Slavery in Anglo-Saxon England

These days are to be given to all free men, but not to slaves and unfree labourers: twelve days at Christmas; and the day on which Christ overcame the devil (15 February); and the anniversary of St Gregory (12 March); and the seven days before Easter and the seven after; and one day at the feast of St Peter and St Paul (29 June); and in harvest-time the whole week before the feast of St Mary (15 August); and one day at the feast of All Saints (1 November). And the four Wednesdays in the four Ember weeks are to be given to all slaves, to sell to whomsoever they please anything of what anyone has given them in God’s name, or of what they can earn in any of their spare time.
excerpt of Ælfred’s Laws from Alfred the Great, translated by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge

This excerpt from the Laws of King Ælfred of Wessex (ruled 871-899) spells out required holidays granted along the most basic of divisions: free men, and slaves.  As in all of Northern Europe, slavery had a long history amongst the continental Angles and Saxons, which continued in their new island home.  Those captured in battle or in raids commonly became slaves (excepting persons of wealth, generally held hostage for a handsome redemption).

In early Anglo-Saxon times, slaves were often descendants of the conquered British population: the Anglo-Saxon word for “Briton” is used interchangeably for “slave”.  The commonest sort of slave in later Anglo-Saxon times was by far the penal slave, a person enslaved as criminal penalty from crimes committed.  In hard times, the poorer agricultural class found their only hope of sustenance in voluntarily submitting to slavery, and sold themselves and their families to survive.

Slaves had limited legal rights under Anglo-Saxon law, and in his Laws King Ælfred shows an interest in encouraging them to better their stations by allowing days on which slaves are free to work as independent contractors.  The phrase allowing slaves to “sell to whomsoever they please anything of what anyone has given them in God’s name” is an interesting one, for since a slave by definition cannot own any thing (but only be owned) this merciful dispensation implies that slaves were not infrequently recipients of gifts.

Slaves had no wergild, or man-gold (worth).  But as “property”, slaves had value.  If a slave was killed, the slave’s valuation (generally a pound, the price of eight oxen), was to be paid to the aggrieved owner.  If the owner himself killed his slave, he incurred ecclesiastical penalties, but rarely legal ones.  Ælfred’s law code underscores the notion of property rights:

If anyone rapes the slave of a commoner, he shall pay five shillings to the commoner, and a fine of sixty shillings. The slave is not recompensed, only the owner.

Rape amongst slaves was met with the severest penalties:

If a slave rapes a slave, castration shall be required as compensation

Although the rights of slaves were few, slave-owning was fraught with liability, since owners were legally responsible for the actions of their slaves. Thus slave-owning was not to be entered into lightly.

Around the typical timber hall, slaves might be almost indistinguishable from other, free, labourers, performing the heavy hand work necessary to sustain its operation: the hauling of wood and water, tending to penned animals, scraping and cleaning of floors, dishes, and pots.  (Keep in mind, though, that by later medieval standards, all Anglo-Saxons of every rank worked comparatively hard.  No man was a chieftain, lord or king without being a battle-hardened veteran and participating fully in physically protecting or expanding his riches.  King’s wives spun, wove, and sewed their own, their husbands, and their children’s clothes, and personally oversaw and administered much of the royal household activities.  An “idle” aristocratic class was hundreds of years away.)

Slaves were sometimes granted their freedom at special occasions, or by condition of the deceased owner’s will. One Anglo-Saxon lady gave freedom to Ecceard the smith and Alfstan and his wife and all their children born and unborn, and Arcil and Cole and Ecgferth and Ealdhun’s daughter and all those people who had bowed their heads to her in return for food when times were bad.

These last, who had “bowed their heads to her”, had sold themselves into slavery during famine. These were perhaps failed farmers, but at least one of her slaves, Ecceard the smith, was a skilled labourer.

Compassionate churchmen were known to purchase slaves when possible, and these freed slaves sometimes attached themselves to monasteries and convents.

The manumission (freeing) of slaves was solemnized by ceremony, the presence of witnesses, and legal documentation:

Here it is made known in this gospel that Godwig the Buck has bought Leofgifu the dairymaid at North Stoke and her offspring from Abbot Ælfsige for half a pound, to eternal freedom, in the witness of all the community at Bath. Christ blind him who ever perverts this. Dorothy Whitelock, The Beginnings of English Society

Note that in this document, the woman and her child is being purchased from an abbot, and the buyer/freer Godwig ends his statement with a common Anglo-Saxon curse.  It is interesting to speculate what the relationship might have been between Godwig and Leofgifu (and her offspring).

The freeing ceremony could be performed in church, or at a cross-roads – symbolic that the freed now chooses his or her own path.


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