Men and Women in Early Medieval Serfdom: The Ninth-Century North Frankish Evidence
By Jean-Pierre Devroey
Past and Present, No. 166. (2000)
Introduction: ‘The demise of slavery is generally understood to be one of the most distinctive features marking off the medieval West from the ancient world’. This question has long been approached by researchers ‘in the masculine’, that is, ‘in terms of men gaining rights or freedom in the rural countryside’.
With the development of medieval gender studies, it was on female figures such as queens, nuns, sorceresses or prostitutes that attention was first focused. Often for lack of sources, the ‘ordinary woman’ tended to get left out of the picture until the early 1990s. Susan Mosher Stuard has shown that a reading ‘in the feminine’ can help us to understand why notions of ‘unfreedom’ and slave status seem to have been handed down without any dilution of their profound essence, in immemorial fashion, right through the Middle Ages.
Her main field of research is the urban society of the late medieval Mediterranean. A system of domestic slavery persisted in the aristocratic households of the Dalmatian coast throughout the Middle Ages. By the fourteenth century, it had even spread into some Italian towns, such as Venice, Genoa and Florence, where it came to rival paid labour. The majority of these slaves were women.
Why this survival, when everywhere else ‘slavery itself ceased to be an essential institution for agricultural production’? The first answer is equally economic in nature: the use of female slaves continued to be highly suited to the manufacturing processes and to certain complex tasks such as weaving and sewing. One of the most interesting results of Stuard’s research is to have shown how there was a profound overlap in the domestic economy between production and commerce. In the large households of the aristocracy and urban bourgeoisie, unfree servants successfully performed specialized tasks as well as a whole range of household chores…
…It is against the backdrop of the dominant position of men in medieval society as a whole that we should view the subordinate social status of the ordinary woman. While we cannot speak of equality of rights between men and women in the early Middle Ages, it would be equally erroneous to speak of discrimination against women on the basis of their sex. All this is at odds with the ideas put forward by Stuard. My intention here is to examine these divergent hypotheses on the basis of specific empirical material, confined to the Frankish region around the ninth century.