Bk 1. xxix. 2b-3a Etymology (cont.)

‘Nos servis et possessionibus..”

Persons living enslaved in Roman territories, and within earlier medieval Europe, were prisoners of war or had been meted that punishment for crimes of various types, including debt.  Isidore describes it as a punishment second only to death, while citing a Greek author to the effect that death is preferable.

Religious law in Europe prohibited suicide but did not prohibit slavery which continued in practice there until the end of the nineteenth century, revived in practice, if not officially sanctioned, in our own time.

Isidore’s repulsion is evident in the Etymologiae and  is stated explicitly in V.xxvii.32:

“Slavery (servitus) is named from saving (servare), for among the ancients, those who were saved from death in battle were called slaves (servus). This alone is the most extreme of all evils; for free people it is worse than every kind of punishment, for where freedom is lost, everything is lost with it.”

By the thirteenth century, the Italian Dominican friar, Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274) can write openly opposing Isidore’s appeal to common humanity and morality with his own philosophico-legal arguments.

In his Summa Theologica – a veritable ‘bible’ for Dominican preachers and students of theology both then and later – Aquinas treats definitions and distinctions concerning law versus  justice. He cites Isidore (not entirely fairly) and then absolutely contradicts Isidore’s belief that justice implies doing  ‘what is just’ . Aquinas himself engages in the hair-splitting sort of theological arguments so loved by late medieval scholastics – and prefers to quote Aristotle’s Politics over anything said by Christ, let alone by Isidore. Thus:

Considered absolutely, the fact that this particular man should be a slave rather than another man, is based, not on natural reason, but on some resultant utility, in that it is useful to this man to be ruled by a wiser man, and to the latter to be helped by the former, as the Philosopher states (Polit. i, 2). Wherefore slavery which belongs to the right of nations is natural in the second way, but not in the first.

So for Aquinas, who imagines all slave-owners fine and benevolent, it was a jolly good thing for a slave to have a powerful and wealthier man own him, and a similar argument was constantly used by lay-people as well as clerics during the time of the Translatlantic slave trade,  to justify Christians’ enslaving fellow humans.  (Yes – ghastly, isn’t it?)

  • Aristotle, Politics, – Internet Classics site.
  • Aquinas’ Summa Theologica at cathen.org
  • The same site contains two further articles that explain, while not attempting to mitigate, the positions taken by the church –  past and current (i.e. to 1911), See:  ‘Slavery and Christianity‘; ‘Ethical Aspect (i.e. question) of Slavery‘; ‘Influence of the Church on Civil Law‘.   The church’s position appears to be that slavery as such is not forbidden; what is forbidden is the abuse of one person by another, regardless of legal status.
  • As early as the fourth century AD,  Chrysostom – a man not generally admired for his tolerance or humanity – spoke out strongly against the sexual and other abuse of women who had been enslaved. He openly opposes here the Digest of Roman Law, though in those times while forcible sexual relations with a virgin/child was universally abhorred, a woman could gain enduring protection only in marriage – marriage either to the slave owner or to another slave, and there is no indication that she had any say in who she must marry. The same was generally true for most women of the time.  Chrysostom however emphasises that the marriage must be more than a token; a woman could not be married off to a ‘token’ husband as cover for continuing abuse.

You can see why European kings, with their heavily class-centred laws, were constantly irritated by the moral positions taken Christian theologians.

The medieval Church did condemn Christians’ making a business of buying and selling  fellow Christians, just as the Prophet of Islam had prohibited any believer from enslaving another.

Not that Latin Christian soldiers, kings or merchants were tamely obedient.  Pragmatism and easy profits found a simple solution.  Since church law did not forbid one to own ‘captives’, unransomed Christian captives during the earlier medieval centuries might be passed on to Jewish or Radhanite merchants who did the work of buying and selling them.  It was the act of sale or purchase which transformed the captive into the slave. In the later medieval period, not only the Genoese became known as slavers on a massive scale, but so did some of the nominally religious Crusader orders, notably the Orders of Knights Hospitaller and Knights of St.John.

The following relief is taken from bronze doors to  St.Adalbert’s cathedral in Gneiso, Prague.  The detail shows a bishop admonishing a king –  who in turn holds the pen and ink signifying his obedience and readiness to write  documents .. the documents of manumission for slaves to whom the bishop’s attention had been drawn.

The origin of these doors remains uncertain; they were certainly brought from elsewhere.  Their style is agreed appropriate to the early 12thC.   There is some evidence that the craftsman came from France.  However, their re-location requires the original imagery to be re-interpreted.  Though neither the bishop’s gesture of admonishment, nor the king’s  – he is equipped with pen and ink-well, not bags of money –  are quite appropriate to the story now attached to them, we are meant to read it now as the story of Adalbert’s begging help from a benevolent Christian king, who then provided the money needed to purchase some Christian slaves from the merchants who held them ready for sale.  The revised narrative makes the merchants, not the king, the story’s ‘villain’, though the form given the throne and the physical disposition of the king’s lower limbs are the convention of earlier art signifying a  ‘wicked pagan (or false Christian) ruler’.

Slavery in Isidore’s world

In visigothic Spain, slaves were numerous.  A modern writer mentions  Isidore in his study of slavery in medieval Iberia:

  • William D. Phillips, Jr., Slavery in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia (2013) The quotation is taken from p.92.

The following is from a Gospel Book made in the late ninth century, and into which the records of manumission have been written – in much the way that family genealogies are written in the family bibles. The manumission records date to the late tenth and early eleventh centuries.

” According to several laws of Constantine the ordinary formalities [of Roman law] could be dispensed with if the manumission took place in the church, before the people and the sacred ministers. The clergy were permitted to bestow freedom on their slaves in their last will, or even by simple word of mouth (Cod. Just., lib. I, tit. 13, leges 1, 2).”


Charles Verlinden is recognised as the first western scholar to shake modern western Europe’s vision of its own medieval and early modern history in this matter. Since the 1980s, a very large array of scholarly and other writings have expanded perception of the topic.  One then finds it difficult to explain or justify the entirely nineteenth-century Eurocentric tone of the opening paragraph in the current ‘wiki’ article , which reads:

” Slavery had mostly died out in western Europe about the year 1000, replaced by serfdom. It lingered longer in England and in peripheral areas linked to the Muslim world, where slavery continued to flourish. Church rules suppressed slavery of Christians. Most historians argue the transition was quite abrupt around 1000, but some see a gradual transition from about 300 to 1000.” -wilkipedia.

-another reminder, if any were needed that the authors of wiki articles are anonymous and scarcely accountable for what they write.


So much presently online that I see no need to add many references.

One writer puts the situation very well:

Slavery is legal nowhere, yet it is practiced everywhere. With an estimated 27 million people in bondage worldwide, this is twice as many people as were taken in chains from Africa during the entire 350 years of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. In seeking to place blame, we’re tempted to point to the “emerging nations” as the culprits, whereas in fact slavery exists in such “civilized” countries as England, France, Spain, Italy, Israel, Ireland, Greece, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, China… and the United States. Most Americans are clueless that slavery is alive and flourishing right here, thriving in the dark, and practiced in many forms in places you’d least expect.



Header inset and composite image – detail from a relief  set up in the Carian city of Aphrodisias after its conquest by Rome.  In their unpleasant, but characteristic way,  the Romans caricature the inhabitants’ most sacred institutions and rites. Here the grief of a young girl  is presented as a mockery of the city’s deity, Aphrodite.  The relief expresses the idea that followers of Aphodite must now serve as ‘followers’ of  Roman troops.

  • For a meditation on classical Latin’s trope  “servitam amoris”  see  Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu’s post [HERE]

Bands – 1. detail from a stone pillar, dated to the Visigoth period. Badajoz;  2. generic grey marble.


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