The Church and Slavery in Anglo-Saxon England


The Church and Slavery in Anglo-Saxon England

By Patricia M Dutchak

Past Imperfect, Vol.9 (2001-3)

Abstract: Slaves and slavery were an accepted part of everyday Anglo-Saxon life. This paper examines a range of original sources that reveal the ways in which the teachings and practices of Christianity and Christians were part of that acceptance.




Introduction: Sometime in the fifth century, after the Romans had abandoned Britain, Anglo-Saxon raiders from across the North Sea turned their raids into conquest and settlement and founded society based on triple division: nobles, freemen and slaves. To this society in the year 597 came Augustine of Canterbury, sent by Pope Gregory the Great to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. By the end of the seventh century, Christianity had spread across England. The introduction of Christianity, however, had little effect on the institution of slavery. Although Anglo-Saxon Christians were aware of “the sadness of servitude and the joy of freedom,” their society incorporated slavery as an ordinary, natural part of life; the teachings and practices of their church show how deeply slavery was embedded in everyday life and thought.

Recent scholarship on early medieval slavery has focused on two problems: first, conceptual issues and terminology involving general ideas of servitude and coerced labour; and second, when, how, and why slavery yielded to serfdom. Ruth Mazo Karras, for instance, concentrates on the construction of the categories of freedom and unfreedom and why Scandinavian society needed such categories. Pierre Bonnassie examines the process through which serfdom replaced slavery. Wendy Davies, however, recasts the question as “what, exactly, changed?” The role of the church, once presented as central to the disappearance of slavery, has been pushed aside. How slaves and slavery functioned for centuries as an integral part of mundane activities and interactions has attracted less study, apart from Pelteret’s survey of late Anglo-Saxon England.

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Sharan Newman