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Response to Review of Slavery After Rome, 500-1100

I am grateful to Shami Ghosh for his positive review of my book. The point he makes about terminological differences seems worth picking up on: should the title refer to ‘slavery’ or ‘unfreedom’? There isn’t really a perfect solution to this problem; I was reluctant to use ‘unfreedom’ on its own because I felt that this word – because, when used without further explanation or development, it is really just a way of avoiding saying ‘slavery’ – was too closely associated with the ‘serfdom’ end of the spectrum: that is, the teleological end-point which I set out not to over-privilege from the start. Even calling the book Slavery and Unfreedom would have been unsatisfactory, because it would have given the impression of two distinct and coherent versions of unfree status, when one of my main points was that there was no systematic distinction yet being made between slaves and (proto-)‘serfs’ in the early Middle Ages: quite strong mobility between these two poles, essentially located in household or tenancy, remained a possibility until surprisingly late in this period, depending on particular individual circumstances and vulnerabilities. I also don’t really agree with the suggestion that the use of the words ‘slave’ and ‘slavery’ should be restricted to ‘household dependants who were most akin to the slave in the Roman world’: household slavery too changed a great deal over the early medieval period, and not all change happened exclusively on the tenancy end of the spectrum, so people could still be slaves while looking quite different from their Roman precursors. (Certainly I don’t see a reason to call people who were living and working in someone else’s household ‘unfree’ rather than ‘slaves’.) It is true that in the book I mostly talk of ‘unfree’ people when discussing the full spectrum of legal dependence, so using ‘slavery’ instead in the title might seem inconsistent. But ‘slavery’ was, I felt, in the end the least misleading term to use – provided it was removed from its automatic Roman associations –, since modern definitions of it tend to stress potential rather than actual treatment, which was one of the key themes I wanted to focus on: indeed, for a lot of the people I discussed, it was at times of pressure, of unforeseen change or renegotiation, that their legal status took on its full impact. So the term had the advantage of reflecting that aspect of the book.

The importance of potentiality is also the reason why, although I spent some time establishing that legal status typically made less practical difference than terms of tenure when it came to the daily lives of tenants, I also think this is only one part of the story: even for tenants, unfree status remained relevant in terms of deciding who in an estate community would be, or should be, most vulnerable to change – for instance by bearing the brunt of new demands when landlords wanted to extract more labour from their estate, or when it came to deciding whose children could be commandeered most readily as household servants. Legal status, while it certainly intersected with socio-economic conditions, did not offer an exact match for them, and that is precisely what gave it its independent value: it had a symbolic content all of its own, which is what allowed people to do so many different things with it – whether to reinforce socio-economic relationships, to redefine or impose a particular interpretation of them, or even to make trade-offs between the two.

This is really the main point I felt I should probably comment on; the only other thing I’d like to take the opportunity to say here (though it is more a point of detail) is that I actually do think the slave trade had a very important impact on the British economies of this period, but that this impact was greatest not in the polities traditionally identified as the biggest players economically and politically, like late Anglo-Saxon England (or Francia on the continent), but rather in more politically fragmented ‘periphery’ areas, where raiding was taking place regularly into the ninth and tenth centuries, at the point when demand began to expand very significantly; this is what eventually led to the idea in Northern Europe that slave-taking and trading was something that barbarians did to other barbarians.