Friday, 18 February 2022

A Brief History of Servitude in the West

Castle of the Duc de Berry by the Limbourg Bros (15th c.)
There is an idea that has emerged in recent years which holds that Western nations are increasingly dominated by billionaire elites and multinational corporations who seek to transform our nations into authoritarian, surveillance states, wherein censorship is widespread and widely tolerated, real property is so hideously expensive that large portions of the population never even try to acquire it, and so many people live in what feels like a profaned world devoid of spiritual aspiration that mental illness is commonplace. On the other hand, a smorgasbord of transitory pleasures (junk food, video games, television, porn, sex toys, prescription medication, etc) is perpetually within reach. Perhaps Tacitus’ observations about the actions of the Governor of Roman Britain in the 1st century CE are germaine:
“Agricola … described his campaign … as ‘keeping a conquered people under control’ … His intention was … [that the native Britons] become accustomed to peace and quiet by the provisions of amenities. Hence he gave … assistance to communities to build temples, market-places, and town houses. He praised those that responded promptly [to Romanisation] and censured the dilatory. As a result they began to compete with one another for his approval, instead of having to be compelled … even our style of dress came into favour and the toga was everywhere to be seen. Gradually, too, they went astray into the allurements of evil ways, colonnades and warm baths and elegant banquets. The Britons … called it ‘civilisation’, although it was a part of their enslavement [Tacitus, Agricola and Germany, Oxford World’s Classics, Ch 18-21].”
Could it be that we are at risk of succumbing to the illusion of good living while in fact being profoundly unfree? In order to explore the possible answer to this question one first needs to understand what slavery actually is, as well as some of the other forms of bondage that have evolved in the West over time.

"Roman Slave" by da Silva (1894)
A portrait of slavery (in ancient Rome)
Scholars estimate that between 10-20% of the population during the height of the Roman empire were slaves:
“In using slave labour, the Romans were perpetuating an institution which had existed in Egypt since at least 2600 BC, and had been carried on under the empires of China, India, and Babylon, and by the Greeks … Slaves worked in the mines, and also in the potteries. They constituted the state’s labour force for building and maintaining public works, and in other government services such as the mint and the grain supply; they were also its ‘white-collar’ workers, who kept the machinery of bureaucracy and administration working. They served as clerks and accountants in private businesses, and as secretaries, teachers, librarians, doctors, scribes, artists and entertainers. And they were the private staff of villas, town houses, and palaces … A slave could purchase his freedom or achieve it by a process of manumission which was at the discretion of the owner, but which became such a popular practice at the beginning of the empire that Augustus introduced laws restricting it. A freedman had full rights of citizenship except that of holding public office. Some freedmen became even richer than the masters they had once served. Others … influenced affairs of state … [Kamm, The Romans: An Introduction, Routledge at 121-123]”
However, at a very fundamental level Roman slaves were at the mercy of their masters:
“In the face of even the most violent physical abuse, slaves had little recourse … In theory a slave could take refuge in a temple or at a divine statue, using the ancient right of asylum as a protection against an abusive master. And they did, as a number of anecdotes mention. One must wonder, however, how often this desperate recourse met with long-term success. True, slaves had various legal rulings in theory limiting the … arbitrary action of masters … laws and decrees were issued to prevent owners from … retrieving abandoned sick slaves who recovered, from killing a slave with impunity, and against the castration of slaves. There is legal evidence of slaves pursuing justice with regard to such things, but surely it was the rare slave who would find success in a complaint against his master – through a representative, of course, because the slave was not a person at law [Knapp, Invisible Romans, Profile Books at 138].” 
Many ordinary Romans were sympathetic to the plight of slaves, but that did not necessarily ameliorate its worst excesses:
“… [in AD 61] the city prefect, Pedanius Secundus, was killed by one of his own slaves … when the time came to take out to execution all of the slaves of the household [numbering around 400], as was the time-honoured tradition [when one slave killed their master all the slaves in the household were consequently executed alongside the murderer], there was almost a revolution of people, bent on sparing innocent lives, [who] got together and besieged the senate. In the senate-house itself there were those who protested that the punishment was unfair, though the majority saw no reason why the law should not be observed … The decision could not be put into effect as an enormous crowd gathered, armed with stones and flaming missiles. Nero issued an edict reprimanding the public, and gave orders that the entire route along which the condemned slaves were being led to execution should be lined with soldiers [Tacitus, cited in Kamm, The Romans: An Introduction, Routledge at 122-123].”
The truth is that the Roman economy was fundamentally reliant upon slavery for its prosperity – or, better put, the prosperity of land-owning Roman elites was greatly enhanced by the institution of slavery. Cunliffe describes how this came about: 
“During the second century BC the Roman economy was undergoing major transformations … [there was] a gradual shift [of former citizen soldiers who had owned small farms] to the cities and in particular Rome [after having spent years away from their land fighting Roman wars] … As the urban proletariat grew, so the smallholdings were bought up and gradually amalgamated into estates of increasing size. By the end of the second century large tracts of land were held by comparatively few owners … The estates required large bodies of agricultural workers. With extensive rural depopulation … [a] way to fuel productivity was with slave labour. Slaves were cost effective, not least because they could breed in captivity and slaves could be sold. By the beginning of the first century BC the reliance of the Roman economy on slave labour was considerable. One estimate is that in the early first century BC there were 300,000 Gaulish slaves in Italy alone, a total which required to be topped up at the rate of 15,000 a year [Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts, Penguin at 215 – see also a similar assessment by Goldsworthy, Roman Warfare, Hachette at 105-106].” 
It can even be said that:
“Roman expansion was the result of a never-ending search for fresh peoples to defeat and loot in order to supply the aristocracy’s demand for wealth and glory, and maintain a constant supply of the slaves on which the economy of Italy had become based [Goldsworthy, Roman Warfare, Hachette at 92].”
To compare conditions amongst ordinary people in Western nations today to that of ancient Roman slaves would be absurdly hyperbolic. This kind of institution simply does not exist, other than in very small, aberrant and clandestine numbers, in the West – though theoretically a comparison could be made between Roman elites having a penchant for cost-effective imported labour and the contemporary penchant amongst business leaders for cheap and plentiful migrant labour (or in a globalised world we could even extend that to cheap labour within developing countries).

"Peasant Woman Digging" by Van Gogh (1885)
A portrait of serfdom (in medieval England)
A detailed survey of landholding in late 11th century England, the Domesday Book, revealed that over 70% of the English population were serfs. Serfs owned no land, but they could rent it, and were not permitted to leave the land upon which they worked in service to the local lord, nor were they allowed to marry or change their occupation without their lord’s permission (thus their fertility was subject to the control of the lord). However, they could not be sold in the manner of slaves, for they were tied to the estates upon which they worked. They occupied a wide variety of roles – not only as farmworkers but also as blacksmiths, millers, shoemakers, thatchers and other trades.

English feudalism equated to a relatively small group of elites (which according to the Domesday Book was about 6% of the population, so around 90,000 people) dominating positions of power, especially military and economic power. Extreme differences in wealth, particularly land ownership, underpinned the structure, which consisted of:
  • The king at the top, who theoretically owned all the land in the realm. The king distributed large parcels of land to –>
  • Nobles (tenants-in-chief) who in turn provided knights and tax revenue to the king. At the time of the Domesday Book their number was around 1400, equating to 0.093% of the population, and they were mostly Norman in origin. Their lands were in turn largely distributed amongst –>
  • Knights and lords of the manor, comprising around 5% of the total population. They fought for the nobles when asked and paid taxes to them. Beneath this lesser nobility there were the great masses –>
  • Peasants, who in total made up around 84% of the total population, which was over 1.2 million people. Within this group there were:
    1. Freemen and sokemen, who were around 12% of the total population. They were mostly found in the north-east, where the Danelaw had once been, ie, where Vikings invaders had settled in the preceding 9th and 10th centuries. Though they were bound by some level of service to local lords (eg, attending court and paying tax) they held land in their own right and, unlike serfs, had freedom of movement. 
    2. Villans (villeins), were unfree serfs who constituted around 40% of the English population. They were able to use up to 40 acres of farmland for themselves but were required to work for the local lord 2-3 days a week, as well as pay taxes and provide military service if called upon.
    3. Bordars and cottars (cottagers) were also unfree serfs (constituting around 32% of the total population) who were able to use smallholdings of just a few acres of land and were required to spend most of their working week in service to the lord. They were also required to pay taxes and provide military service.
  • Slaves were around 10% of the population in 11th century England; they were mostly found in the west and south-west, where the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex had been. Slaves had no property rights at all and could be bought and sold.
Underpinning the feudal structure was the notion of protection, responsibility and obligation to those both above and below other groups in the hierarchy. At a really macro level, the peasants, knights and nobles fought for the king when called upon and in turn they lived under the king’s peace – a precursor to the rule of law – in which social order prevailed (most of the time) so that prosperity could flourish. It is crucial to keep in mind that feudalism was a remediating response to the anarchy and violence that gripped the former Roman empire for centuries, from the late 4th century onwards:
“Manorialism [the social system by which the peasants of medieval Europe were rendered dependent on their land and on their lord. Its basic unit was the manor, a self-sufficient landed estate … that was under the control of a lord who enjoyed a variety of rights over it and the peasants attached to it by means of serfdom] had its origins in the late Roman Empire, when large landowners had to consolidate their hold over both their lands and the labourers who worked them. This was a necessity in the midst of the civil disorders, enfeebled governments, and barbarian invasions that wracked Europe in the 5th and 6th centuries. In such conditions, small farmers and landless labourers exchanged their land or their freedom and pledged their services in return for the protection of powerful landowners who had the military strength to defend them. In this way, the poor, defenseless, and landless were ensured permanent access to plots of land which they could work in return for the rendering of economic services to the lord who held that land. This arrangement developed into the manorial system, which in turn supported the feudal aristocracy of kings, lords, and vassals [emphasis added,].”
Hence the elite within the feudalistic structure provided a crucial service to the peasants – safety. The lesson of history is perhaps that fearful people are willing to give up quite a lot, even their freedom, if only those with more power will promise to keep them safe.

By the end of the medieval period the kingdom of England was relatively stable, peaceful and lawful – ordinary people no longer feared the threat of foreign invasion or Viking raids, and an increasingly well-ordered legal and governmental system prevailed across the land (not least because of the consolidation of the common law system in 1154 and the innovations of Magna Carta in 1215). Population decline as a result of the Black Death, which first arrived in 1348, led to increased bargaining power for ordinary people (as well as the Peasant's Revolt of 1381). By the end of the 14th century feudalism had fallen into significant decline, though it lingered on in an increasingly weakened state until it was completely abolished in the mid 17th century. 

Painting of a housemaid by Hillestrom (18th c.)
A portrait of the servant class (in early modern Sweden)
Thr√§ldom (related to the English word thrall) was practiced in Sweden until the 14th century. It was ended by a number of kings’ decrees, such that it eventually became illegal for any Swede born to Christian parents to be in a condition of bondage. The reasons for the abolishment of thr√§ldom in Sweden were complex but one significant factor related to economics:
“It was quite simply no longer profitable for the wealthy and powerful to use unfree labour on their estates. Such labour was difficult to supervise, and even in the winter months, when there was no work for the bondsmen, they still had to be fed. On the great estates the most profitable sort of labour was that which could be employed during those times of year when it was most needed, and then laid off. Only on small farms, employing a couple of bondsmen at most, was the old system still profitable [Moberg, A History of the Swedish People: Volume I, Dorset Press at 22].”
Freeing the thralls also meant freeing their lords of the responsibility of caring for their well-being. There may be a lesson for us here – wealthy elites don’t necessarily want actual slaves, thralls or serfs. What they want is ready access to cheap and conveniently timed labour; they may also want to be free of the burden of being morally responsible for the overall welfare of their labourers.

In theory, freed thralls and their descendants became masters of themselves; they had choice over which employer they would be willing to work for; they drew a salary; they had the right to own property and were recognised as persons at law. But:
“… freedom of movement was sharply restricted even so. All unpropertied persons were obliged by law to work, and here the law drew a clear distinction between the land-owning [and thus tax-paying] peasants and the serving class; between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. As the law put it: ‘Let him be peasant that can pay tax; let him that cannot pay tax be servant’ … By an ‘unpropertied person’ the … laws meant anyone owning less than three marks. Property was calculated … in cattle or grain [which normally required consequent land ownership]. In the provincial laws three marks were regarded as equivalent in value to … a sum adequate to support one person for one year.
All who did not possess these three marks were obliged by law to take service for one year at a time … The legal obligation on certain citizens to take service persisted right up into the 20th century … As the centuries followed one another fresh statutes of the same sort were always being passed: in 1576, 1664, 1686, 1723, 1805 and 1858 … Not until the Statute of 1805 were free agreements permitted and servants at last allowed to have a say in fixing their own wages … By compelling the landless to work, the Statute of Servants subjected this class of the population to special legislation and regulated their lives for six hundred years … It was not until 1920 that this last relic of bondage was abolished … [Moberg, A History of the Swedish People: Volume I, Dorset Press at 24-28].”
Freedom as both a spiritual and a material condition 
So what is heir to these various forms of bondage in the West? That is open to speculation. It has seemed that Western people in well governed nations, where the rule of law and relative affluence prevail, have benefited from the conditions most conducive to widespread liberty. The problem is these conditions appear to be weakening. The middle class has been measurably shrinking in Western countries for decades, and a widening gap between socioeconomic elites and ordinary workers has emerged. There is disagreement between individuals as to why this is so but, arguably, globalisation and the increasing power and wealth of multinational corporations (who are fond of giving money to the politicians and technocratic “experts” who govern and persuade us) appear to be contributing factors. If we are already foot-deep in a less salubrious age that may be getting worse, how do we (and our descendants) avoid becoming de facto slaves, serfs, or members of an entrenched servant class? How do we stay free?

The undertaking to avoid human bondage in all its guises is surely both spiritual and material, and the material very often follows the mental – if we are spiritually courageous we are less likely to yield to assaults on our dignity, privacy, prosperity and freedom. Spirituality beckons us to recognise the world is not profane but soaked in divinity, to be confident in our own abilities to work for the happiness of ourselves and others (since we cannot be happy if we are surrounded by misery), to discard the allure of excessive luxury and hedonistic comfort, to not overeat, to restrict the sexual to the realm of love, and to cherish truth. If enough of us focused less on a material revolution and instead embraced a spiritual revolution the conditions in which narcissistic and hubristic elites thrive would be diminished and thus the breeding ground for exploitation and control would surely shrink.

That said, the crucial lesson from history is that property ownership matters, and it matters a lot. When I was younger there was an idea that a mortgage was some kind of shackle, but the truth is the reverse – real property (ie, land) is the source of freedom, and a mortgage is thus a ladder to freedom, so long as there is hope of paying it off. 

The material future is uncertain, but individuals may still be masters of their mind. Drug addiction and dependency on psychiatric medication can act like mental chains, but fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the origin-story which led to hundreds of thousands of medieval Europeans becoming literal villeins. If the worst predictions are true and we are witnessing the rise of neo-feudalism then refusing to succumb to fear, which means making peace with the inevitable reality of loss and death, may be a powerful antidote to the indignity of slipping into bondage. Only then will we have the courage to seize the best of what life has to offer and resist every seemingly benevolent manacle that promises safety and comfort. 

For a Greco-Roman antidote to fear see this post on Epicurean Polytheism.

For a Germanic antidote to fear see this post on Odin, God of the Fearless and Germanic Values, Advice From the Havamal.

How neo-feudalism might look (by Neo Polytheist)


Additional sources (not cited above):

Written by Figula (aka Freki), find me at neo polytheist and

No comments:

Post a Comment