The slaves of Middle Ages Britain were not African, nor were the slaves of the Church in Europe. In Anglo-Saxon England the slaves and peasants lived in great squalor, in small windowless thatched-roof huts with refuse dump-floors. An open-hearth fire vented to a hole in the roof. Most English slaves were reduced to that state as punishment for crimes, failure to pay fines or for being in debt. Also, children born of slaves of any origin were declared to be slaves as well. What is described below was medieval England, not the American South of 1860.
British Slaves, Serfs and Human Loot
“There were true slaves in the Middle Ages, of course, men who worked like domestic animals, doing whatever kind of labor the lord demanded, and for whatever length of time he ordered. Many had begun their slavery as captives of war. After the Anglo-Saxons invaded England in the fifth century A.D., the word for the person without freedom was “Welshman” – the name of the native Britons that they enslaved.
“Welsh” eventually came to mean slave. (It was what would happen later when the word for “slave” itself was taken from Slav – the name of the Slavic peoples captured and sold into slavery in great numbers).
Until the Normans conquered the country in 1066, many Englishmen were sold abroad in the slavemarkets of Europe and the East. William the Conqueror permitted domestic slavery to continue, but he banned the sale of English slaves overseas.
The slaves who remained at home often saw their children and grandchildren melt into the condition of serfdom. The serfs worked the lord’s lands, but were left time enough to cultivate their own plots, out of which they paid dues and taxes, in money or in goods. They were obliged to be on call with their labor to build castles, bridges and roads. And in some times and places, they were liable for arbitrary taxes, imposed by the lord whenever “necessary.” Unfree to one degree or another, such a peasant was called “serf,” a name taken from the old Roman word for slave – servus.
For many centuries, popes and bishops, churches and monasteries owned slaves. Pope Gregory I (590-814) used hundreds of slaves on the papal estates. Early in the eighth century, the Abbey of St. Germain des Pres near Paris had 8,000 slaves and St. Martin of Tours had 20,000.
It was just before 800 [A.D.] that the Vikings began to raid the coasts of the British Isles. The natives they captured were of little use in their own service, so they traded most of them to Constantinople (the Byzantium of earlier days and now Istanbul) or Islamic Spain. In those markets the human loot was converted into gold, silks, wine and weapons.
A glimpse into an English slave’s life is given in the writings of Bishop Aelfric of the late tenth century. A plowman in one of his works says:
“I go out at dawn driving the oxen to the field and yoke them to the plough. It is never so harsh a winter that I dare lurk at home for fear of my master, but when the oxen have been yoked and the ploughshare and coulter fastened to the plough, I must plough each day a full acre or more . . . I must fill the oxen’s manger with hay, and water them, and clear out the dung . . . It is heavy work, because I am not free.”
(The Medieval Slave; Slavery: A World History, Milton Meltzer, Da Capo Press, 1993, excerpts pp. 209-211; 213)