Slavery and Freedom in the 10th Century
Not so long ago, that sad and controversial business called slavery was considered a lucrative enterprise. Up to
the present day, people have been interested in the sad history of slavery across the Atlantic, as we can see in
recent films such as Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave. Closer to home, however, slaves have left their traces on
the pages of history as well. In fact, although slavery was already abolished in the nineteenth century, it was only in April
2009 that it became an offence to hold a person in slavery or servitude in the UK (The Crown Prosecution Service).
Possibly one of the after-effects of the Roman occupation, but certainly popularised again by the notorious
Vikings, slavery was a widespread phenomenon throughout Europe in medieval times. According to the Viking
Answer Lady “the Vikings’ most common trade item was the slave”. As a result, it was not uncommon to hold slaves in the
early Middle Ages, nor was it uncommon to set them free.
In some places releasing slaves (formally called ‘manumission’) became surprisingly popular, and generated a strange sort of ritual. One of the 51 records on manumission found in the Bodmin gospels (London, British Library, Add MS 9381) relates how a man called Aelsig bought a slave and her son for half a pound at the church door, donated another four pennies as toll to the King, and subsequently went on to the altar of Saint Petroc to release his newly purchased servants. Aelsig was by no means alone: there were more people who bought slaves solely for the purpose to setting them free again. Sadly, the records give no explanation for this odd behaviour (Westwell).
Westwell). However, when manumission pops up in testaments around the same time, the owners account for it: usually, slaves are freed for the benefit of the soul of the testator (The Will of Æþelgifu 34). Apparently, releasing slaves was by some considered to be an acceptable tribute to God, perhaps even as a compensation for their sins − a practice faintly reminiscent of indulgences avant la lettre. How did this manumission thing work in testamentary terms? Generally, the deceased would decide on a number of slaves to be freed, and those were then chosen by means of drawing lots. One curious instance specifically tells them to be freed at the crossroads. In a few cases, the released slaves were not part of a group of anonymous slaves that had to draw lots: two wills actually name the persons to be set free. These are the wills of the 10th century widows Æþelgifu and Wynflaed (The Will of Æþelgifu 35).
Imagine you are the wife of an Anglo-Saxon nobleman. Your husband, or “hlaford”, is rich– but he’s probably also a few decades older and likely to die before you do. Æþelgifu was one of those wealthy widows. This noblewoman held several estates in East Anglia, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, and Northamptonshire. Her will shows us how this well-endowed lady distributed a truly staggering amount of property after her death.
Proud of her connections, Æþelgifu seems to have had no fear of being accused of class-snobbery: her first recipient was none other than his Royal Highness King Cnut, who inherited 30 mancuses (gold coins), two stallions, and Æþelgifu’s deerhounds. His wife, Queen Emma, had to be content with gold alone. Besides dogs and coins, Æþelgifu bestowed brooches, silver cups, furniture, clothes, cheeses, wine and people. After stating her wish to donate approximately 30 oxen, 20 cows and 150 sheep to St. Alban, she commands that “. . . a herd of swine is to be given at Oakhurst, and the swineherd with it” (The Will of Æþelgifu ll.7-8).
A set of estates as sizeable as Æþelgifu’s would obviously include a raft of servants, bondsmen, and slaves. She had to take care of that kind of ‘property,’too. In total, Æþelgifu set at least 60 individuals free with two households and six sets of children; she bequeaths an equal number to others. Among them are a goldsmith called Mann, several swineherds, a shepherd and some women. Three women are freed on the condition that they chant psalms for the benefit of the deceased. However selfinterested this appears, such a command suggests that the women were literate; maybe Æþþelgifu herself took pains teaching them to read, as Whitelock suggests (The Will of Æþelgifu 32). Another unexpected sign of a socially elevated slave is, according to the translator, “one of the most remarkable things in her will” (The Will of Æþelgifu 32). This is the wish to set free a priest: “freoge mon eadwine preost” (l.15). Eadwine, we are told, is to be set free and is to be granted a church and a wife − not a bad fate for a former slave!
There are a lot of intriguing discoveries to be made in the wills of widows. As I already mentioned, Wynflæd was another 10th century testatrix – not as wealthy as Æþelgifu, but still in the position to bestow a fair amount of goods. Her first offerings, however, were not to Cnut and Emma, but to the church: “hio becwiþ into cyrcan hyre offring” (The Will of Wynflæd l.2). More than Æþelgifu, Wynflæd was concerned with spiritual well-being in the afterlife: she mentions her soul eight times in the text. Fortunately for her relatives, this was no reason to give the whole caboodle to charity: “And [she grants] to Ælfwold her two buffalohorns and a horse and her red tent . . .” (ll.12-13), as well as some pretty goblets, wooden cups − even a set of bed-clothing (“all that belongs to one bed” (ll.22-23)). To her female relatives she gave gowns, tunics, and an “old filigree brooch which is worth six mancuses” (ll.11-12).
What about slaves? Like Æþelgifu, Wynflæd had a considerable number of bondsmen and freedmen in her service. Some of them went to her granddaughter Eadgifu, who received a woman-weaver and a seamstress, as well as a couple of bondmen from granny’s estate at Chinnock (including the cook). Not all slaves were passed on, though. After all, the theme of our issue is freedom: “Wulfwaru is to be freed, and she is to serve whom she pleases”, bids the late Wynflæd (ll.27-28). If anything, her slave policy is strikingly rigorous, as you can gather from the following lines “And if there be any penally enslaved man besides these whom she has enslaved, she trusts to her children that they will release him for her soul’s sake” (ll. 9-11). Were Wynflæd and Æþelgifu as bad as the Vikings? Selfish women who treat slaves as property equal to silver cups and buffalo horns, to be handed down like tunics and tents? A modern reader may be righteously indignant about Æþelgifu’s bluntly determining the fates of several families, and then, without so much as a whiff of ethical principles, instructing what should become of her “silver cups and two horns and one book and the best wall-hanging and the best seat-cover” (ll.7-8). The more so when we repeatedly read that she didn’t set slaves free as a belated sign of philanthropy, but merely “for her and for her lord’s soul” (ll.7- 8). Already discussed are Wynflæd’s comparable anxieties about her own soul. Could these noblewomen, responsible for the lives of so many people, think only of themselves?
Perhaps hearing the word 'slaves' one tends to think of cruelty, suffering, and the infringement of human rights, but it seems unlikely that such associations are right in these cases. Wynflæd’s bondmen and Æþelgifu’s servants are not nameless slaves. I don’t think we should picture Mann the goldsmith as being shackled to his anvil, nor should we forget that he and his fellows were “free” enough to practice a craft. The very same Æþelgifu, as Whitelock points out, is concerned about the freedom of the younger generation (The Will of Æþelgifu 35); she may have been so engaged as to teach some of her female slaves to read. And, after all, we can ask ourselves if we should feel overly sorry for men like Eadwine the priest.
by Maj Hansen
Westwell, W. "Slavery and Sainthood in Cornwall." Medieval Manuscript Blog. 27 Febr. 2014. British Library. Web. 10 Apr. 2014. <http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2014/02/slaveryand-sainthood-in-cornwall.html>.
Whitelock, Dorothy. Anglo-Saxon Wills. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1930. Print.
The Will of Æþelgifu: a Tenth Century Anglo-Saxon Manuscript. Oxford: The Roxburghe Club, 1968. Print.
Slavery and Thralldom: The Unfree in Viking Scandinavia." The Viking Answer Lady. 10 April 2014. Web. 10 April 2014. <http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/thralls.shtml>
"Slavery, Servitude, and Forced or Compulsary Labour." The Crown Prosecution Service. UK Government. Web. 10 April 2014.