• 6 Replies
« on: September 25, 2014, 05:00:36 AM »
My wife and I were trying out the setup and creation rules on a long train journey home. She's a bit of a Dark Ages buff and as we built our stronghold on a contentious border she laughed and said "So we're basically Mercians, right? Keeping down the local British population. We've probably got a handful of Welsh slaves."

And that made me a bit worried. I have no real knowledge of how slavery was practiced in the Dark Ages beyond the fact that the life of a slave was worth less in wergilt than the life of free person. It felt like such a contentious topic that I almost wanted some guidance.

As it was we continued and ended up with a really interesting set up. The dominant people in the stronghold were not well known for their rites, and there was a welsh wicker-wise slave who appeased the local Gods on their behalf. She, in her turn, was owed a life every mid-winter and we set it up so that the Gods chose who they wanted as sacrifice. If they chose one of the Saxons (or if the Wicker-wise reported back that they did.) then custom was that the Saxon was offered up. It was a nice and tricky power dynamic and I'd be interested to see how it played out.

But yeah, slavery. Am I over-reacting in wanting a little guidance? Is this a topic that other people have run into?



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Re: Slavery
« Reply #1 on: September 25, 2014, 06:48:42 AM »
It may be an uncomfortable fact, but Anglo Saxons and the Viking races thought that slavery was a normal part of their working economy. It has been estimated from entries in the Doomsday Book that as much as 10% of the population of Anglo Saxon England were slaves, although this is difficult to verify, as one has to make an estimate of the size of slave families from the actual working slaves listed. The general Old English term for a slave was wealh, which is associated with the ideas of 'Welsh' or 'foreigner.' That gives a clue to one of the major sources of slaves: prisoners of war.

Slaves may have worked at ploughing, building walls, spreading muck, peat digging, grinding corn, dairy duties cooking or general housework. However, higher status occupations are recorded, such as goldsmith or embroiderer. Some female slaves were used as sex workers, although later laws tried to protect female slaves from sexual abuse.

Giving up one's slaves (sometimes known as manumission) may have been hard to contemplate: who else was going to plough the fields, cook, or herd the pigs, whist the landowner got on with higher status tasks like weaving, trading or warfare?

There were a few other ways that people may end up as slaves, other than as prisoners of war: the Old English term wite þeow refers to penal enslavement i.e. a punishment of a court for crime. Some families who had become bankrupt may sell their children, or even themselves to ensure survival, and in some cases they were allowed to earn money to redeem themselves, and repay their price or debt.

The term that Vikings used for slavery was generally ánauð, and a slave was referred to as a þral or thrall. One could be termed a fostne, which indicated that you were a hereditary fostered slave. Bond servants (bondi) could pay off their owner if they could raise enough money. The image of a slave was one who had short cropped hair and an iron neck collar. After Christianisation a female slave was not allowed to wear a kerchief over her hair, which was a privilege reserved for her mistress.

Dublin was to become the centre for the slave trade for the Vikings in Ireland, with Bristol being an important exit port even then, well before the African slave trade centuries later. They probably also used Jorvik (York) and London as trading centres.

Recommended Reading: Pelteret, D. (1995) Slavery in Early Mediaeval England. Woodbridge: Boydell Press

Re: Slavery
« Reply #2 on: September 26, 2014, 01:23:32 PM »
Thanks, that raises good questions.

Re: Slavery
« Reply #3 on: September 27, 2014, 12:33:02 PM »
One other thing to note -- and it's totally abhorrent to modern morality -- is that at the time, slavery was a moral innovation, and it's possible that Vikings and Anglo Saxons saw it that way. Let's say you're a Viking, and you've just raided a town. You're taking everything they've got, and you've killed some or all of the able-bodied, soldier-aged men. What to do with the people who are left? Kill them? That's pretty harsh, and it will stiffen resistance on your next raid. Leave them behind? Well, you've just taken all their shit and killed their defenders -- leaving them might be dooming them to death anyway. Take them with you into your household, as a slave? It might be the kindest choice.

Not that any of that holds up today, but Dark Ages force people into awful ethical calculus.

Re: Slavery
« Reply #4 on: September 29, 2014, 10:31:35 AM »
"Innovation" is the wrong word for a practice that was already thousands of years old on the European continent and had huge bodies of jurisprudence and precedent attached to it, in Latin, Greek, Persian, etc. law, as well as in oral traditions elsewhere. But it's true that it's important not to look at slavery anachronistically, as if the alternative to slavery was the egalitarian status of a modern citizen of a state declaring the value of universal human rights (that very contrast was what gave U.S. slavery its distinctively horrible brutality, in historical terms). In Roman law the most sanctioned and canonical reason for someone to be a slave was that they were a captive in war, and thus that they were a slave instead of being dead, not instead of being free. In a sense they were "dead", having been reduced to a thing, a piece of property, and only emancipation would restore them to life. (In some ways this was an aspirational fiction, since most slaves during Roman times were actually defaulted debtors, not captives in war).

Roman slavery was (like US slavery) distinctively extreme in its reduction of persons to objects; in many societies (Vikings included) slaves did have some rights. In many implementations of slavery, slaves could marry, own property (even own their own slaves), and protest cruel treatment; the Roman (and US) hell in which a master could separate families, sell children, or even put slaves to death essentially on a whim, was unusual (though Romans, whose slavery was purely economic and unrelated to racism, did a good deal less of selling their own children). In Dark Ages societies not under the remains of Roman law, slaves were often much closer to vassals, bound to serve, but seen as persons, not things.

All this brings me to the question of what a playbook for The Slave would look like, particularly if the slavery was closer to Roman-style slavery. Perhaps all the initial options could begin "You have no rights, and yet you..."

(David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years has a bunch of interesting things to say on this topic)

Re: Slavery
« Reply #5 on: September 29, 2014, 11:22:36 AM »

All this brings me to the question of what a playbook for The Slave would look like, particularly if the slavery was closer to Roman-style slavery. Perhaps all the initial options could begin "You have no rights, and yet you..."

I would very much like to see this become a thing
There is some things after life. It's called death.

Re: Slavery
« Reply #6 on: September 29, 2014, 11:43:37 AM »
"Innovation" is the wrong word for a practice that was already thousands of years old

Sorry, yes, this is totally right. Maybe "moral alternative" would've been a better phrase.