The Complex Reality of Early Medieval Slavery

Kim Rendfeld

Costumes of slaves or serfs Costumes of slaves or serfs, from the sixth to the 12th centuries, from the 19th century Manners, Custom and Dress During the Middle Ages and During the Renaissance Period, by Paul Lacroix (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

Let me get one thing out of the way: Slavery is evil. No one has the right to own another person and do whatever they want to them.

But early medieval times present uncomfortable complexities to this tolerant 21st century American. Some slaves were better off than their free counterparts. Servants in a noble house were more likely to eat, sleep in a sheltered space, and have decent clothing, but they were more vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse.

A peasant’s life was uncertain, especially when it came to food. A bad harvest in the fall meant famine in the winter. Poverty was so widespread that the Church differentiated between killing…

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