Selling your freedom in the early Middle Ages: rhetoric and reality

A couple of weeks ago the IHR early medieval seminar was given by Alice Rio from KCL on the subject of ‘Self sale and voluntary entry into unfreedom, 300-1100’. This was a very wide ranging paper which considered the historiography, literary and documentary evidence for self-sale over a vast period of time. First up was the historiography, in which self-sale fits into wider discussions about the ‘crises’ of the fifth century and the year 1000. At the later end we have a peak of documents of self-sale (for example, 65 cases from the monastery of Marmoutier) and arguments about the feudal mutation. Did this period see a change from slavery to serfdom, as Pierre Bonnassie claimed? Dominique Barthelemy argued instead for this being another example of a ‘documentary mutation’, and saw continuity with Carolingian forms of unfreedom. He also thought that such voluntary entry into unfreedom might actually be a career move for skilled workers and administrative personnel, who could rise in monastic service even while nominally having few legal rights.

At the post-Roman end of the early Middle Ages, Alice reckoned the historical analysis of self-sale had been a lot more limited in terms of quantity and quality. Self sale tends to be taken just as a sign of how horrible the post-Roman world was, one extra piece of evidence for chaos and barbarism. Alice then started talking about some of the Roman/post-Roman sources to show how this historiography had arisen. First of all, she talked about the paradoxical view of Roman law. It was ostensibly illegal under Roman law to sell oneself, because personal freedom was so valuable, and there were a number of complex legal discussions about what exactly should happen in particular cases. But in practice, there was one glaring loophole – it might be illegal to sell yourself, but the contract wasn’t void as a result. The Roman view was that if someone made such a perverse decision as to sell their freedom, they didn’t deserve to be free anyhow, so should remain as a slave! There is one tenth century Byzantine law in which Emperor Leo VI said that contracts of self-sale were invalid, and the seller remained free (though getting flogged for his pans). Otherwise, the Roman world combined a discourse against self-sale with its continued practice.

In the west, there’s little state interest in self-sale in the post-Roman world, whereas there’s a take-off of discussions by contemporary authors. This has often been seen as evidence of the increasing frequency of self-sale. One of Alice’s main arguments, however, was that we shouldn’t trust a word of this literary evidence. Instead, she sees references to self-sale as a device to dramatise times of political turmoil. For example, Victor of Vita describes a famine coming after the Vandals began their persecutions in North Africa, as a punishment from God. People were so desperate that they tried to sell themselves but found no buyers.

Alice added several other examples of self-sale being used as a symbol of crisis. She’s argued before that the fifth century writer Salvian shouldn’t be seen as a high-born aristocrat condemning the oppression of the poor by his fellow elite, but instead as coming from a lower stratum of the elite, and criticising the way more powerful men treated his social class. In other words, the ‘pauperes’ who are suffering may be the less-powerful, rather than the truly destitute, and Salvian may be deliberately ramping up the rhetoric of self-sale as a symbol of oppression. She also suggested the same tactic was being used 500 years later by Wulfstan in his Sermo Lupi ad Anglos. Though Wulfstan doesn’t specifically mention self-sale, his references to the ‘poor’ as being enslaved do imply this. He also conflates self-sale, penal servitude and slave-raiding to try and equate all slavery to the worst possible form (that of being sold overseas).

These rhetorical uses of self-sale in literary texts suggest it still had shock value to early medieval societies, but they aren’t much use for accurate discussions. Alice then moved on to the documentary and legal evidence for self-sale. Before the C11 we don’t have many documents showing self-sale. She suggested that there wasn’t much need to keep them, despite their effects on the self-sellers’ descendents. Instead, the freedom or unfreedom of later generations was likely to be judged based on whether witnesses remembered them as doing servile actions.

Early medieval laws show self sale as legal, but don’t give any details. Legal formularies, however (collections of model documents), on which Alice is an expert, have more information and show a lot of varieties of self sale. Some of the people selling themselves are apparently destitute or unable to pay fines or debts, but there are also formulae in which people sell themselves and their land. There’s a close association between self-sale and loan securities: some people become unfree on a temporary, or even a part-time basis in return for a cash loan: if they repay this they regain their freedom.

Actual charters from Farfa show similar patterns. Some talk specifically about the support they want to receive, such as clothing and shoes. But there’s also a wealthy widow and her daughter who give themselves to Farfa, and in that case there’s no mention of support. In other charters and formulae there are very similar formulae for agreements of self sale and agreements for free service, suggesting that negotiations were possible.

These agreements quite often include references to ‘poverty’ as a motif for the act, but these may be partly rhetorical – they’re used even in cases where the self-sellers don’t look destitute. This may be a continuation of Roman ideals of freedom being precious, or it may simply be a way of preventing disputes by relatives and making the buyer look pious by claiming the transaction is necessary or an act of charity.

Overall, Alice argued that the early medieval evidence suggested there weren’t peaks of self sale either in the fifth century or the eleventh. Instead, it was probably happening everywhere and all the time. But it also wasn’t necessarily the trauma that literary sources suggest. There could be room for negotiation. There’s even a little evidence to support continuity with Barthelememy’s suggestion of C11 craft specialists using this as a way to advance: there’s a charter from Farfa in which a man gave himself to the monastery to be a miller, but kept half the mill profits. Elsewhere, self-sale or self-giving seems to have been a way of creating a new relationship with a monastic patron. Lest this seem too rosy a picture, however, Alice pointed out that the descendants of such self-sellers probably had a lot less room for manoeuvre, since they no longer had their freedom as a bargaining chip.

Alice’s examination is making her increasingly sceptical about the whole concept of slavery (tricky, as she’s got a contract to write a book about it). Ownership seems to have had a less exclusive meaning in the early Middle Ages, and it’s hard to say whether early medieval unfreedom counted as slavery or not. A more instrumental view of freedom is visible in both Roman and early medieval sources if you look at actual practice, as opposed to the elite discourse of immutable freedom.

As I hope my summary makes clear, it was an excellent paper: Alice is hoping to publish this as a journal article and it certainly has the analytical force to deserve this. But she’s also wonderful at finding telling anecdotes. Those of us who’ve read her previous work know about the “part-time slave”, but she managed to top even that with her account of Abba Serapion the Sindonite (in Palladius’ Lausiac History) who was a serial self-seller, selling himself to people in order to convert them, and then being freed by them. It’s stories such as this that show us how much more complicated and varied the history of unfreedom is than we’ve previously thought.

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One thought on “Selling your freedom in the early Middle Ages: rhetoric and reality

  1. Thankyou for this coverage. I was really sorry not to make it to this one, though Alice has kindly passed me a copy of her text. I was reading some Spanish stuff about self-giving to monastic communities which may provide useful parallels, but I should probably wait till I’ve read her text before I offer them. I shall post a link to this in due course when I begin to catch up with things…

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