The Meaning of Slavery in Anglo-Saxon England
Commentary on Chapter 2 of The Wistful and the Good.
This is the second in a series of commentaries on the historical background and literary issues raised by my serialized novel, The Wistful and the Good. You can follow both the novel and the commentaries on the index page and subscribe to get the latest updates.
Edith was born a slave but married up.
Slavery existed in Anglo-Saxon England, as it did, in one form or another, in most ancient societies, and as it continued, in various incarnations, into the modern era. It is today such an anathema that it hard to imagine people for whom its existence was a matter of course. The slaveowners of the Southern United States prior to the Civil War—the place and time our minds instantly go to at the word “slavery,” —may have been staunch defenders of the institution, but they would have been aware that this set them apart in a world that had largely abandoned it, and, having abandoned it themselves, immediately anathematized its practice by others. That is our image of the slave holder: an arrogant holdout against the moral condemnation of the world. But historically the institution was so widespread that most people would have seen nothing exceptional about it, or ever paused to consider its morality.
My characters in The Wistful and the Good are such people. Edith was born a slave, but now owns slaves herself. Slaves in Anglo-Saxon society were simply the lowest rung on the social ladder. Edith managed to climb up that ladder. How can we get our heads around how she may have seen the society in which she lived and its striations? I’m not sure we can fully. Nor could we validate our vision if we could form one. Our lives are too different, and our thoughts and values are, to a large extent, a product of our circumstances. But if we cannot hope to see the world exactly as Edith would have seen it, we can at least try to recognize the extent to which our views are a product of our own times, and so see hers (as best I can imagine them) as a product of her own.
We view slavery today through the lens of freedom. We regard freedom as the natural state of mankind, and any form of constraint as a form of oppression. We might learn something, though, by looking at it through the opposite lens. Suppose that we regarded bondage as the natural state of mankind and degrees of freedom as privileges earned by some for specific reasons. Neither of these lenses represents how we actually live together in a society today. Our lives are not free from constraint, nor would many of us be willing to have our neighbors freed from all constraints in order to liberate ourselves. We recognize readily enough that such freedom would be short-lived, since it would free some to become warlords who would swiftly enslave everyone in their vicinity. The warlords would enjoy perfect freedom, within their domain, and everybody else would be a slave. The truth, then, is that we all live, have always lived, with some significant degree of constraint. But we take perfect liberty as our lens. For a moment, try looking at it the other way round, with bondage as the lens.
The Anglo-Saxons were a warrior people. Such societies are common enough. They were, in essence, a federation of warlords. But the absolute and unchecked power of warlords is an untenable form of society. Thus they had law codes to govern them and kings to give judgement and enforce laws. But if you start from the assumption of warlords and personal loyalty to the warlord as the basis of society, bondage is your starting point and freedom – in degrees – is a form of privilege won by service. It follows that not everyone will enjoy the privilege of freedom. Some will be at the bottom of the social order, having won little or no meaningful freedom.
In such a society, it seems to me, the existence of slavery would be unremarkable. If you were a slave, you would certainly want to attain the privileges of a higher status, as many of us today would like to get a better job. But to aspire to leave the state of slavery is not inherently to condemn the institution. Similarly, giving slaves their manumission is an act of charity, but not inherently a condemnation of the institution.
While the Anglo-Saxons certainly had money and valued gold and precious stones, their principle form of wealth was land. But land is not productive unless there are people to work it. Without people, land is like a car without an engine. Having people to work the land is therefore an inherent part of owning the land. To own a manor or an estate, therefore, would imply have some claim on the people who worked it. This does not have to mean that ever person on the land is a slave. Free people can work the land too. But to what extent were the free people free in the sense we understand the word today?
Freedom, in the modern sense, would be a practical problem as much as anything for an ordinary Anglo-Saxon. The people were as dependent on the land as the land was on the people. What does this relationship look like? What does it feel like? It is impossible for we who depend on the supermarket for our daily bread, to know with certainty what an Anglo-Saxon peasant felt about the land he worked.
What exactly was the status of an Anglo-Saxon freeman? The law codes are terse at best. They don’t seek to define things in absolute terms. Rather they use broad simple terms that assume that the reader knows the conventions of the time. For instance, does the use of the term “bride price” mean that women were regarded as chattel, to be owned in modern sense of ownership? Some scholars have argued so, though this argument seems ideologically motivated and at odds with much other evidence. But I would argue that we simply can’t know what those words mean. They refer to a whole tradition and way of life that is closed to us. Language is stories all the way down, and we don’t know the story behind the term “bride price.” It is quite simply lost to us. But to define its meaning, or the status of women, in modern terms is certainly to distort and to misunderstand.
The brevity of Anglo-Saxon law codes may lead us to think of Anglo-Saxon society as libertarian. But what were the presumptions underlying the written law? People are governed first by the conventions of their society, known to all. Written law exists on top of this. But written law expands over time, in part because increasing mobility means that people don’t all grow up with the same social conventions, and thus need a more external definition of their rights and responsibilities. We define things and write them down as circumstances demand. But once written down, nothing is ever erased, and so our law codes grow year by year. But this does not mean that people with brief law codes lived free of constraints.
What we lose today is the sense of just how much people in the past were dependent on each other and therefore obliged to each other, and how keenly they felt those dependencies and obligations. To be under an obligation today is to be in debt, an entirely irksome condition. But in most times past, such obligations were mutual, permanent, and far reaching. You depended on them for your survival. To unbind yourself from that web of obligations would be to exile yourself, to give up your place around the fire, your right to a portion of the kill and of the harvest.
We can be free today, in the sense we mean it (which is far from absolute freedom) because we can earn money by working for an institution and spend that money at other institutions to get all the necessities of life, all while being protected by further institutions such as the police and the courts. We are institutionally dependent rather than personally dependent. (Which is why we expect strict morality from institutions but not people.)
Most people in most times would have looked to their families, their villages, and their tribes for work, sustenance, and protection. They would have accepted the obligation to a family and tribe readily because they wanted and needed the family and tribe to be obliged to them. Freedom is exile. One can live today in comfortable exile. It can be a lonely life, and that loneliness can take its toll. But without the ability to depend entirely on institutions for your sustenance, exile is a death sentence. Thus I think it makes little sense to think of either freedom or bondage in times past as we would think about them today.
The kind of independence we are talking about, and its reliance on institutions rather than persons, is a characteristic of cities. Only in cities can anonymous institutions arise. There have, of course, been cities for as long as there has been civilization. But most such cities were far smaller than modern cities and a far lower percentage of the population lived in them. Our modern concept of independence is very urban in nature, but we should not expect to find it, in its modern form, even in the cities of most times past. For one thing, the inhabitants of such cities did not have our means of mobility. Their lives and their social circle would have been much more constrained to their neighborhoods. The car is the great instrument of our modern conception of freedom, freeing us from the need to even know the names of our neighbors.
As for the Anglo-Saxons, they do not appear to have been a urban people, preferring to live in small towns and villages and on the land. The fewer the people who live around you, the fewer you meet and have commerce with in the course of the day, the more your life will be governed by bonds of obligation and dependence on people and on the land. You would be bound to people and to place, and be glad to be so.
Elswyth’s story hinges very much on the bonds of familial loyalty and obligation. In this sense, it is a story that could not take place today, where the very idea of such obligations is anathematized. It is far too easy to see the dependency and obligation with which people of the past lived as an imposition. Hundreds of historical novels boast in their blurbs about heroes and heroines who defy and cast off such obligations to live lives of fierce independence. Concerned as their authors may be with getting the ribbons on a hat just right, they commit this gross anachronism with glee and purpose.
There are, of course, periods of history in which social convention lags behind economic developments which would support greater social independence for family members – and for women in particular. Convention inevitably lags economic and political change. But it is a very Whiggish view of history that regards these as elements of a civilization-long struggle against entrenched oppression rather than as adaptations to new circumstances as they arose.
But while the car and the city make the modern concept of independence possible, this does not explain what makes it desirable. The obsession with individual independence that characterizes our current age is not merely a product of the economic conditions that support it. It has cultural roots as well. I suspect that in part it is rooted in a disgust with community and national pieties which are seen (with some just cause) as having to led to great evils, particularly in the 20th century. The intense patriotism, the fundamental civic piety, of a volunteer in the First World War or the American Civil War, is utterly foreign to us today. With Wilfrid Owen we easily call “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” an “old lie.” But this, or something like it, has been a fundamental truth for peoples of most times and places. It may not always have the patria that they were willing to die for, but it was some family, some clan, some community, to which they felt an obligation we feel to no one but ourselves today.
Such pieties have been commonly held, with great intensity, for much of human history. The rejection of, and discomfort with, civic pieties today is simply one swing of the cultural pendulum, particular to our times and circumstances, not a position of surpassing and civilization-defining virtue. If we wish to understand people of the past, we have to begin by recognizing that it is we who are anomalous in valuing personal independence above all things, and that we can only practice it because of the extraordinary wealth and technology that we enjoy today. It is anachronistic, to say the least, to judge peoples of other times and places by this standard.
The slave, in such societies, is, of course, someone living outside of these bonds of obligation and piety. But their status should not be contrasted with that of someone free in the modern sense of the word. The Anglo-Saxon freeman was not free in the modern sense, but deeply bound to land and tribe in bonds of mutual obligation. The difference for the slave was not the lack of freedom so much as their existing outside the bonds of obligation. They were obliged to their masters by the bonds of servitude, but their masters had no familial or tribal obligations towards them. This did not necessarily mean that they had no obligations to them at all. But such obligations were less than those to kin and neighbor. Slaves are those members of society not entitled to a place by the fire or a share of the kill, though it would, of course have been necessary to feed them.
It was not an enviable position then, though arguable better than exile. The slave was at least attached to land and people, to safety and sustenance, even without the privileges of membership. And there were ways to escape slavery, to win manumission of to have it granted to you. Edith is a character who found one way of doing this, and did better from it than most could have hoped to do. But she is no crusader for the modern notion of liberty. It would be grossly anachronistic to expect her to be.