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…