Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Not So Common People, in an Uncommon World: Slaves

Over the last several posts, we have visited a medieval Christmas, looked back over the past year, and even had a visit from the Krampus himself.  I thought it would be good to get back to my novels, and also back to our study of medieval history.

When we think of the dark and Medieval Ages, we imagine knights and noble men and woman living in their vast castles. These people would entertain themselves with jousting tournaments or hunts. We must not forget the majority of people who lived back then; the commoners.

Basically, we need to define what a commoner was. During these times in Europe, you had several classes in society; kings, noblemen, the clergy, everyone one else who did not fit into these classes were commoners.

We often look back at the dark and middle ages, and think of commoners as peasants. The word peasant was not used during this time. The concept of a peasant is usually referred to the pre-industrial society of Europe and part of the feudal system. The word peasant came from the French word paisant, and paesano in Italian, which basically means countryman.

The majority of people in Europe were peasants (commoners), but they also were divided into several groups; Slave, Serf and Free Tenant.  Today we will look at medieval slavery, and some of its forms.

 Early slavery in Europe was a remnant of the Roman Empire, where the Romans enslaved citizens of a conquered country. Even when slavery was on the decline in Europe (mostly for European Christians), there were still spots of where it prevailed where the old ways of the Roman Empire still persisted, such as Moldovia and Wallachia (Romania).

We often think of slavery as whites enslaving minority populations, this was not always the case, especially when you consider the Barbary Slave Trade. Raids were conducted into Europe by slave raiders into Europe. Here they would kidnap whites and send them back to countries such as Morocco, Algeria and even parts of Spain still controlled by the Moors. The Barbary Slave Trade continued until the Barbary Wars ended it in the 1830’s by victories of American and European forces. If you ever have heard the U.S. Marine Corp Hymn, you remember the verse, “…to the shores of Tripoli”, this is in reference to the Battle of Derne in the first Barbary War; where a Marine Corps unit conducted a 600-mile march through the Libyan desert and then defeated a much larger force. (In actuality, the group consisted of a majority of Greek and Arab mercenaries, who were led by an attachment of Marines).

There was another type of slavery, called Debt Bondage. This was where a person was indebted to another and without the means to pay that debt, ended up in servitude to pay this debt. For many, this meant a lifelong debt, and in some cases meant generational. Sometimes sons and daughters were still enslaved based on the debts of their fathers, or ancestors.

Debt could have been for a previous debt, but also could have been for a service which was provided. Many early colonists which came over from Europe became indentured servants. This was because their trip was paid by a benefactor, whom the person had to serve for a period of time until the expense of the trip was paid for.

If you were not capable of paying a bill, then there was always the Debtor’s Prison. In Medieval Europe, men and woman were locked up into one large cell. They stayed here until their families could pay off their debt.  The concept of Debtors Prison lasted, and in some sense, is still in practice today, even in the United States.

Many communities in the U.S. today have issues with finances. One of the ways to get income into the local government, without raising taxes, is through fines and traffic tickets. Local judges levy fines, which the person is then unable to pay.  There then is a warrant issued for this person, which has added fees to it. The person is then appears in court, with an additional public defender fee added. By the time the process researches conclusion, the person is still unable to pay the original fine, and all the additional fees, and so is then sent to jail.

In the middle of the 1900’s the Debtor's Prison was very common in England. We all remember the famous quote from Scrooge in A Christmas Carol when he was asked to give money for the poor; “Are there no prisons?”

Charles Dickens was very familiar with the debt prisons, for his father sent to one. The debtor’s prison is often depicted in Dickens’ novels.

Speaking of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge also asks about the Union Workhouses. Debtor’s prison had become so overpopulated, that the concept of a Union Workhouse was invented. The workhouses were to give the poor shelter and food in exchange for work. Although, initially their creation had good intentions but these workhouses ended up turning into slave labor camps; where not only the poor, but also the sick and elderly were sent.

This is where I will leave you until next week, when we resume our journey back to the Middle Ages.


W.A. is a part time professional wrestler, and martial artist. He is also the author of the medieval fantasy novel, “Legend of theMystic Knights”.

You can find more about him on his website, or on Facebook.


  1. I didn't realize that the term peasants weren't used in the medieval times. Interesting. Does peasants and commoners mean the same thing? Thanks for share these interesting facts.

    1. As I mentioned in the post, you were either kings, noblemen, clergy, and the rest. If you were the rest, you were a commoner. Today we use the word peasant, but it means the same as a commoner.

  2. Really makes you question that saying "Good old days" huh? A bit depressing, but I think it's important to understand where we've come from. I saw a news piece just the other day, can't remember which one, but one of the states has recently passed a law saying that they would no longer haul people off to jail just because they are unable to pay fines. Hopefully more will follow that example. Thanks for the enlightenment William!

  3. Great post. It brings back some of what I would introduce students to when gearing up for my Arthurian Lore unit. Though most of what I know of medieval times comes from those DK Eyewitness books.

  4. William, many years ago I wrote an essay to University about the History of Social Welfare dating back to Queen Elizabeth the first. So much of what you've written here is familiar although you did bring up some facts I didn't know - the origin of the word peasant and the Greek and Arab mercenaries. I so much enjoy your posts, they're always interesting and informative.

  5. The history of the common man is generally an overlooked topic, not just in Medieval history but in pretty much all history until about the late 18th century. It took the French Revolution and the labor movement to change that. And maybe also Charles Dickens.

  6. Thanks for the history lesson. I enjoy delving back into the past. History was one if my favourite subjects back at school (yonks ago!)

    I recall watching a few period dramas where the peasants had to work for the rich who they owed money to. I can imagine they were taken complete advantage of too, especially the women and young girls. It does not bear thinking about.

  7. Man, life must have been tough for a commoner: almost all work and little or no leisure, doing what you can to stay out of the crosshairs of the upper classes, who regularly think, "In what way can we prey on the masses next?" Hmmm, maybe things aren't so different today after all...

  8. Good post. Unfortunately we still have slavery in this world. Not as much as in the past but still. Because of robots and technology taking over an abundance of jobs it will become necessary to have much more social welfare. If not, how will people with a low IQ support themselves? What's most likely going to happen is that basic income will become the norm. It's just a question of how long it will take.

  9. I like getting a glimpse into the history of the life of commoners. Often what we hear about or see when we travel is that of royals and aristocracy. Life was not easy for so many. I'm looking forward to the rest of your posts.

  10. What a grand history lesson, William. You keep educating me about times I know so little about...outside of "A Knight's Tale." :-)

  11. This makes having to declare bankruptcy and just getting a ding on your credit not seem so bad. I remember hearing the terms slave, serf and free tenant in history class. This was totally a blast from the past as I forgot all about that. It is interesting to understand how people lived years ago, and to acknowledge that there are remnants from their society that still exist in our own modern world.

  12. This is interesting William, as always. I caught the beginning of A Christmas Carol the other day and was wondering what those terms meant. I feel like I learned some of this in school, but that was a LONG time ago!