To begin with, lets talk about one of the main struggles of studying this topic. Namely, that spotting slavery is difficult. We’re dealing with a time where our written record hardly mentions anyone except the very upper levels of society, and even then it’s mostly just the upper levels that are either in (or interact with) the church.
Thegns barely get mentioned, and Ceorls don’t appear at all, and as far as the record is concerned peasants don’t exist. So can you reasonably expect the writers to talk about the lives slaves in their records? Probably not, right? And for the most part, we only hear about the practice insofar as it intersected with the lives of the elite that the record is focused on. So if we want to get a view of the lives of slaves, the written record is not your first stop.
And often that has us turning to archaeology.
But that brings us to problem number two. How do you spot slavery in the archaeological record? Especially slavery that isn’t chattel slavery - a system of slavery that doesn’t generally rely on - and therefore doesn’t leave behind - massive and regular amounts of restraints and centralized slave quarters.
Are those building posts on the corner of the farm lot you’re looking at part of a residence for the field slaves? Or is it a barn? How on earth would you tell? What if the slaves slept IN the barn - how could you know by looking at the posts?
Even today, how could you spot slavery in our modern society without a written record of it. For example, my town of Portland actually has a big problem with sexual slavery - typically the phrase we use now is human trafficking… but you wouldn’t know it to walk down the street and I’m confident that an archaeologist 1000 years from now would have a hell of a time spotting its presence.
And that is our starting point. This type of activity - by its very nature of being both ubiquitous and leaving very little stuff around it - is hard to see. But scholars /are/ able to spot the outlines and the shadows in our local record, and by looking at records from other areas they’re able to sketch out what was going on.
But that being said, there is one element of slavery that’s highly visible and it’s also absolutely necessary for our discussion of this topic. However, despite this factor being inextricably tied to the concept of slavery, it’s something that is almost invisible to us. And I don’t mean that it can’t be seen, it absolutely can. It’s even discussed in the record, and it’s discussed in this show. Rather, what I mean is that this driving force of slavery is something that has been naturalized. It feels like gravity, and (much like how you don’t discuss the effects of gravity when you talk about a plane crash) this element, too, goes unsaid.
Lets see if you can work out what it is.
To start with. How did someone become a slave in Britain? I mean, slavery was common all throughout Europe, and something that becomes very clear when studying this area of history is that Britain was no exception. Slave raiding was common in British life from our earliest records. It’s quite clear that the practice predates our written records. The Britons did it, the Romans did it, the Romano Britons did it, the Anglo Saxons did it.
And you might be saying “Wait, I remember reading about a few Anglo Saxon monks complaining about slavery… surely not everyone was on board.” That’s actually an interesting situation, because the concern about slavery in ecclesiastical records is religious in nature.
Not religious in the sense of “the bible says its bad.” Actually, slavery is all over the bible. Rather, they worried about christian slaves being sold and owned by pagan masters. That was the real problem. Not the slavery.
That’s why you don’t see much hand wringing about the capture and sale of christian slaves to christian masters, or pagan slaves to christian masters. Just the Christians being enslaved by Pagans… because the paganism of the master that was the real crime.
There wasn’t much pushback against it as an institution as a whole, and for much of its history Britain went about enslaving people in rather common ways. Mostly, by using the same ways you’d acquire cattle that you didn’t want to pay for… through a raid on a neighboring group that you didn’t like all that much.
So if you were part of a village, perhaps under a powerful lord who was looking to expand his holdings or just boost his wealth, you may swing in to a village under a less powerful lord, and along with some cattle, some silver, and a bit of fine cloth - you may well bring back a couple of young teenagers, a few people who looked like they’d do well in the fields, and Uncle Unferth.
That also meant that, as a villager, you were living under the threat of some /other/ neighboring lord doing exactly the same thing to you.
You could also find yourself in bondage as the result of the legal system.
For example, in the Laws of Ine (which were a seventh century Anglo Saxon legal code) we see rules which indicate that slavery could be used a punishment for thieving. But it wasn’t a punishment simply for the theft. In fact, if you just stole something and were caught, then you’d be required to pay 60 shillings. However, things become more dangerous if other people were seen to also be benefitting from your theft. For example, if your wife and kids knew about the theft, then you… your wife… and your kids would all be enslaved. It seems like a certain amount of conspiracy elevated the seriousness of the crime in Anglo Saxon culture, and the price for that crime was your own freedom.
And there’s no indication that this was a matter of temporary servitude. You were a slave. Period.
So as the result of conflict, and the law, we are seeing families being ripped apart and communities being torn up. But for the enslaved there was a potential way out of this mess. Sometimes. Your family might be able to ransom you back.
Now, ransoming isn’t a natural practice that just springs up wherever humans are. It’s practice that developed in response to the conditions that appeared due to slavery. And it also required a few additional elements… a culture that accepted the sale of freedom, a willingness to pay for it, and /ability/ to pay it.
Saint Patrick, for example, was from an upper class family with alot of resources. He was also captured by raiders who weren’t as rich as his family, which is exactly the situation you’d want for ransoming… since the wealth his family could produce would be able to impress and likely satisfy the raiders. And yet he wasn’t ransomed back. And we don’t know why. Perhaps he wasn’t upper class enough, or maybe the Irish were in greater need of manpower than money.
For a ransom to work, you need people to agree that freedom is for sale.
It’s also possible that Patrick’s family, despite their affluence, wasn’t willing to pay. And that appears to have also been an issue on occasion. We even see references in legal codes about how reluctant some people were to buy their family members back.
In the West Saxon Laws of Ine, if someone is enslaved for more than a year, then their family lost right to claim a weregild if that person is killed by their master or anyone else.
King Ine was saying is that you only have a stake in a family member for a year. And this might seem like an esoteric rule to set down, but it was actually a rather necessary one. The problem was that people were sitting on their hands over Uncle Unferth’s enslavement. Maybe they weren’t fond of him. Maybe he was a bit of a lout. Maybe the reason why he was enslaved in the first place was because of his criminal behavior… whatever it was, his people didn’t want to ransom him back. But when he died in the fields a decade or two later, suddenly they came calling and demanding his weregild… That was irritating the master class, and they apparently got the ear of the King.
There was also a concern about families taking a wait and see approach to an enslavement. See, it wasn’t just adults who were getting enslaved. Kids were too, and some families were being a bit too mercenary about it.
The thinking goes this way… imagine a young child is captured and enslaved, and the master wants a sizeable ransom. Well, you don’t know if that kid will grow up to be useful, or will turn out to be sickly, stupid, or generally some other problem. So do you want to impoverish your family to get the kid back, or do you want to wait and see if he or she will be worth the treasure?
Well, King Ine didn’t like that, so he was saying that you had a year to get your act together and ransom your family member back… but after that, you probably stalling or just didn’t want him or her in the first place.
All of this is a good example of how it wouldn’t matter if your family was rich and if your master was willing to ransom you… if your family wasn’t willing to pay, you were stuck.
But sometimes the ransoming system worked. For example, Admonan of Ireland went to Northumbria in the 7th century to free Irish slaves. Twice. He brought home a lot of slaves.
That being said, there were several things that made this possible. The first was that Ireland and Northumbria were embroiled in war. Due to the nature of slave raiding during that period, that meant that there was an abundance of slaves, probably a few too many slaves. After all, slaves require upkeep, they require food, they require all kinds of things that cost money…slaves can be expensive, especially if you don’t have enough work for them.
So here we have a cultural situation in which the sale of freedom was acceptable.
This was also during the reign of King Aldfrith son of Oswiu, and if you remember the economy of Northumbria during this time was a disaster. The coinage was debased, the kingdom was a bit shaky… they were in dire straits in many ways. And as a consequence, the Northumbrians were likely eager to sell, since offloading the slaves would provide them with some much needed income and it would also save themselves the trouble of paying for their upkeep. Furthermore, because of their poor economy, chances are they wouldn’t have been demanding a king’s ransom, and so Admonan would have had a much easier time gathering the wealth to pay it.
So sometimes it worked. But ransoming, like most social exchanges, depends a lot on the situation and culture in play, and even when all the stars align and ransom is available, it’s not clear how accessible it would be for anyone but the elite. You have to have the resources to pay it, after all.
And if you had the chance, you needed to pay it quick. Not just because King Ine gave you a year expiration date, but also because in that same legal code we see references to slaves being sold “across the sea.”
If you were sold across the sea… you lost any chance of returning home. Once you boarded that ship, you were gone for good.
And some scholars have pointed out that the finality of selling a slave overseas may have been the point of the practice. Selling a slave across the ocean might have been a convenient and reliable way to remove unwanted individuals from the community. Permanently.
And for the most part, with some variations, this was how slavery functioned for large parts of Europe. People would be enslaved through raiding or in punishment for crime, and the fates of those slaves were then in the hands of their owners. If an owner wanted to swap an enslaved person for cash or goods, they could ransom them back to their homes if their families had the money. Selling them on could happen, but it doesn’t appear to have been very common. Without an industry supporting it, simply finding a buyer would have been difficult.
So slavery was small in scale, for the most part.
As the centuries turned, the way some cultures interacted with slavery began to change within certain regions. Frankia, for example, began to slowly turn away from slave trading at around the Carolingian era, which was the same time that Frankia was beginning to develop a significant degree of political unification. Under this new political system, raiding your neighbors would impact the bottom line of the neighboring lord… you would be affecting his ability to draw an income, which in turn would impact his ability to pay taxes to his overlord and so on… and none of that would please the King which all of you served. So under Frankia’s common legal and political framework, suddenly slave raiding was no longer envogue.
But curiously, even though the Anglo Saxons had a love affair with all things Frankish, they didn’t follow suit. Instead, slavery and slave raiding continued without so much as a hiccup, and this was likely due to the fact that, unlike Frankia, Britain was still highly fragmented during that period… and thus, unlike the Franks, they were able to continue enslaving people without upsetting their overlords.
And so, as we see slavery in decline across the channel, in Britain elite men continued to enslave people as a way to increase their wealth and stature. And the whole cottage industry of ransoming, not to mention penal enslavement, continued to operate right along side it.
But even though it was continuing, one of the defining features of slavery during this era was that it was persistently small scale. It wasn’t a significant part of life for the majority of people living in Britain. For centuries… for pretty much all of its recorded history on the island…slavery was just something that was done on occasion, like war or cattle rustling.
Until the Vikings arrived. At that moment, everything changed. And that might be a surprise to you. I mean, there were already slave raids when the Vikings arrived… so it’s not like they introduced that. There were also wars that resulted in the capture of slaves… so it’s not like they introduced that, either.
But they did bring one thing to Britain that transformed the slave trade. They were constructing Vikingr slave markets all over Europe, and now suddenly Britain had access to those markets.
As the Vikingr crews were raiding all along the British isles, some of the people they captured were simply shipped them back to Scandinavia to feed the demand for slaves that existed back home… but huge numbers of them were sold on at international slave markets. And the trade routes that were brought to the island were so extensive that exported slaves could well have reached as far as the muslim world.
Not that they needed to go that far... one of the largest and most bustling slave markets was available to viking slavers right across the Irish Sea. In Dublin.
Now when I started this talk I mentioned how there’s an underlying element of slavery that is inextricably tied to it, and yet it’s often ignored. It’s taken for granted.
Have you figured out what it is?
There were only so many people in Britain who were interested in slaves or had the ability to buy them… that kept the demand for slaves relatively low. But by blowing right past Ine’s laws about selling slaves overseas and gaining access to these incredibly widespread trade routes, slave traders were suddenly able to reach a much wider market.
Slaves became available to buyers on a scale that had previously not been possible. With more buyers can more demand, and the practice became more and more streamlined and normalized. With the vikingrs we see cultures go from societies with slavery to slaving societies.
What caused the explosion in slavery wasn’t ideology, or religion, or cultural animus. The underlying element that drove this change was the arrival of extensive trade markets that could take, exchance, and export large numbers of slaves.
It was the incentives created by market forces.
And it wasn’t long before everyone started responding to the new incentives those markets created. Just like in the other regions in which Vikings were active, the local population of Britain weren’t simply victims of slave trading. They quickly became traders. The slaving that they were already doing expanded, as now there were new opportunities for greater wealth.
And so we see an expansion of elite slave raiding among the local population. And this slave raiding that went in all directions. Anglo Saxon kingdoms raided each other, the Anglo Saxons and the Welsh raided each other. The Irish were involved. The Scots were involved. Everyone was raiding everyone for slaves. And that included, by the way, the Vikings. We see local populations raiding and sacking Viking settlements and capturing the vikings as slaves.
This was a slave raiding bonanza. And it not only increased the available demand for slaves. It also dramatically increased the value of slaves. After all, now there were a lot more potential buyers for poor unferth, which meant you didn’t have to accept Hilde’s offer of a soggy leek and a handful of mueslix. Selling a slave overseas wasn’t just something you did because he wouldn’t stay out of the mead, now you did it because you could get a lot of money.
And that was a huge problem for the people who were finding themselves enslaved, because that changed the entire metric of ransoming.
For the most part, ransoming was carried out with neighboring kingdoms. As such, differences in economic strength were largely negligible. Sure, Mercia might be doing better than East Anglia, but the differences between their economies weren’t catastrophic.
But now you had villages trying to compete with the world market for the value of a ransom.
I mean, imagine that you were taken as a slave by an economically and militarily superior group, as often happened. Only now that group isn’t constrained by deciding whether it wants your labor for itself, or to try to trade you back for whatever your village can scrape together, because now they can offer you up to a market which had buyers from societies with wealth you can’t even imagine. Wealth you’ve never even thought was possible, like that which was being built up by the Byzantines.
How could your family compete with that?
Or think about it in modern terms. Most people from the Western world understand (and rather enjoy) favorable exchange rates between national currencies. It’s a common thing to talk about how the pound or the dollar stretches ridiculously far in Greece, or Thailand, or Mexico. But that’s only enjoyable when you sit in the position of the economically powerful.
Flip that situation around. Instead of imagining that you’re gleefully renting a bungalow for the equivalent of three bucks… now imagine coming to the US from that country and trying to afford a burger. How many hours, or even days, of work would that burger cost for you?
Exchange rates can be brutal.
And for Britain in the Viking age, you might be from the richest family in your village, but if being wealthy in your village meant you had a handful of pennies then you were out of luck, because the raider could get bags of silver elsewhere.
So while ransoming was theoretically widely available in the Viking slave trading era, because of the reach of these markets and the wildly disparate levels of wealth between individuals and societies, price of a ransom would have been only available to the elite wealthy members of wealthy societies.
And this system meant that the threat of enslavement was unequally distributed across Britain. Because of the wealth that was being generated in England during the period from Alfred to AEthelstan, that meant that the English elite were extremely wealthy in comparison to their neighboring kingdoms and thus the threat of enslavement was far greater for the people of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Entirely due to disparate access to money.
Do you see what is happening here? Previously, since the withdrawal of Rome, slavery (while no picnic) fit within the honor culture which shaped these societies. It was something that was done in response to war, or feuds, or small scale raids, or as the result of some sort of criminal conviction. It was a form of social domination that used mostly social means.
But slavery transformed into something completely outside of this honor culture. … the slave trade that was now flourishing on the island in the Viking era was moving in response to trade and wealth accumulation.and suddenly slaves were becoming a commodity. Britain was rapidly moving towards chattel slavery, and what was driving it were incentives that were, at their core, economic. Moreover, because it was now a market phenomenon, slavery was coming to reinforce and even exacerbate existing economic inequalities. The less money you or your lord or your kingdom had, the more in danger you were of becoming enslaved and staying enslaved. By that same token, the more wealth you or your lord or your kingdom had the more likely you were simultaneously more likely to own slaves and also insulated from the danger of every becoming one yourself.
The thing that drove this change in Britain's slave culture, and the thing that kept the elite insulated from experiencing the horrors of it, were market forces.
But that isn’t to say that the other types of enslavement vanished. For example, you could still end up enslaved through the law. But even there we can see the influence of commodified slavery. For example, when AEthelstan dictated that boys under 15 wouldn’t be killed for thieving, it was probably in line with the logic of an honor culture. He said that if a boy under 15 was caught thieving, then the thief's family would have to stand in surety for their full weregild and ensure that he didn’t commit any further crimes.
But he added an ugly caveat that relied on the burgeoning system of wealth accumulation and slavery. If the family couldn’t, or wouldn’t, take on the debt of the full weregild then the boy would be enslaved until the full weregild was paid. And if his family took a wait-and-see approach or simply didn’t generate income very fast, they might be waiting a long time to get their son back. Perhaps forever, because there’s no provision stating “and after X number of years the thief shall be freed.” And it’s not like he could pay his own weregild. You don’t pay slaves. That’s why they’re slaves.
And so we see Britain, led by the relatively wealthy anglo saxon kingdoms, walking right into the abyss of chattel slavery.
But at the same time Anglo Saxon views on slavery begin to slowly shift. And we can see evidence of Anglo Saxon concepts of slavery beginning to take on a temporary character. There was suddenly another way out of slavery that wasn’t being ransomed for money.
Based on the law I just told you, you might be thinking that slaves were being allowed to work off some social or monetary debt over a period of time… essentially allowing the slaves to begin to have some small stake in their own personhood. But that wasn’t what was happening.
Slavery was shifting on an island not in response to slaves suddenly having access to more rights or social status. Instead, something else entirely was beginning to happen. Manumission, the releasing of slaves, was a social act was becoming a way for slave masters to demonstrate their own honor, charity, and prestige.
But for as nice a honor is, slaves were still valuable and people didn’t want to give them up while they were still useful to them. And so slave masters started to game the system… they’d release slaves in their wills.
Meaning that your best chance for freedom as a slave is that you work for your master and try to keep them as happy as possible. And then, if you were lucky, they would free after they died. Provided you didn’t die first. Or they didn’t sell you. Or forget.
Here’s an example of what this looked like. It’s from the will of Wynflaed, from the mid 900s. Wynflaed freed her slaves upon the event of her death, and she specifically states that she’s doing this “for the good of her soul.” Basically, it was a spiritual hedging… a way to buy a fastpass to heaven. And this wasn’t because she was recognizing that slavery was wrong. In fact, she made sure to mention, rather proudly, that she had enslaved these individuals herself as punishments for crimes they had committed. And Wynflaed isn’t a rare case, there are a lot of wills like this.
And there’s a cultural subtext here that Wynflaed and others were engaging in, but because culture has changed that subtext might not be obvious to many of you now.
Christ redeemed humanity through his death. Redeeming slaves, especially penal slaves, at the moment of your death mirrored Christ. See what they were going for?
It also explains why many of the wills proudly tell us of their role in enslavement. This wasn’t a matter of empathy towards the poor people enslaved. Instead these wills may simply be yet another way wealthy anglo saxons were using human beings in a transaction… only this time the transaction was with god. And while some of the manumissions may have left the master feeling genuinely good about him or herself as the will was signed… that doesn’t necessarily mean that they had any problem with the institution itself. Nor any problem with their role in enslavement, as Wynflaed clearly didn’t.
Here’s another example. In the 11th century Will of Geatfleada, we’re told that “for the need of her soul” she freed Ecceard the smith, AElfstan, his wife, all their offspring born and unborn, Arcil, Cole, Ecgferth, Ealdhun’s daughter, and “all the people whose heads she took for their food in the evil days.”
This is an important document because unlike a lot of other wills that include manumissions, this one kind of reads like a contract and it tells us that she’s freeing the born and unborn children of slaves.
This alone is a key revelation about Anglo Saxon slavery, because making slavery hereditary is one of the marquee elements of chattel slavery. So through this will, we are getting firm documentary evidence that the old form of slavery had shifted towards chattel slavery, where slave status could now be passed down to the children of slaves (a change which was probably welcomed by the master class, as it would enhance the value of the slaves because they could now reproduce more slaves on through the future).
But the will goes on to talk about how Geaflaeda acquired many of her slaves in a time of famine…meaning she likely promised to feed them so long as they gave her their freedom, which is chilling evidence that people were making the decision to sell themselves into slavery in times of famine and crisis.
And this was an incredibly perilous thing to do. Even if you had a contract saying it would only be for a set period of time, or that your kids wouldn’t be enslaved, or that you’d be treated well. Because here’s the problem with agreements like that... Slaves weren’t exactly in a good legal standing, so I’m sure that once they agreed to be enslaved all they could do is hope the master kept their word.
And in the case of Geatfleda, we do not know what the original agreement was. When these starving people came to her, she may have promised to trade food for the labor of only a year, only to keep them indefinitely. And if this was the case, there was likely little legal or social recourse for these people in Anglo Saxon law or culture. They were slaves. But even if the will reflects the contract as originally agreed upon… what we’re looking at is a group of people agreeing to be slaves for the full life of their master, in exchange for enough /food/ to get them through a bad harvest year.
So not only was the status and condition of slavery changing in ways to allow the master class to better benefit from it, but we also see that it was being used as a way to exploit the underclasses who were not yet enslaved… but depending on their circumstances, could be encouraged to willingly accept being enslaved. The commodification of slavery broke the system of slavery out of the old cultural system, but the culture was now rapidly shifting itself around commodified slavery. And the wealthy Anglo Saxon nobles were using it to increased their access to wealth... in the form of lower class people.
But with these changes in economic structures come changes in social and cultural beliefs.
Remember how early on there were monks who were concerned about Pagans owning Christian slaves? Well, by the 11th century, pretty much everyone who was slave trading in Britain was Christian, so focusing on how unfair it was that Christians served Pagan masters no longer made sense.
Instead, in its place, there was a different question that appeared.
Did the slave deserve their enslavement?
Archbishop Wulfstan II of York (not the one who worked with Olaf, btw, that was Wulfstan I) gave a sermon on this subject in 11th century. It’s called The Sermon of the Wolf to the English. In it, he spits raw fire about the practice of slavery with all the envective you want from a preacher. Here’s an excerpt, to give you a sense of what it sounded like.
“And it is terrible to know what too many do often, those who for a while carry out a miserable deed, who contribute together and buy a woman as a joint purchase between them and practice foul sin with that one woman, one after another, and each after the other like dogs that care not about filth, then for a price they sell a creature of God - His own purchase that He bought at great cost - into the power of enemies.”
The rage leaps off the page. And what he’s talking about is horrific… and the fact that Wulfstan is addressing it suggests that this is something that was a common practice. That men would buy a girl for a party and then sell her on.
Absolutely horrific, and it serves as an example of how commodified slavery was becoming. We were now fully into the dehumanization stage.
But Wulfstan takes an odd line with all of it, and introduces a new critique.
His sermon is explicitly about slaves who he describes as “unforworhte”... or “innocent”... which implies that there are people who are deserving of their fate. And that gets really weird, because large portions of the sermon are about how innocent slaves were being sold on the international markets because they were too poor to afford the ransoms… and how unjust that was. And making a determination of whether or not someone deserved to be enslaved might strike you as a bit off.
And it should. Being sold, being used as a play thing, being dehumanized is horrific. There’s no requirement that you come from good family and get your GED for it to be awful. It’s bad on its face, and it requires no valuation of the life of the victim… which is precisely what Wulfstan was doing, which is why the discussion of “unforworhte” is unsettling.
And here’s the thing. The delineation that Wulfstan was drawing, tracks directly with what was already happening in England.
You see, by the time Wulfstan was preaching, the English slave trade had been in decline for about a century… and by his time, large scale English slave markets only existed in a few hotspots. In fact, by the time of the Sermon, Bristol was one of the last English slave trading towns in operation, and that was likely due to their close contact with the Irish (who were still a prolific slave trading culture). The slave trading bonanza was coming to an end in Britain.
And the reason for that is rather simple. England had unified. All of Wales was under a single ruler. All of Scotland was under a single ruler. And with that degree of unification, opportunities for slave raiding (and thus slave trading) diminished rapidly… which meant that slaving had stopped being so lucrative for the elite on the island.
In its place, a new system was rising. One that capitalized on this reduction in slave raiding.
The powerful nobles of Britain were replacing their slaves with serfs, which allowed them to continue to experience many of the benefits of slavery while also being relieved of the task of having to buy slaves at market, or go raiding for slaves.
But while slave raiding was no longer the money maker it once was, and thus it wasn’t the common form of wealth accumulation for the powerful… the English were still enslaving people. Even outside of places like Bristol. Because enslavement was still one of the punishments used by the state.
So when we read Wulfstan II denouncing slavery, we also see him carefully drawing a line and saying that he wasn’t talking about the people who were enslaved by the law. Criminal slaves deserved whatever happened to them.
But even though he was, I assume, making a pretty weird compromise with the crown… Wulfstan was still pointing out a very real problem that still carried through in his sermon.
His anger at the enslavement of the innocent poor was highlighting how English slavery was differentiating the haves from the have nots. The elite were never really at risk of being enslaved, never at risk of being sold to a group of creeps at a party, the elite were insulated and if they were unlucky they could probably buy their way out.
This suffering was experienced almost exclusively by the lower classes. And that pissed Wulfstan off. But not so much that he was willing to go directly at the criminal system.
Though, he does seem to have worked at the margins of it. For example, in the sermon of the Wolf he raged about how infants were being sold overseas for “petty theft” which is almost certainly was a reference to the results of Ine’s “lets enslave the whole family for a husband’s thieving” law.
It turned out that Ine’s esoteric and strange law regarding theft (a law that appears to have been incredibly rare back in the days when the slaving industry was influenced by honor culture) was now much more fashionable because it allowed greedy people to better exploit the new market opportunities. If you could prove that a man stole some bread and brought it home… well now you’d have his whole family as slaves, all for the low low price of a loaf.
Wulfstan raged about this practice, and he clearly had the ear of the King, because King Cnut amended the law to state that a child who hadn’t been weaned yet could not themselves be enslaved.
Wulfstan also seemed to be troubled by the fact that a wife couldn’t legally stop her husband from bringing things home, and in response Cnut soon reformed the law to state that the family was only liable if the stolen goods were kept in an area that the wife controlled, like her coffer.
So while he wasn’t willing to denounce criminal enslavement with the same ferocity that he denounced “unforworhte” enslavement, we’re seeing /some/ degree of reform.
And it’s tempting to see these changes (and even the concern with whether someone deserved to be enslaved) as the result of how the slave markets unmasked the raw brutality of the system. But slavery had been unmasked for a long time by the time that Wulfstan was standing at the pulpit giving them hell.
And something much more influential than one angry archbishop was in play here. The Market. The English elite no longer had an incentive to be ok with slavery, as they weren’t making money off it anymore. Furthermore, there were other groups that /were/ still making money off slavery. And they were groups the English didn’t like. In particular, the Irish.
So even though the English had been a prolific slave trading culture only 100 years earlier and were still slave trading in some towns and the crown was still enslaving criminals… even though they had been slave trading for as long as there had been English, or Anglo Saxons for that matter… now that the elite of England were getting shut out of the market while the Irish continued to benefit from it, suddenly we have Archbishops delivering fiery invectives on the evils of slavery… of the atrocities that are committed… of the innocence of those in bondage.
Suddenly, we see this sea-change in perspective, and the powerful begin speak of how slavery was synonymous with barbarism. And that we must all take a stand against it.
And I’m sure that timing was completely coincidental.
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