Penal enslavement in the early middle ages
By Alice Rio
Global Convict Labour, eds. C. De Vito and A. Lichtenstein (Leiden: Brill, 2015)
Introduction:Penal enslavement in the early middle ages is a surprisingly neglected topic. It is often mentioned in passing in studies dealing with slavery during this period, but rarely in more than a paragraph noting its existence. Yet it was a very lasting and ubiquitous practice: examples of it can be found throughout the early middle ages, and even later, in virtually every region of Europe. It had also existed in the Roman world, but one should be wary of taking this as a sign of direct continuity. It was a general European phenomenon, including in areas which had never been part of the Roman empire, such as Ireland and Scandinavia. Even in ex-Roman provinces, it operated with a different logic, and fulfilled different functions in the early middle ages from those it had under Rome. It applied in cases where someone proved unable to pay the compensation owed to someone they had wronged, in effect blurring the line with debt slavery. Compensation payments and servitude were interchangeable alternatives, as opposed to the late Roman situation, where each was formally mandated for different social ranks. Unlike under Rome, it was no longer intrinsically attached to legal solutions achieved through state involvement, nor did it imply any particular kind of work as its outcome, such as work in the mines or participation in public works. Whereas Roman law had maintained a conceptual distinction between slaves and convicts, early medieval penal servitude was framed in fundamentally the same terms as other forms of unfreedom. It was not just “like” slavery as a result of dehumanisation or violent treatment: it was slavery in a very explicit sense – even if, as we shall see, it amounted to a rather distinctive variety of it in practice. In the specific form it took during the medieval period, penal enslavement therefore amounts to a strikingly new phenomenon. How did such a system come about, and what functions did it serve?
The argument I would like to put forward here is that penal enslavement is much more explicable when seen in the broader context of punishment and peacekeeping, rather than simply in the context of slavery. It differed from other means of procuring unfree labour to a notable extent. Capture and sale were one-to-one events: they essentially involved two main parties, enslaver and enslaved. Even when sellers were involved, these events do not seem to have been of much concern to the wider community. Penal enslavement, by contrast, was deeply embedded in local processes of dispute settlement in which communal participation played a vital part, and as a result involved many more distinct interest groups. Thinking about it as just another mode of enslavement means taking an approach too narrow to make sense of the logic of the process as a whole: it was much more complicated than the oppression of a single party by another. Although the successful plaintiff certainly benefited from it, since he or she acquired either a new dependant or the proceeds of their sale, pleasing the enslaver was far from being the only function of this practice. Penal enslavement did not amount to a master plan to provide labour gratis to the rich and powerful; rather, its fundamental aim was social control taken in a wider sense.