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Slavery and Sin - 30 credits (HS1818)

Module Tutor: Dr Dave Wyatt

Course Description

This module examines the enormous social and cultural significance of slavery in Christian Europe from the late Roman period to the Iberian peninsular on the eve of the discovery of the New World. Slavery was an institution of great cultural importance in many European societies. The marginal slave was useful for defining the boundaries of community and hierarchy, and for reinforcing ideas of collective identity and morality. Slavery, then, was not simply an institution concerned with the manipulation of labour and financial gain; it also had powerful symbolic, psychological, cultural and gender dimensions. Through the examination of a wide variety of primary sources (including law codes, chronicles, sagas, wills, saint's lives and archaeological remains) this module explores the complex attitudes of the Christian Church towards slavery. The Church generally accepted that slavery was an essential part of the fabric of society, yet it was also concerned about the sinful aspects of slave holding and attempted to regulate violent slave raiding/trading activities and the sexual temptation inherent in slave holding systems. By studying contemporary texts we will assess the importance of slave raiding/trading and holding for ideas of power, gender and religious and ethnic identities in this period.

Credits: 30

Availability of module: Every year

Prerequisites: N/A

Necessary for: N/A

Teaching methods

This module comprises of 10 course Units and will be taught through a combination of lectures, seminars and workshops.

Course Units
The major themes of this Module are organised into a series of Course Units. There are 10 course units and each Course Unit is composed of one lecture and a related seminar and source workshop. The Last Course Unit (10), provides students with an opportunity to review the Module Content in preparation for Examination.

The aim of lectures is not to provide comprehensive and detailed information on a particular topic, but, rather to introduce the salient features of major course themes and topics, to identify key issues and provide historiographical guidance. The lectures aim to provide a basic framework for understanding and should be thought of as useful starting points for further discussion and individual study. Where appropriate, lecture plans, handouts and other materials may be distributed.

Seminars will concentrate on specific issues related to the theme of the particular Course Unit. They will provide an opportunity for students to discuss the topics or issues introduced by the lectures in the Course Units, or explore a related theme, perhaps not directly addressed by the lectures, but drawing on ideas culled from those lectures. For seminars you will be asked to read specific items and prepare answers to the questions provided for each seminar. The seminar is intended as an opportunity for you to discuss the course materials with your fellow students, and, as such, depends on participation in discussion. Normally, the class will be divided into smaller groups for discussion purposes and then the results of the group discussions will be presented in a plenary session at the end of the seminar.

Source Workshops
Source workshops will be structured in a similar way to the seminars. Using examples, these sessions will analyse the types of sources available to historians wishing to study slaves, serfs and peasants. They will provide the student with guidance on how to critically approach the various types of primary source material. These workshops will be linked directly to the course units allowing students to develop a holistic approach to the themes of the course.


Students will be assessed by means of a combination of one essay relating to primary sources [20%], an assessed essay [30%] and an examination paper [50%].

Course assignments:

The Assessed Essay relating to primary sources will contribute 20% of the final mark for the module and must be no longer than 1,000 words.

The Assessed Essay will contribute 30% of the final mark for the module. It is designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to review evidence, draw appropriate conclusions from it and employ the formal conventions of scholarly presentation. It must be no longer than 2,000 words.

The Examination will take place during the second assessment period [May/June] and will consist of an unseen two hour paper that will contribute the remaining 50% of the final mark for this module. Students must write 2 answers in total.

Summary of course content

Theme A: An Introduction to Slavery Studies

Unit 1: ‘The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture’

Examines the ways in which historians have constructed slavery. How has the discourse been moulded by modern sensibilities, ideologies and religious and political agendas? We will explore comparative and cross-cultural approaches to slavery exploring issues such as gender, conceptions of power, economics and resistance.

Theme B: - Slaves, warriors and Christians in the Early Medieval West (c. 300-1170 AD)

Unit 2: Slavery in Early Christianity

We will explore ideas about the social and cultural significance of the institution of slavery for late Roman society and examine the influence of this slave society on early Christian perspectives and ideologies. We will examine, in turn, how these early Christian ideologies and perspectives, which were steeped in slave holding concepts and imagery, shaped social and religious perspectives on slavery in the medieval West for many centuries.

Unit 3: Slaves and warriors in Early Medieval Europe

We will examine how the conditions of slavery and freedom were of fundamental significance for social order and gender constructions in these warrior-centred medieval communities. Will explore how these constructions, although frequently at odds with Christian moral teaching and dogmatic perspectives, remained powerfully significant for these medieval societies.

Unit 4: Challenging slavery? The dynamics of Church Reform

We will assess the validity of arguments for the alleged disappearance of slavery in Western Europe through a case study of British societies during the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. In particular, it will explore the dynamics of the ecclesiastical reform movement during the late eleventh and twelfth centuries and examine how its assault on traditional expressions of warrior power and gender identity were inadvertently modifying attitudes towards slave taking and slave trading.

Theme C: Linking the chain - Slavery in the High Middle Ages (c. 1171-1500 AD)

Unit 5: Slaves and Warriors on Crusade.

We will explore the impact of the Crusades on slave acquisition/holding in the Holy Land. The reform papacy’s Crusading enterprises channelled Christian warriors to the eastern fringes of Europe, to fight the, not dissimilar, slave-holding/raiding warrior elite of the Islamic World. During the Crusades European practices of slave-raiding endured and intensified as the religious differences of the opposing armies invalidated the modified codes of warfare nominally adopted within Christendom. This unit will examine in particular how the enslavement of Muslims was regarded by the ecclesiastical authorities.

Unit 6: Ancillary Evidence: Slavery in the Italian City States

We will examine how, slavery persisted in the Italian peninsular, the beating heart of the western Church, into the high middle ages and beyond. It will explore the significance of industrial, domestic and sexual slavery in these urban settlements during the 14th and 15th centuries. In particular, it will focus upon the high proportion of female slaves within this urban context and examine how sexual relationships between masters and slaves remained the key concern of the Church. It will also explore the shifting sources for slaves from differing ethnic and religious groups and look at attitudes towards the enslavement of fellow Christians.

Unit 7: Domestic Enemies: Slavery in the Iberian Peninsular and beyond

We will examine how, slavery persisted in the Iberian peninsular as a result of the ongoing and complex conflict between Muslims and Christians there. It will examine the nature of Iberian slavery in the High Middle Ages and explore the Church’s attitude towards slave-holding within this context. It will also examine the expansion of Iberian slave holding into the earliest of ‘New World’ settlements in the Canary Islands and beyond.

Theme D: Pathways to Freedom  - comparative approaches

Unit 8: Warriors once were slaves: revolts, resistance and religion.

Taking a comparative approach this unit will explore the role of slave agency and resistance. From passive resistance to escape; from sexual strategies to manipulation; from the subversion of Christianity to adaptation and appropriation of Christian religious concepts; from individual physical violence to organised revolt, responses to enslavement have been complex, multifaceted and have often had powerful religious dimensions.

Unit 9: Social death and rebirth: meanings of manumission

We will evaluate the significance of manumission for slave holding societies in the medieval West and challenge assumptions that manumission documents provide convincing evidence for a religiously motivated decline in slavery. We will explore how manumission processes enhanced the master’s psychological and physical power over both slave and freedman and should be regarded as an essential and integral elements perpetuating slave system. We will discuss the symbolic nature of manumission which constituted a life creating/life renewing sacrifice that transcended mortality and enhanced the master’s spiritual and honorific power within the socio-religious context of medieval Christian culture.

Unit 10: Slavery, the Enduring Sin

We will review the ambivalent stance of the Church towards the institution of slavery over the course of two millennia. We will explore the relationship between the ideologies/strategies of the modern abolition movement and the powerful popular antipathy towards slavery in the modern west. How has this impacted on the historical discourse on earlier slave holding societies?
In spite of the modern antipathy to slavery, manifest through the legal and moral prohibitions, the institution still prevails in most parts of the globe, including the West. The module will conclude with a debate regarding how violent ethnic/religious conflicts and the rise of the global economy during the dying years of the twentieth century have coincided with a disturbing increase in human trafficking/slave trading.

Learning outcomes

  • Demonstrate a critical and systematic knowledge of the history of slavery in Europe c.300-1500 and an understanding of historiographical ideas concerning the development of concepts of freedom.
  • Critically identify the main trends by which historians interpret the sources on slavery, particularly in the medieval period, and relate them to each other methodologically and ideologically.
  • Demonstrate a in-depth and critical understanding of a range of concepts and debates within the appropriate secondary literature
  • Analyse how modern ideological sentiments have helped to shape the historical discourse on slavery in the medieval and late Roman contexts.
  • Demonstrate a critical understanding of key primary sources on slavery c.300-1500 and their significance
  • An ability to communicate ideas and arguments effectively, whether in class discussion or in written form
  • An ability to work effectively with others in teams or groups
  • An ability to think critically and challenge assumptions.
  • An ability to formulate and justify their own arguments and conclusions and present appropriate supporting evidence
  • An ability to modify as well as to defend their own position
  • An ability to use a range of information technology resources to assist  with information retrieval and assignment presentation
  • Time management skills and an ability to independently organise their own study methods and workload

Suggested preparatory reading

  • Ađalsteinsson, J ‘The position of freed slaves in medieval Iceland’, SagaBook: Viking Society for Northern Research, 22:1, (1986), 33-49
  • Barber, M New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple (Cambridge, 1994)
  • Bartlett, R The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonisation and Cultural Change (Princeton, 1993)
  • Bensch, S P ‘From prizes of war to domestic merchandise: the changing face of slavery in Catalonia and Aragon, 1000-1300’ in Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies 25, (1994), 63-93
  • Blumenthal, Debra ‘Defending their master’s honour: slaves as violent offenders in 15th century Valencia’ in A Great Effusion of Blood? Interpreting Medieval Violence Meyerson, M D et al (eds) (Toronto, 2004) 34-56.
  • Bitel, L.M. Land of Women, (Ithaca, 1996).
  • Bromberg, E.I. 'Wales and the Medieval Slave Trade', Speculum, 18, 1942, pp. 263-269.
  • Blackburn, R. ‘Slave exploitation and the elementary structures of enslavement’ in Serfdom and Slavery Bush ed, 158-180
  • Bloch, M. Slavery and Serfdom in the Middle Ages, trans. (Berkley, CA., 1975)
  • Bonassie, P., From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, (Cambridge, 1991).
  • Bradley, K. Slaves & Masters in the Roman Empire (Oxford, 1987)
  • Budak, Neven ‘Slavery in late medieval Dalmatia/Croatia: labour, legal status, integration’ in Mélanges de l'Ecole française de Rome. Moyen Age 112:2, (2000), 745-760
  • Bush, M. Introduction in Serfdom & Slavery: Studies in Legal Bondage (Harlow, 1996) 1-17.
  • Clunies-Ross, M. ‘Concubinage in Anglo-Saxon England’, P&P, 108, August, 1985, pp. 3-34
  • Clover, C.J. ‘Regardless of Sex: Men, Women and Power in Early Northern Europe’, Speculum, 68, 1993, pp. 363-387.
    [Available as online journal]
  • ‘The politics of scarcity. Notes on the sex ratio in early Scandinavia’ New Readings on Women in Old English Literature. Ed. Helen DAMICO and Alexandra Hennessey OLSEN (Bloomington,1990), 100-134
  • Coleman, J ‘Rape in Anglo-Saxon England’ in Halsall, G (ed) Violence and Society in the Early Medieval West {(Woodbridge, 1998), 193-203
  • Cooper, K & Leyser, C 'The Gender of Grace: Impotence, Servitude and Manliness in the Fifth Century West', in Stafford, P. and Mulder-Bakker, A.B. (eds.), Gendering the Middle Ages, (Oxford, 2001), pp. 6-21.
  • Constable, O. ‘Muslim Spain and Mediterranean slavery: the medieval slave trade as an aspect of Muslim-Christian relations’ in Christendom and its Discontents: Exclusion, Persecution, and Rebellion, 1000-1500. Ed. Scott L. WAUGH and Peter D. DIEHL, (Cambridge,1996), 264-284
  • Davis, D B., The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, (Oxford, 1966).
  • Douglas, M. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, (London and New York, 1989).
  • Dockès, P. Medieval Slavery and Liberation (Chicago, 1982)
  • Domar, E.D. ‘The Causes of Slavery or Serfdom; A Hypothesis, The Journal of Economic History Vol. 30 1970, 18-32.
  • Davis, D B., The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, (Oxford, 1966).
  • Davis, D B., Slavery and Human Progress, (Oxford, 1986).
  • Elbl, I., ‘Men without Wives: Sexual Arrangements in the Early Portuguese Expansion in West Africa’ in Murray, J. and Eisenbichler, K. (eds.), Desire and Discipline: Sex and Sexuality in the Premodern West, (Toronto, 1996), pp. 61-86.
  • Evans-Grubbs, J ‘”Marriage more shameful than adultery’”: Slave-Mistress Relationships, “Mixed Marriages” and late Roman Law’ in Phoenix, XLVII, No 2, Summer 1993, 125-154
  • Fejic, N ‘Imagining the “other”: the Bosnian slave in Mediterranean space during the lower Middle Ages’ in Medieval History Journal, 5.2, 2002, pp. 291-308
  • Forey, A 'The Military Orders and the ransoming of captives from Islam (twelfth to fourteenth centuries)', Studia Monastica, 33 (1991), 259–79
  • Finley, M. I. Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (Harmondsworth, 1983). DE71.F4
  • Frantzen, A. J. ‘The Work of work: Servitude, Slavery and Labor in Medieval England’, in Work of Work, 1-15.
  • Frantzen, A J ‘Where the boys are: Children and sex in the Anglo-Saxon penitentials’ in Cohen, J et al (eds) Becoming male in the Middle Ages (New York, 1997)
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  • Fynn Paul, J ‘Empire, monotheism and slavery in the Greater Mediterranean region from Antiquity to the Early Modern era’ in Past & Present, 2009, vol. 205, pp.30-40
  • Garnsey, P. Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine, (Cambridge, 1996)
  • Gilchrist, J. ‘The Medieval Canon Law on Unfree Persons: Gratian and the Decretist Doctrines c.1141-1234’ in Kuttner, S. and Stickler, A.M. (eds.), Mélanges G. Fransen, 2 vols., vol.i, (Rome, 1976), pp. 285-93.
  • Gillingham, J. ‘1066 and the introduction of Chivalry into England’ Garnett, G. and Hudson, J. (eds.), Law and Government in Medieval England and Normandy, (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 31-55.
  • Gillingham, J. 'The Beginnings of English Imperialism', Journal of Historical Sociology, 5, 1992, pp. 392-409.
  • Gillingham, J. ‘Conquering the Barbarians: War and Chivalry in Twelfth Century Britain’, HSJ, 4, 1992, pp.67-84.
    [All of these Gillingham articles can also be found in Gillingham, J., The English in the Twelfth Century, (Woodbridge, 2000)]
  • Girsch, E.S. 'Metaphorical Usage, Sexual Exploitation and Divergence in Old English Terminology for Male and Female Slaves' in Frantzen & Moffat, Work of Work (Glasgow, 1994), pp. 30-55.
  • Goetz, H. 'Protection of the Church, Defence of the Law, and Reform: On the Purposes and Character of the Peace of God' in Head, T. and Landes, R. (eds.), The Peace of God, social violence and religious response in France around the year 1000, (Ithaca and London, 1992), pp. 259-279.
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  • Henning, J ‘Slavery or freedom? The causes of early medieval Europe's economic advancement’, Contribution to a forum discussing Michael McCormick, Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, A.D. 300-900 (Cambridge, 2001) in Early Medieval Europe Volume, 12:3, (2003), 269-277
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  • Katsari, C et al (eds) From Captivity to Freedom: themes in ancient and modern slavery (University of Leicester, 2008)
  • Klapisch-Zuber, C. ‘Women Servants in Florence during the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries’ in Hanawalt, B. (ed.), Women in Preindustrial Europe, (Bloomington, 1986), pp. 56-80.
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  • Mckee, Sally ‘Inherited status and slavery in late medieval Italy and Venetian Crete’, Past and Present Volume182, (2004), 31-53
  • Mckee, Sally ‘Greek women in Latin households of fourteenth-century Venetian Crete’. Journal of Medieval History, 19:3, (1993), 229-249
  • Melichar, P. ‘God, slave and a nun: a case from late medieval Cyprus’ in Byzantion: Revue internationale des études byzantines, 2009, 79, pp. 280-91
  • Michael, R ‘A black slave on the run in thirteenth-century England’, Nottingham Medieval Studies, 51, 2007, pp.111-119
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  • Pelteret, D.A.E. “The Image of the Slave in some Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse Sources”, Slavery and Abolition [online journal], Vol. 23, 2, 2002, pp. 75-88.
  • Phillips, W D. ‘Continuity and change in Western slavery: ancient to modern times’, Serfdom and Slavery: Studies in Legal Bondage. Ed. Michael L. Bush. (London, 1996), 71-88
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