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Medieval Sourcebook:

Slavery in Anglo-Saxon England: Various Texts


From the Domesday Book of 1087 it can be estimated that at least ten percent of the population of Anglo-Saxon England were slaves.

Laws of Ine, c. 694

24. If an Englishman [living] in penal slavery absconds, he shall be hanged, and nothing shall be paid to his lord.
§ 1. If he is slain, nothing shall be paid for him to his kinsmen if they have left him unransomed for twelve months.
§ 2. The wergeld of a Welshman who holds five hides of land shall be 600 shillings'.

53. If a stolen slave is attached [by the law] in the possession of another, and if the man is dead who has sold him to the man in whose possession he is attached, he shall vouch the dead man's grave to warranty' for the slave—just as for any other property, whatever it may be—and declare in his oath—[which shall be of the value] of sixty hides—that the dead man sold the slave to him; then he shall have
freed himself from the fine by the oath, and he shall give back the slave to [his] owner.
§ 1. If, however, he knows who has succeeded to the estate' of the dead man, he shall vouch the estate to warranty, and demand of the man who holds the estate that he shall make [his title to] the chattel" incontestable, or declare that the dead man never owned the property.

74. If a Welsh slave slays an Englishman, his owner shall hand him over to the dead man's lord and kinsmen, or purchase his life for 60 shillings.
§ 1. If, however, the lord will not pay this price for him, he must liberate him; afterwards his kinsmen must pay the wergeld, if he has a free kindred ; if he has not [a free kindred], then his enemies may deal with him.
§ 2. A freeman need not associate himself with a relative who is a slave, unless he wishes to ransom him from a vendetta ; nor need a slave associate himself with a relative who is a freeman.

Laws of King Ælfred of Wessex (ruled 871-899) 

Law 18: If anyone lustfully seizes a nun, either by her clothes or by her breast, without her permission, he shall pay as compensation twice the sum we have fixed in the case of a woman belonging to the laity.
§ 1. If a young woman who is betrothed commits fornication, she shall pay compensation to the amount of 60 shillings to the surety [of the marriage], if she is a commoner. This sum shall be [paid] in livestock, cattle being the property tendered, and no slave shall be given in such a payment.
§ 2. If her wergeld is 600 shillings, she shall pay 100 shillings to the surety [of the marriage].
§ 3. If her wergeld is 1200 shillings, she shall pay 120 shillings to the surety [of the marriage].

Law 25. If anyone rapes the slave of a commoner, he shall pay 5 shillings to the commoner, and a fine of 60 shillings'. § 1. If a slave rapes a slave, castration shall be required as compensation.

Law 43: The following days shall be granted [as holidays] to all free men,though not to slaves and hired labourers': twelve days at Christmas and the day on which Christ overcame the devil, the anniversary of St Gregory' ; seven days before Easter and seven days after; one day at the festival of St Peter and St Paul*; and in autumn, the full week before St Mary's mass'; and one day at the celebration of All Saints". The four Wednesdays in the four Ember weeks' shall be granted [as holidays] to all slaves whose chief desire is to seir anything which has been given to them' in God's name, or which they are able to acquire by their labour in any portions of time at their disposal".

Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 950–c. 1010): Colloquy, c 990, manuscript c. 1030

In a textbook written to teach Latin a slave (a thrall), described her as a "ploughboy", explains his day. It is a very rare effort by a member of the literate elite to imagine the thoughts of an enslaved perison.

Master. I ask you what you are to talk about? What work have you?

Scholar. I am preparing to be a monk, and every day I sing seven times with the brethren, and I am busy with reading and singing ; yet in the meantime I wish to learn to converse in the Latin language.I wish to learn to converse in the Latin language.

Master. What do these companions of yours know?

Scholar. Some are ploughboys, some shepherds, some oxherds, some also are huntsmen, some fishermen, some fowlers, some chapmen, some tailors, some salters, some bakers in the place.
Master. What do you say, Ploughboy, how do you carry on your work?

Ploughboy. Master, I have to work far too much; I go out at dawn, driving the oxen to the field, and I yoke them to the plough ; I dare not in the severest weather lie hid at home, for fear of my
lord ; and when I have yoked the oxen together, and fastened the ploughshare to the plough, I have to plough a whole acre every day, or more.

Master. Have you any companion?

Ploughboy. I have a boy who threatens the oxen with a goad, and he is also hoarse with the cold and his shouting.

Master. What more do you perform in the day?

Ploughboy. Certainly I do more besides that. I have to supply the mangers of the oxen with hay, and give them water, and carry their dung outside.

Master. indeed ! This is a great labour.

Ploughboy. Yes, it is a great labour that I have to fulfil, for I am not free.

William of Malmsbury: Life of Wulfstan, written c 1120

William describes the buying and selling of slaves from all over England and a slave market in Bristol which he recalls from before the Norman Conquest. The slave trade was banned by the Council of London held under Archbishop Anselm in 1102.

They would purchase people from all over England and sell them off to Ireland in the hope of profit; and put up for sale maidservants after toying with them in bed and making them pregnant. You would have groaned to see the files of the wretches of people roped together, young people of both sexes, whose youth and beauty would have aroused the pity of barbarians, being put up for sale every day.



Excerpts from Laws of Ine and Laws of Alfred. from THE LAWS OF THE EARLIEST ENGLISH KINGS edited and translated by F. L. Attenborough, (CAMBRIDGE: 1922).

Excerpts from Aelfric's Colloquy, from S. Harvey Gem, AN ANGLO-SAXON ABBOT AELFRIC OF EYNSHAM: A Study (Edinburgh T&T Clark, 1912)

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