Recent research has uncovered that female slaves in the Spanish city of Valencia were using a novel way to escape their enslavement – they got pregnant with their master’s child. In the article “As if she were his wife”: Slavery and Sexual Ethics in Late Medieval Spain, Debra Blumenthal examines 33 cases found in the archives of the Spanish city between 1425 and 1520 where female slaves sued to get their freedom on the basis that they bore the children of their male masters.
One such case was a Russian woman named Rosa, who was purchased by Arnau Castello while he worked in the city of Naples. At the time, she was according to the archival records, “a pretty, young, white slave woman between eighteen and twenty years of age.” During their stay in Naples, and after they returned to Valencia, Rosa and Arnau were lovers, even after Arnau married. She bore him two children – Lucrecia and Julia, both of whom died in infancy. Later, in 1476, Rosa went to Valencia’s city courts to demand she be released from slavery, invoking local laws which stated, “Any Christian man who lies with his female slave and has a son or daughter by her, that son or daughter should immediately be baptized and both the mother and the son (or daughter) shall be free.”
Blumenthal finds that in medieval Valencia, where slavery was common, tensions existed between the economic realities of keeping slaves, and Christian ethics. How could a good Christian man keep the mother of his child as a slave?
Some Valencians understood this reality – when the nobleman Marti de Vaguena was told by his slave Anna that she was pregnant with their child, he responded, “Take good care of the fetus, because through it you will have good fortune.”
But other male owners were willing to put up a fight in court against these women, and would deny that the children were there own progeny. Some even stated that their slaves had become “lewd and lascivious.” In another case, a slave owner was so offended by the accusation from his slave, that he shouted at her “Come here evil woman! You have defamed me and are defaming me in many places throughout the city, going around and saying to everyone that you are carrying my child! Don’t you think that I have a soul and that I fear God so that if you are pregnant with my child I will make you free?”
The article appears in the book Beyond Slavery: Overcoming its Religious and Sexual Legacies, edited by Bernadette J. Brooten. Blumenthal, an Associate Professor of History at the University of California Santa Barbara, has done extensive research in the archival records of medieval Valencia, and has also authored the book Enemies and Familiars: Slavery and Mastery in Fifteenth-Century Valencia.