Headshot of Alice Rio

Alice Rio

Rostovtzeff Lecture Series: As If: Fiction, Make-Believe, and the Legal World of Early Medieval Francia, 5th-9th Centuries AD

Lecture III: Slaves and Slavery

Alice Rio

King's College London

The Rostovtzeff Lectures are supported in part by a generous endowment fund given by Roger and Whitney Bagnall.

Alice Rio is Professor of Medieval History at King’s College London. She is the author of Legal Practice and the Written Word in the Early Middle Ages: Frankish Formulae, c. 500-1000 (Cambridge, 2009) and Slavery After Rome, 500-1100 (Oxford, 2017), and has published on various aspects of early medieval law and social life.

Early medieval Francia was a world filled with law; yet profound doubts as to the reach and relevance of law to social life have made this plentiful evidence tricky to assess. These lectures attempt to recast the problem by arguing that the reason these things don’t add up now is because they did not add up then. Legal activity was driven by the need to convert hard-to-solve real-life conflicts into legal problems. This process of translation allowed the deployment of often highly fictionalized representations both of legal processes themselves and of society more widely. While these representations needed to be basically plausible, the absence of any homogenizing forces encouraging consistency meant they could take quite different yet valid forms from one case to the next, which is why examples from either law or legal practice can paint such radically different pictures of both authority and society – and why these pictures in turn are so often contradicted by other evidence. Looking at things in this way can help to see the gap between law and practice no longer in terms of a barrier which law consistently failed to clear, but as a busy and fruitful zone, whose potential contemporaries exploited creatively.

The legal framework for slavery was long thought by historians to have been carried over from the ancient world long after it had ceased to hold any relevance to the ways early medieval power and dependence (in their own ways brutal, but different) were exercised or experienced. This is a key example of a field in which legal representations remained effective precisely because they allowed – indeed, demanded, in order to be discussed in legal terms at all – a radical reinterpretation of reality, in which lords of tenants might take on the roles of masters of slaves along Roman lines. There were, in fact, people who by any definition of the term were slaves in the early middle ages, but in their case extreme subjection in daily life mostly sufficed to establish status. Legal conflict, by contrast, involved essentially people who look very unlike slaves (that is, unsurprisingly, those with a relatively higher capacity for resistance), and this was sufficient to create a radical apparent disjunction between norm and practice. The two, however, could work together with chilling effectiveness not only in spite of, but partly because of the gap between them.

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