfdom and Slavery: studies in legal bondage (Harlow 1996), pp. 225-246, but I don’t have my notes to hand to check and may be doing her a terrible disservice, which I shall attempt to repair by talking up last night’s paper as soon as possible…

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10 responses to “Sex slaves in the early Middle Ages: what’s the evidence?

  1. Always happy to help. There is a decent amount of early medieval evidence for relatively high-status men having sexual relations with female slaves, mainly their own. (I’m sticking to the neutral formula of ‘sexual relations’, because while it’s probably exploitative in most cases, that’s not strictly proveable). The best known example is St Gerald of Aurillac: Odo’s vita of him (1-9) has him ‘see a certain girl’ and feeling desire. He therefore ‘sent word to the mother of the girl that he would come by night’. He goes to the meeting, but by divine mercy, no longer finds the girl appealing. He therefore gives her her freedom and some land and has her father marry her off.

    For those who think that Gerald of Aurillac is sufficiently wierd not to prove anything, Carl Hammer (1995), The handmaid’s tale: morganatic relationships in early-medieval Bavaria. Continuity and change 10:345-368 has a number of Bavarian charters dealing with men providing for their children born from relationships with slaves, most commonly their own. I don’t know if Bavaria is unique in this, or if it’s just that no-one has looked at the charters elsewhere. There’s also a formula in a formulary on this situation (see Alice Rio, 2006. Freedom and unfreedom in early medieval Francia: the evidence of the legal formulae. Past and present (193):7-40 p 21).

    There isn’t actually much discussion of this in the Carolingian moral treatises: Jonas of Orleans in ‘De Institutione laicali’ is the only writer to condemn this that I know of (though you might find some more in Biblical exegesis e.g. of Abraham and Hagar).

    What I’m less convinced of is that when unmarried men have concubines these are normally peasants or slaves. There are a few hints that though concubines are normally of inferior status to the man, they are not necessarily right at the bottom. As well as the concubines of Carolingian princes (which admittedly may be a special case), Count Stephen of the Auvergne slept with a relative of his wife before his marriage, a relative who was therefore probably noble. And I think there are other hints that Merovingian and Carolingian noblewomen are not that easily ‘ruined’ by premarital sex. (I can discuss the evidence if anyone’s interested).

  2. Thankyou for that, I suspected you would be the one to come through. That does indeed settle some of my qualms. After all if it’s in a charter it must be true right? :-)

    However, if it was just Gerald of Aurillac… yup, could be a problem. What a silly amount we only know, or think we know, because of that text.

  3. Great topic! Magistra, I would be interested to hear more about the Merovingian and Carolingian noblewomen and the view of virginity.

    Given that I haven’t read Smith’s book, I am certainly not qualified to provide input or an opinion on the evidence of exploitation (or lack of said evidence) provided therein.

    However, I can contribute this thought, which somewhat echoes Jonathan’s statements above: a conclusion based on scanty evidence is troubling, rather empty rhetoric that fails to contribute to a meaningful discussion of the issue.

  4. ilegirl, I’ll try and write something on how easily Carolingian women are ruined in the next few days (probably over on my site since Jon should’t monopolise the net traffic on discussions of medieval sex).

    However, I afraid if you’re troubled by conclusions based on scanty evidence, you shouldn’t really associate with early medievalists. Scanty evidence is what we do.

  5. Ilegirl, hullo and thankyou for comments. Firstly, yes, Magistra has it right: we are specialists in filling the gaps between the evidence :-) It also seems as if I’ve given a poor impression of Julia’s rigour in citation. The book is framed for a general reader, and as a consequence mostly has primary source citations only where the author’s actually quoted something. Someone wanting to follow something up beyond that must work with the further reading, which is quite detailed, but it’s not constructed so that absolutely everything is referenced and proven. As a consequence, it seems to have driven Julia to be incredibly careful with phrasing. I remember when I was writing my thesis how pleased I was to have come up with a definition of charter that included everything I wanted to include, and yet to which I didn’t see that any objections could be raised.[1] Julia’s book is full of such things, phrasings and takes on things which are both expressive and almost inarguable because so carefully thought of. It must have been fantastically difficult to write. I am, in any case, a big fan of Julia’s work, though oddly she and I seem not to get on in person, but I genuinely do think this is an excellent book, and one or two apparently-feminist assumptions shouldn’t get in the way of that, especially if as Magistra suggests, they could have been sourced fairly easily had there been space.

    And, Magistra, I claim no monopoly on medieval sex talk: apart from anything else, we’ll neither of us ever beat Got Medieval… But you should definitely write that post, as I doubt many other people could do so as well as you.

    [1] “A document, framed as if for public reference, by which one party affirms the rights of another.”

  6. Indeed, I suppose any hope of evidence to be gathered which provides indisputable support for a specific conclusion is as rare in history (particularly periods prior to the modern, I would venture to guess) as it is in some branches of physics. We do the best we can given the evidence that exists, and are on an ever-continuing search for more. This, I imagine, is part of what makes the field of study engaging and (dare I say it?) fun.

    I did misunderstand what you said, Jonathan. And perhaps this is a lesson to me to refrain from jumping to conclusions without the relevant evidence – something I was rather quick to condemn! :)

  7. Historical evidence is rarely as empirically valid as physical sciences evidence; because we can’t set up experiments, we can’t control the variables or environment, so instead we have to try and allow for and explain them… by using other parts of the same result-set. It should make any scientist’s hair turn white. It can only be subjective and interpretative; though we can learn a lot from scientific methods, at the end of the day there’s a human being going, “my feeling is that we should read this jumble in this way”. And that’s when there’s enough evidence…

    As to insufficient evidence in my post, the post I linked to has me gushing about how good Julia’s book is already, so I didn’t think I should do it twice until I was given cause…

  8. Pingback: Magistra et Mater

  9. I have to say I’m impressed with the thoroughness of this blog post and everyone’s replies. My sister just got her PhD in English Literature and might like to see this page. Your discussion is informative and entertaining.

    I do have one question though “how much evidence does one need to make a valid conclusion in medieval studies?”

  10. The answer must be subjective: enough to stop people wanting to argue. I mean, that sounds flip, but there is no empirical standard of proof in the humanities, any more than there is in jurisprudence; we’re aiming for ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. This involves acknowledging that at any point someone may be able to put an argument, or unearth new evidence or use old evidence in a new way, that now makes it reasonable to doubt what was previously ‘established’. As a wise man once said, albeit not quite of historical discourse, “we have kind of set up poles in it, and these we periodically do away with”…

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