Christian warriors and the enslavement of fellow Christians

Christian warriors and the enslavement of fellow Christians

By John Gillingham

Chevaleri​e et christiani​sme aux XIIe et XIIIe siècles, eds. M. Aurell and C. Girbea (Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2011)

Detail of a miniature of a battle during the Civil War in England.  -   Click on the image for the maximum size view. Royal 16 G VI   f. 427v  British Library

Introduction: In a recent summary of the impact of chivalric ideals on the conduct of war, the discontinuance of the ancient practice of enslaving prisoners in wars between Christians has been identified as ‘the most striking innovation’. In this paper I shall argue that this most striking innovation was fundamental to the emergence of an effective notion of non-combatant immunity, itself widely regarded as the key norm in modern discussions of ius in bello. Wars in which the capture of human beings, no matter what their social rank, was one of the principal aims, involved a great deal of systematic killing, of non-combatants as well as of combatants, a kind of total war . Since women and children were, as I shall argue, the preferred form of human cattle, it follows that the discontinuance of slaving within Western Christendom marked a fundamental shift in the warriors’ attitude to women, in this sense a crucial – though still largely unremarked – step in the direction of a more chivalrous way of war. Moreover it was a shift which over most of Western Europe occurred well before the period conventionally thought of as the ‘Age of Chivalry’, a concept largely based on the survival of a rich vernacular literature from the twelfth century onwards.

Although those who write about slavery and the slave trade assume or accept that war constituted one of the main sources of slaves, the conduct of war as slave raid attracted very little interest. Slave raiding, except when carried out by Vikings, rarely gets more than a passing mention. Despite Timothy Reuter’s reminder that for most of Europe in the ninth century, it was the Franks who were the Vikings, most western historians of warfare have long preferred to think of the Vikings as distinctly ‘other’. The focus on Viking ‘atrocities’ helped to ensure that there has been remarkably little research by historians of early medieval warfare into the ways in which Christians treated their defeated enemies. For traditional military historians of ‘western’ warfare, the seizure and enslavement of human beings was not a subject on which they wished to dwell; the assumption that enslavement, especially the enslavement of fellow Christians, gradually died out as Europe became increasingly Christianised, was a comforting one. For wide-ranging discussion of the emergence of a code of chivalrous warfare we have had to wait until the twenty-first century, and for the work of Matthew Strickland and Dominique Barthélemy in particular. Even so, when compared with other aspects of chivalrous warfare (or, if we prefer, of forbearance in warfare), relatively little has been written on the discontinuance of enslavement.

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