Dr James Palmer gives his insights into Monday’s Mediaeval Studies seminar by Dr Alice Rio of King’s College London on penal slavery in the Middle Ages.


What was penal slavery for in the Middle Ages?

Dr Alice Rio came u p from KCL yesterday, through the snow, to St Andrews to our rather bustly Monday research seminar to talk about precisely this. It is a ‘neglected topic’ so there is not a lot of historiography to fight against here, bar the odd reference in passing. The evidence is also rather problematic – while penal slavery is attested for 500 years or so, dotted around Western Europe, it is never documented in continuous, lovely detail. Still…

The main thrust of her argument was that penal slavery was more about ‘social control’ than the quest for cheap labour. If someone had committed a crime, they could enter a servile status to pay off their debt. The problem was that, often, the debt was expensive. For stealing bees (honestly), when it is proved against the accused, s/he must pay…

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About standrewshistory
With over forty full time members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from S cotland to Byzantium and the Americas to the Middle East and South Asia.Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching and tutorials allowing for in depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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