Ancilla-swapping in Burgundy

I ran into Magistra in the Institute of Historical Research yesterday, just after she’d made her latest discovery—I swear, neither she nor I go looking for this stuff, and neither do we come across, in real life, like a pair of leering perverts I hope—and it has been one of three things that have set me again thinking about medieval slavery. The second was an article by Josep María Salrach I was reading the same day, which covered social groups and stressed that really, there probably were more slaves in my period of Catalonia than we see in the evidence.1

This is germane, you see, because there really is very little sign of slavery in the Catalan stuff. A few rich men give away slaves in their wills, a few rich women too, and Bishop Sal·la of whom I have spoken before bequeathed four Sarraceni to his cathedral, and there is an assumption, which seems fair, that captives taken in border warfare were enslaved which is presumably where those Sarraceni had come from.2 And if you read up about this stuff, you’ll find that Barcelona really ought to have been a heaving slave market, because the Slavs from whom our word for a living chattel comes were supposedly being ferried overland from, for example, Verdun, down to the south along the old via augusta and eventually to Zaragoza and other Muslim markets, which does very much involve travelling through Catalonia. But written evidence for trade of any kind is notoriously late, and laws that might help are ambiguous because Catalonia’s legal text of resort is the Visigothic Forum Iudicum and thus somewhat anachronistic three centuries after its compilation.3

Modern painting of a Rus\' slave market in the early Middle Ages, by Sergei Ivanov

This has meant that the third thing has been something of a culture shock to your humble blogger: slaves are all through the material from Cluny. Most of the big land-grants also transfer mancipia, that oh-so-usefully neuter term that makes the human being concerned even more of an object; and while some might argue that these are serfs, not slaves—I see the difference as whether he or she can be sold without land, a serf is tied to land and changes ownership with it and a slave can be disposed of at market as genuinely movable property—and that here we’re seeing sitting tenants staying with the estates, they’re not listed with the land, but separately afterwards.4 And sometimes, there is no land, so it’s pretty inarguable. Burgundy seems to have either been much less chary of mentioning slave sales, or, what is vastly more likely, however many slaves Catalonia did have, the Mâconnais had a lot more. And I will confess, being confronted with what I, as modern moralist, think is an inhuman practice this much is making it harder for me to think my way into this society, though arguably for what I’m actually doing here I don’t need to go beyond document use anyway.

There are two cases which have caught my imagination, though, and they are two of those where there’s no land at issue.5 The two documents are both exchanges, and they are exchanges where the price on both sides is a slave. That is, both parties give away a manicipium to get one. Firstly I like these because the idea that slaves are not of fixed value, but have qualities that presumably differentiate them, seems more humane again: someone had to look at this person someone else owned and like them for something. But secondly, I wonder what they were actually trading for? The only scenario I’ve thought of so far, for the swap that involved female slaves (ancillae) that isn’t as trivial as ‘blonde for brunette’ is one where, perhaps one was a really good cook, but the other was young enough to wet-nurse, so the family with young children to look after swapped cuisine for lactation. But there must be other possible explanations. Any suggestions, anyone?


1. Josep María Salrach i Marés, “Los grupos sociales” in Jose Maria Jover Zamora (ed.), Historia de España Menéndez Pidal II: la España cristiana de los siglos VIII al XI, 2: los nucleos pirenaicos (718-1035): Navarra, Aragón, Cataluña, ed. Manuel Riu i Riu, pp. 393-425 at pp. 414-416. This is not the only place he argues this, and in fact I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this article compared to others; it’s uncharacteristically lazy, and resorts to regula magistri an awful lot. This—arguing that because Venerable Predecessor said something, and he knew everything, it must be true, without resorting to evidence—is very unusual for Catalan scholarship, in part because the magistri are few as yet, but rather more common in mainline Spanish stuff, as Abilio Barbero and Marcelo Vigil rant in the beginning of their La Formación del Feudalismo en el Penísula Ibérica (Barcelona 1978). Given that the article was written for the Historia Menéndez Pidal, which is a crazy monster of a project half of whose authors are already dead and that is basically the world’s biggest Festschrift, sunk tomes deep in that Spanish tradition, that may be why Salrach seems to be writing more like Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz (who wrote the entire preceding volume in the series) than Pierre Bonnassie here. Salrach is usually a lot more like Bonnassie, and if you wanted him at his best on social structure, I’d suggest “Entre l’estat antic i feudal. Mutacions socials i dinàmica político-militar a l’occident carolingi i als comtats catalans” in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els Orígens de Catalunya (Barcelona 1991-1992), 2 vols also published as Memorias de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991-1992), I pp. 191-251. That’s got to be close to the acceptable maximum length for a blog footnote, really, and quite possibly not from the safe side…

2. For example, the act by which dear Emma, future abbess of Sant Joan de les Abadesses, was given to the nunnery, sees her accompanied with three slaves, one of whom may later work for her as an estate manager, in as much as no-one else of the same name (Gualter) occurs in the abbey’s documents; the endowment is Federico Udina Martorell (ed.), El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los Siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18/Publicaciones de le Sección de Barcelona 15 (Madrid 1951), doc. 3; someone called Gualter also crops up in docs 21 & 87. See for the argument Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London 2005, p. 134 n. 246. Sal·la’s will, meanwhile, is Cebrià Baraut (ed.), “Els documents, dels segles IX i X, conservats a l’Arxiu Capitular de la Seu d’Urgell” in Urgellia: anuari d’estudis històrics dels antics comtats de Cerdanya, Urgell i Pallars, d’Andorra i la Vall d’Aran Vol. 2 (Montserrat 1979), pp. 78-143, doc. 287, eventually actually carried out in doc. 314; see Jarrett, “Pathways”, pp. 290-308.

3. The historiography on slavery is huge, and it’s not much use citing Catalan stuff for it because as I say here, Catalonia is a bit unusual; instead, one can get the general picture of the field from 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, and the latest news from Alice Rio, “Freedom and Unfreedom in Early Medieval Francia: the evidence of the legal formulae” in Past and Present no. 193 (Oxford 2006), pp. 7-40. For specific stuff about the Catalan trade, however, see Josep María Salrach, “Servi i mancipia” in B. de Riquer i Permanyer (ed.), Història Política, Societat i Cultura dels Països Catalans volum 2: la formació de la societat feudal, segles VI-XII, ed. J. M. Salrach i Marès (Barcelona 1998), pp. 78-79.

4. Auguste Bernard & Alexandre Bruel (edd.), Recueil des Chartes de l’Abbaye de Cluny (Paris 1876-1903), Vol. I, doc. nos 18, 44 or 75. For someone else using this serf/slave distinction, see Davies, “Servile Status”, pp. 245-246, cited by Rio, “Freedom and Unfreedom”, p. 9 & n. 6. There are some sitting tenants on some of the other transfers, so we can see that that is referred to differently (“manentes“): Bernard & Bruel, Cluny, I doc. 55.

5. Ibid. doc. 30 is the first with no land involved. Doc. 74 is one of the exchanges, this one a man for a man, the other being doc. 108.

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4 responses to “Ancilla-swapping in Burgundy

  1. On numbers, there’s a throw-away line in one of Alcuin’s letters (no 200) where Felix of Urgel accuses him of having 20,000 servi (presumably meaning him being in charge of St Martin’s etc). Alcuin doesn’t deny this, just says it’s not important how wealthy you are, it’s your attitude to your wealth that matters.

    On swapping the unfree (and I think that even though in the eighth and ninth century they’re legally property, they’re thought of as humans), there are several possible explanations. If you’re being optimistic, these owners might be trying to arrange marriages for their dependents and taking some concern about who they might want to marry (or reuniting families who had been broken up). The Carolingian church said that marriages between slaves even of different masters shouldn’t be broken up, but it obviously made sense to try and consolidate one’s holdings.

    Alternatively, Carl Hammer has suggested, based on Bavarian evidencem that there was a lifecycle for slaves, where the lord moves them between domestic and ‘hutted’ slavery at certain points. In that case, this may be an extension of this policy, doing a swap to get someone of the age you want. Another possibility is craft skills in demand: I don’t know how specialist all the textile production got.

    If you’re being really pessimistic, of course, then the transaction is just an early medieval version of exchanging Christmas cards – gifts of roughly the smae status to maintain a bond.

    Meanwhile, for conceptually wierd stuff on slavery, there’s always Alice Rio’s article which includes someone who is a part-time ‘slave’.

  2. I’d forgotten the part-time slave! Daft of me. The Carl Hammer stuff is news to me but then he’s working there with an area where there really is still some huge-scale slave agriculture, isn’t he? Estates that large simply don’t exist in Catalonia. It’s hard to tell what size the ones with mancipia attached are in the Cluny stuff, as only the small ones tend to be measured (though it’s interesting that any are, and in perticae and pedes too, Catalonia uses dextri when it uses anything). They might be pretty large, but in that case the numbers of slaves are small, not usually more than four or five. I suspect these are not really agricultural workers.

    The gift exchange idea hadn’t occurred to me at all, but perhaps it should have done – thankyou. I don’t think I have any use for this knowledge as yet but it’s interesting.

    Some day I must have a proper look at the Adoptionist stuff, as it may be the only way into exploring the terms by which Urgell, and the other bits of Catalonia that voluntarily come over to Charlemagne in c. 785, do so. My sense of it from what little I know is that Felix and Alcuin are not really playing the same game until the end. It’s as if Felix doesn’t realise that he’s got a new boss, and this suggests that there really is some change in the status of the area as it perceives itself between 785 and say, 820. But because of this, I tend to read that exchange as:
    Felix: you’re very rich and worldly!
    Alcuin: why yes, yes I am. His Majesty has gifted me that I may do God’s work.
    Felix: no, that’s bad!
    Alcuin: you’re just saying that because you live on a mountaintop with no endowment to speak of. Now let’s talk theology. Heads Charlemagne’s right, because I write his speeches; tails you’re wrong, because he’s the boss. Understand?
    Felix: that’s not theology, that’s politics!
    Alcuin: like there’s a difference! keep up!
    Felix: but the nature of God…
    Alcuin: … is to be on my side.

  3. highlyeccentric


    Felix: you’re very rich and worldly!
    Alcuin: why yes, yes I am. His Majesty has gifted me that I may do God’s work.
    Felix: no, that’s bad!
    Alcuin: you’re just saying that because you live on a mountaintop with no endowment to speak of. Now let’s talk theology. Heads Charlemagne’s right, because I write his speeches; tails you’re wrong, because he’s the boss. Understand?
    Felix: that’s not theology, that’s politics!
    Alcuin: like there’s a difference! keep up!
    Felix: but the nature of God…
    Alcuin: … is to be on my side.

    *giggles* I like, I like.

    In these exchanges, are the two slaves apparently of equal value? I’m imagining a situation where person A owes you a sum of x, but all he has to give you is a slave worth 2x- would you then have to give him a slave worth x as change?
    *sigh* probably not. That requires an arbitrary standard of value which I suspect wouldn’t really exist without a money economy. Also, you’d be more likely to just accept the 2x slave and person A would have to suffer.

  4. Such an arbitrary standard of value does exist, though, in the form of the law codes of the area, which here is the Lex Burgundionum. This doesn’t set market prices, but does say what someone should be compensated for the death or theft of a slave, and as far as I know (which isn’t much) there is only one price for a slave. However, that surely can’t have pertained at market: not only would it be almost the only instance where early medieval laws actually succeeded in prescribing conduct, but it would clearly neglect the different skills and characteristics of the people being sold. I suspect that would have been a matter for argument, so I guess that in these cases either both parties agreed that it was close to fair, or there was something else in the relationship between them that made inequality appropriate. But, yes, apparently, the slaves are of equal value, otherwise there’d probably be money involved as well.

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