Describe the essential normative justifications of slavery that are to be found in medieval theology.

As a social concept, the participation in slavery has achieves different views according to different cultures. Even modern in the realms of modern-day slavery, which does still exist, certain cultures consider the participation in slavery to be nothing more than that which is inherent within a class structure and race structure.1 It remains, in some cultures, the accepted norm. With a consideration of the many instances of slavery that have taken place during the medieval era, this essay concludes that several justifications can be expounded for the proliferation of slavery, including slavery, religion, and bankruptcy. An incredibly brief consideration of modern and contemporary slavery shows that whilst it is likely that some of the medieval justifications are still used by those who exploit human beings today, the landscape has changed for slavery and, as sex trafficking grows across the world, the justifications put forward for slavery in the modern world relate more towards sexual exploitation and a desire to seek profit from such activity. 

Despite the very common misconception, slavery did not die amongst the ruins of the Roman Empire and then suddenly have a rapid resurgence with the plantations that emerged on the Southern states of America over a millennium later. Slavery was an institution that survived intact following the fall of the Roman Empire; it had however changed to a degree. Slavery was not as widespread as it had been in the Roman Empire; there were not as many opportunities for a dominant military power to enslave its defeated enemies on such a scale like that following Rome’s victory over the Carthaginians for example. One of the most notable features of slavery from the Roman times were the very large-scale labour farms which pretty much disappeared without leaving a trace barring a few failed experiments (a notable example being that of the Islamic enslavement of the Zanj peoples whose torrid conditions working on massive agricultural projects in Western Persia led to a rebellion that escalated to such an extent that no such projects were ever attempted again2). Slavery was now on a much smaller scale than before, although some nations such as England still had a large percentage of slaves as their population with some areas such as Bristol having a population as high as that of 30% (this was due to its close proximity to Wales which was a regular victim of pillaging from English forces3). Slavery on the continent was pretty much reserved for the very rich aristocratic households, where the slave’s purpose was either as a domestic or skilled craftsmen4. Slavery in the Islamic states came in a slightly milder form, with the Quran stating that ‘God has more power over you, than you have over them’ and that a master should forgive his slave ‘seventy times a day’5 (although one cannot deny that they were still the lowest strata of society). This can be shown by the gender ratio to which they shipped in slaves, which was two women to every one male (when one compares this to the primarily labour based Atlantic slave trade, which was two males to every female) which shows that the slavery was more comfort and domestic based than the labour based Atlantic slave trade was. Oftentimes the purpose of slavery seemed to be that of displaying wealth with some rulers having a harem of 1000s of concubines. Slavery in Islam also always allowed the slave in question to buy his own freedom6.

Slavery in medieval times had to now reconcile itself with the two major monotheist religions emerging in that period in the form of Islam and Christianity. So how was slavery to be justified in such a time? One of the most notable justifications was that of punishment where if one were unable to supply adequate compensation to the victim, the only way to compensate was to provide the victims their labour as a form of penance. Slavery as punishment also existed in the form of the many rulings that leading Church members would create to act against sinners and heathens such as the ruling of the Synod of Toledo in 693 which stated that were one to be involved in conspiracy or high treason not only would they be enslaved but also their descendants7. Slavery was further justified as being a sign of domestic providence and that those who were enslaved were only in that position due to God’s will and that it prevented as such their perpetration of evil due to the fact that they were supervised by their masters. Justification of slavery was to also find it in the Church’s very own complicity in slavery, with the Church all over Europe owning a large amount of slaves that they were not necessarily able or willing to manumiss. Further justification for slavery was to be found in the form of racism which was to become hopelessly entangled in medieval theology as enslavement became seen as being divinely ordained with some nations and races being seen as inferior and deserving of enslavement. This was the case in the Germanic tribes who enslaved the neighbouring Slavs (the term ‘slave’ was derived from this word), in England where the Welsh were enslaved in large numbers and the Arabic invasion of the Mediterranean. Economic circumstances often were often used as a justification for slavery. In times of famine or extreme economic hardship those who could not afford to survive or support their families without assistance would sell themselves (or a family member) into slavery providing their only available resource, labour. Finally, war was one of the more noteworthy justifications of slavery in medieval theology, with the enslavement of the enemy and the acquisition of booty being seen as desirable war aims.

Punishment is one of the more essential normative justifications of slavery in medieval theology. Christianity as a religious movement in this period did not consider slavery incompatible with its beliefs, in fact were one to look closer it would appear that the Church approved of the institution. Christianity whilst against the idea of any of its members becoming slaves, or at the very least Christians being sold to non-Christians (as shown by a council in Toledo 656AD where clerics would protest the sale of Christians to Jews8), did not make, at any point in medieval times, a concerted effort to condemn or outlaw slavery. The Church often saw slavery as an appropriate punishment for particular crimes. This is clearly shown by the threats of the Synod of Toledo in 693AD, an area that had been heavily burdened by intrigue and high treason, the punishment for any conspirators was that of enslavement of not only themselves but any future descendants9. Those that indulged in any pagan activities were fined a high total of 60 solidi if they were a noble, or 15 were they a serf. If one was unable to pay the fine they would become a slave of the Church until the fee was paid10. Harsher treatment was reserved for soothsayers and diviners who were handed to the priests and Churches as slaves for the rest of their lives11. In the pagan Germanic states, slavery was amongst the highest form of punishment reserved for crimes to which the perpetrator was not able to provide compensation or those that were especially heinous, notably that of murder where there was concealment of the corpse, theft and illegal relations (these crimes in particular were seen as entirely unbecoming of the way that a free person should act and carry themselves). Illegal relations entailed the violation of the dignity of a free woman or that of marrying a slave, for both of which the penalty was enslavement12. Anglo Saxon England was also particularly harsh in the use of slavery as a punishment, for example there was the law created under the King Ine of Wessex that stated ‘if anyone shall steal in such a way that his wife and children know nothing of it...he shall pay sixty shillings as a fine, but if he steals with the knowledge of his household, they are all to go into slavery’13. Slavery as punishment was thus in this time seen as an appropriate justification for its continued existence, in a time without a police force and the scarcity of prisons, slavery was often seen as the most logical punishment.

In addition to this, slavery’s existence was justified by the Church’s personal ownership of a large number of slaves. Part of the reason that the Church never truly committed to an anti-slavery mission was that the Church itself had a great deal of slaves and would continue to hold them for a long period after slavery had all but died out elsewhere (certain kinds of Church property were seen as unalienable and this included slaves)14. There is evidence of slaves belonging to the Church throughout Europe, in Spain, the kingdom of the Franks, England, Hungary and other such areas. Whilst the Church was a great supporter of the manumission of slaves and regarded it as a hugely honourable act (many people would free them in their will upon death to aid their salvation), it had a great deal of difficulty in regards to freeing its own slaves. The bishops were not allowed to free slaves unless they reimbursed the Church out of their own property. This ruling was justified by the idea that the bishop would have been taking from the poor what they themselves would not have given15. Further restrictions upon a bishop’s ability to free a Church slave were created in the 11th century in the decretals of Gregory IX (letters from the pope which formulate decisions in ecclesiastical law of the Catholic Church) which ruled that for a slave to be freed, it would have to be replaced by two other slaves that were equally adept and valuable at the tasks that they had been assigned16. The fact that the Church was reliant upon these slaves and that they were personally tied with the wealth and prosperity of the Church meant that the Church was personally unwilling to free its own slaves and by extension were justifying slavery as an institution.

Slavery was also justified by Christianity as being a sign of God’s wrath. The Church fathers would see in slavery, evidence of the person’s terrible character that they should end up in such a situation17. This is exemplified by the text written by Ratherius of Verona in the 11th century, his Praeloquia, this text could basically be described as a biblical justification of slavery. In his appeal to the multitudes of slaves he writes ‘hear what the apostle says (I Peter, II, 18) “servants be subject to your masters with all fears” and that ‘whoever resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God’ (Romans, X III, 2), suggesting that not performing one’s slave duties was a sin18. He further proceeds to state that it is not simply a mistake that they were a slave ‘do not think thou art slave accidentally, and without the will of divine providence’19. He would expand on this quoting Isodore of Seville, a notable scholar who justified slavery as the punishment of God for the sin of Adam ‘because of the first man’s sin, slavery was imposed by God on mankind as a punishment’ and that it was ‘perfect justice in making one a slave and another a master, in order that the slave’s opportunity of doing evil may be limited by the power of the master’20. The nature of slavery was justified in that it allowed the good to watch over and control those who had been identified by God as having evil tendencies.

War as a justification of enslavement was prominent in medieval theology. This is most notably exhibited by the Arab conquests of the Mediterranean following the Prophet Muhammad’s campaigns in the Arabic lands. The world in terms of Islam was divided into Dar el Islam, which was the areas which had become fully islamicised and had submitted to the faith, and that of Dar el Harb, where Islamicising had not yet taken place21. The roots to slavery in Islamic areas only had two passages, that of being born to a female slave and that of capture in Warfare22. As well as this Islam ruled that only Infidels could be enslaved, (although there were indeed transgressions, this is exemplified by a letter sent to the Mamluk regime in Egypt in 1391-92 by King ‘Uthman ibn Idris, the ruler of Bornu who was to say ‘The Arab tribes of Jodham and others...have pillaged our land, the land or Bornu and continue doing so. They haven as slaves free men and our fathers, the Muslims, and they selling them to the slave-dealers of Syria and elsewhere’).One of the few ways that the slave population would indeed rise in large numbers was through the capturing of prisoners of war following conflict (often with a non-Islamic state). The enslavement of prisoners of war is justified in a passage in the Quran, whereupon the Prophet Muhammad is assured by the Angel Gabriel that he and all those who followed him were divinely gifted the ‘spoils of war’. Gabriel states ‘those whom thy right hand possesses out of the prisoners of war whom God has assigned to thee’ (Quran 33:50)23. The enslavement of captives in warfare in a just war was seen as recompense for the Islamic casualties that may have been suffered. It also offered the opportunity for conversion. As Islam prohibited the enslavement of fellow Muslims, many converted from Christianity to Islam in large numbers in the Mediterranean area so as to avoid slavery as all Muslim men were seen as equal before the eyes of God, and for this reason areas like Sicily and Amalfi were to become Islamic strongholds. Rebellion served as further ammunition in terms of justifying slavery, a notable example of this was following a rebellion in 1077 of the Berbers there was a mass sale of thousands of women who had belonged to a Berber tribe in Cairo. The misreading of the Quran’s message in terms of slavery was no clearer illustrated than in the ruthless pursuit of slaves in Italy in the 10th century that was often justified by those participating as a spiritual discipline. This slave raiding was organised on a massive scale, operating with disturbing efficiency and with backing from the ruler of Sicily. ‘Jihad’ Holy War they were to regard it as, spreading the message of Allah throughout the world24. This gave the slave raiding missions a sense of legitimacy and religiosity25. As Muslims they were obligated to conquer and incorporate land that was not yet under the sphere of Islamic influence. However it was not only the Islamic nations that would enslave its prisoners of war, slave raiding was common throughout Christendom and was committed mostly with the intention of economic gain, the Scots for example in the 11th century during the reign of Malcolm III would regularly raid their English neighbours to plunder and enslave the nearby populace26. Such an attack would bring a great deal of funds into the community as well as rejuvenating the labour force, ‘Scotland was filled with English slaves and handmaidens’27.

Another notable justification of slavery was that of racism, which started to slowly develop over a prolonged period of time (there was a great deal more tolerance and co-habitation at the earlier part of medieval times than at the end). Islam had never explicitly stated a racial streak as all were seen as equals before the lord as shown by a sermon that the prophet Muhammad gave in Mecca whilst in the final years of his life ‘O ye men! Harken unto my words and take ye them to heart! Know ye that every Moslem is a brother to every other Moslem, and that ye are now one brotherhood’. However despite this, due to the large amount of slave raiding deep into sub-Sahara Africa (it was a gold mine for the Islamic slaver as the whole territory was clearly marked out as being Dar el Harb), the black slave became a regular sight as well as that of the Slavic peoples who were traded a huge amount around this time (as a pagan land it was seen as free game by the Germanic peoples whose mass enslavement of its peoples was only rivalled by that of Roman times). This led to an association of inferiority with those races of people, that was espoused by leading thinkers in Islam characterised by the writings of Said al- Aadalusi, a judge in Toledo in the mid-11th century28. He was to characterise these other races of people as those worthy of slavery. He viewed the Slavs as living at ‘an excessive distance from the sun’ and that as a result ‘they lack keenness of understanding and clarity of intelligence and are overcome by ignorance and dullness, lack of discernment and stupidity’29. On the opposite side of the spectrum he saw the Africans who lived under ‘the long presence of the sun at the zenith’ as being of ‘fiery temperament’ who ‘lack self control and steadiness of mind and are overcome by fickleness, foolishness and ignorance’30. This argument was based on the pseudo science of climatic impact on those who were ethnically inferior culminated in the writing of the renowned Islamic medieval historian Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) who stated quite bluntly that ‘the negro nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery’ because they shared qualities ‘similar to those of dumb animals’31To escape dire poverty was another justification of slavery. In these times, were a man unable to economically support himself or his family, he or his wife would sell themselves into bondage to provide for their families. Sometimes it was not just the parents, as some fathers in parts of Europe would sell off their surplus children into bondage to help his finances32. This practice of mortgaging your life was to get the attention of a Synod in Paris who clearly could see that the system was open to abuse and ruled that those who had mortgaged themselves should, as soon as they have repaid the value, be restored to their former status and that the fee was not allowed to rise33. There was also the paying off debts through slavery that existed in the pagan Germanic states. This would only occur when the debtor had completely run out of other options and the creditor was unable to receive their debts and there was no hope of a third person intervention. This state of slavery could either last permanently or until the debtor was able to pay off his debt satisfactorily34. Therefore, a harsh but economic reality was that people had fast become a commodity, much in the same way that a house or business might be considered today; and, in the case of bankruptcy, the last resort would be to mortgage either the debtor themselves or members of their family.

The above discussion should be compared with the modern approach to slavery. In modern times, both within the developed and under-developed world, an indeed between the two, slavery has grown exponentially within the sex trafficking industry and is now the focus of the majority of law enforcement resources.35 Matters such as poverty and desperation have led families to sell their children to the sex trafficking industry. However, not always is there a “voluntary” element to it, the profits from the control and participation in sex slavery are rife and can lead to unthinkable events through which young children are abducted purely to serve the commercial interests of those in control.36 What was once justified for reasons relating to things like war, race, and religion, now takes a more monetary form in raking the profits that come from satisfying the sexual desires of the customers of the sex trade.

In conclusion, the institution of slavery was to have many justifications throughout its existence in medieval times. Punishment was one of the most common justifications of slavery in this time, with it being seen as an appropriate punishment for crimes committed, the Church was to support this with laws ruling that paganism (as exhibited by the cases of Soothsayers and diviners) was punishable by either a huge fine (which if one were not able to pay would result in slavery) or an immediate entry into slavery. In the pagan Germanic states punishment was also seen as a justification, reserving it for the most heinous crimes that were committed such as that of murder with the body being concealed, theft and illicit relationships with a slave or the violation of a free woman. Slavery was further justified by the Church’s own complicity in the institution with the Church owning a great deal of slaves that it was not able or unwilling to emancipate. In addition to this slavery was justified as it was often viewed as being God’s will, that being a slave was simply what God had planned for them and that it was probably in all reality a sign that the slave was an evil person and thus God had to put them into submission to a master so as to prevent their evil-doing capacity. War was also seen as a justification of slavery; this was keenly supported by the Quran, with the prophet Muhammad being told by the Angel Gabriel that the enslavement of prisoners of wars was justified by his divine mission. The enslavement of prisoners of war was also seen as a just recompense for the Islamic casualties that would have resulted from such a conflict. Racism was also progressively seen as a justification for slavery, due to the association of the sub-Saharan African and the slaves with slavery there was an eventual moving away from the scripture which determined that everyone was equal upon the eyes of Allah to a more hostile attitude which determined that these particular groups of people were destined for slavery, this is most notably exhibited by the quote from Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun who saw the ‘negro nations as being most submissive to slavery’ due to the fact that they were similar to ‘dumb animals’. Finally, slavery was justified as a way to escape poverty or to pay off a debt. In cases where one was in such a dire situation economically that he was not able to actively support his family, a family member (most likely the mother or father, although the selling of children was not an alien concept) would sell themselves into slavery so as to help alleviate his family’s situation. Paying off a debt in the form of slavery would occur when there was no possible way that the debtor would be able to compensate his creditor and thus the only way he could pay was in the exchange of his labour, this was a state that would either be permanent or until the payment had been completed. Whilst it doubted that these ideals have been banished from the earth, and many cultures will continue to adopt slavery based on such ideas as were present centuries ago, wholesale modern slavery has taken a deeper, and arguably even more controversial justification in the name of profit- making which has led to the involuntary exploitation of the young, poor, and vulnerable in order to feed the monetary greed and sexual appetites of “customers”. 


1 William L van De Burg, Slavery and Race in American Popular Culture, (University of Wisconsin Press, 1984), 87.

Ronald Segal, Islam’s Black Slaves: A History of Africa’s Other Black Diaspora, (London:Atlantic Books, 2001), 3-66.

Robert Lacey & Danny Danziger, What Life Was Like At The Turn Of The First Millenium: The Year 1000, (London: Little, Brown and Company), 1999, 25-197.

Smith, Julia M. H, Europe after Rome: A New Cultural History, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Segal, Islam’s Black Slaves: A History of Africa’s Other Black Diaspora,3-66. 

6 Ibid.

Frederik Pijper, The Christian Church and Slavery in the Middle Ages, The American Historical Review, Vol. 14, No. 4, Jul., 1909, 675-695. 

8 Ibid. 

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid. 

12 Agnes M. Wergeland, Slavery in Germanic Society During the Middle Ages, Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 9, No. 1, Dec., 1900, 98-120.

13 Robert Lacey & Danny Danziger, What Life Was Like At The Turn Of The First Millenium: The Year 1000, 25-197.

14 William Chester Jordan, Europe in the High Middle Ages, (London: Penguin Group, 2002), 10-182.

15 n7.

16 Ibid..

17 Wim Blockmans and Peter Hoppenbrouwers, Introduction to Medieval Europe 300-1550, (Oxon: Routledge, 2007), 72-233. 

18 n7.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 J. Alexander, Islam, Archaeology and Slavery in Africa, World Archaeology, Vol. 33, No. 1, Jun., 2001, 44-60.

22 Ronald Segal, Islam’s Black Slaves: A History of Africa’s Other Black Diaspora, 3-66. 

23 Tom Holland, Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom, (London: Little, Brown and Company), 2008, 91-95. 

 24 Holland, Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom,91-95.

25 Holland, Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom,91-95.
26 Robert Bartlett, The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950-1350, London: Penguin Group, 1994, 78-306.

27 Bartlett, The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950-1350, 78-306. 

28 Ronald Segal, Islam’s Black Slaves: A History of Africa’s Other Black Diaspora, 3-66. 29 Ronald Segal, Islam’s Black Slaves: A History of Africa’s Other Black Diaspora, 3-66.

30 Ronald Segal, Islam’s Black Slaves: A History of Africa’s Other Black Diaspora, 3-66.

31 Ronald Segal, Islam’s Black Slaves: A History of Africa’s Other Black Diaspora, 3-66.

32 Robert Lacey & Danny Danziger, What Life Was Like At The Turn Of The First Millenium: The Year 1000, (London: Little, Brown and Company, 1999), 25-197. 

33 Frederik Pijper, The Christian Church and Slavery in the Middle Ages, 675-695.

34 Agnes M. Wergeland, Slavery in Germanic Society During the Middle Ages, 98-120. 35 Siddharth Kara, Sex Trafficking, (Columbia University Press, 2010), 8.

36 Siddharth Kara, Sex Trafficking,8. 


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