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  • Phillips, Jr., William D. Slavery in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia (Snow).

Phillips, Jr., William D. Slavery in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia (Snow).

  • 21 Feb 2015 7:04 PM
    Message # 3231683
    Simon Doubleday (Administrator)

    Phillips, Jr., William D. Slavery in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. 257 pp.    ISBN 978-0-8122-4491-5

    Reviewed by Joseph T. Snow, Michigan State University (Emeritus)

    William D. Phillips, Jr. is no newcomer to the topic of slavery in Iberia. Multiple articles since the 1980s, and his 1985 volume, Slavery from Roman Times to the Early Transatlantic Trade, have established his sterling credentials for the volume under review [This work was translated into Spanish in 1989, published in Madrid by Siglo XXI de España. Its availability and success in both English and Spanish did much to advance study of slavery in Iberia as well as foment further study by many other scholars]. The synthesis offered by the author in the very first sentence of his Introduction tells us exactly what to expect in our reading:  it “surveys the history of slavery in Iberia from ancient times to the modern period.” The Introduction, six chapters and Epilogue (pp. 1-161) are a genuine masterpiece of scholarly concision and clarity.

    The content, focus and structure of this study are largely the product of extensive reading of works published since 1985. The well-crafted scholarly apparatus of almost one hundred additional pages allows Phillips to concentrate on the topic without discursive digressions or distracting detours to flesh out the main points of his thesis and which are wisely delegated to footnotes. Indeed one of the strengths of this new work is the full use of its nineteen primary sources and an astounding five hundred secondary sources (pp. 217-245). The text reads as fluid commentary but is undergirded by 631 notes (pp. 163-216), and is easily accessed through a praiseworthy and highly detailed Index (pp. 247-257).

    Usefully, his review of relevant recent studies on slavery in Iberia in the Introduction helps us anticipate the themes to be developed in the volume’s five main chapters. These chapters focus (thematically, not chronologically) on aspects of the trajectory of men and women who became, lived and worked as slaves in Iberia and, in time, often became freemen. His thesis, followed assiduously, is that “the story of slavery is the story of the slaves” (p. 9).  The five chapter titles illustrate what is meant by the ‘story’ of slavery: The History of Slavery in Iberia,” “To Become a Slave,” “The Traffic in Slaves,” “To Live as a Slave,” “To Work as a Slave,” and “To Become Free.”  In an Epilogue, “The Wider Extensions of Iberian Slavery” Phillips shares his insights into the transformation of the characteristically individual nature of the slave trade in Iberia to the newer ‘gang slavery’ that develops in the Americas.


    Admirable in this thematic history is that each of its chapter recounts the nature of slavery in Roman times, in Visigothic times, in Muslim Spain (Al-Andalus)—both before and after the fall of Granada in 1492—and in the main political units of Christian Spain: Aragon, Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, the Levant, Córdoba, Seville, Cadiz, the Canary Islands and, finally, Portugal and its transatlantic slave trading. There are references also to the earlier practices of slavery in the Roman Republic and in other areas of the Muslim world, principally Northern Africa and, occasionally, to other European countries. Since in each area slavery has distinctive features, Phillips’ comparative approach allows the reader to attain a global overview. Each chapter, then, is a stand-alone full history of its title theme. Occasional references to following and preceding chapters knit the parts into a fulfilling whole. We get full coverage of Iberian slavery even into its declining days in the eighteenth century when it is becoming more prevalent in the Americas.

    The Introduction does not only provide the names of major scholars who have provided solid information for Phillips, but also alerts us to the complex nature of slavery in two fundamental sentences: “The study of slavery is complicated [a motif repeated often in the following chapters] and involves much more than a simple dichotomy between slave and free or slavery and freedom. Individuals could find themselves at any number of points between full slavery and full freedom, as we will see in the chapters to come” (p. 5).  One of the many accomplishments of this volume is the highlighting of the “number of points” with individual anecdotes recounted and, as often as possible, in the voices of the slaves themselves as preserved in extant documentation.  There existed legal norms governing slavery in every period in Iberia; however, the deviations from these norms were frequent and form important parts of this history, even though full documentation is of course incomplete for many areas.

    Chapter 1 offers the reader a short course—tantamount to an outline—of the topics that Phillips will be developing in subsequent chapters. the beginnings of slavery, who owned slaves, where slaves came from, the dominant areas for slaves in the peninsula, events that brought about change (the Black Death, the growth of the sub-Saharan African slave trade by both Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth century) and the decline and death knell of slavery in the peninsula.

    Chapter 2 recounts the many paths to slavery (debt-fulfillment, penal sentencing, men and women made captives in wars and raid who were then sold at auctions, etc.) and also relates some of the ways of escaping enslavement (ransom, manumission, testamentary bequests, active pressure from religious orders, a son or daughter substituting for a parent, and many more). The locations of the leading slave markets (Valencia, Alicante) and the accounts of several raids (especially by Muslims along the Mediterranean coastal waters) with the purpose of creating new groups of captives (for profit) are recounted with detail and anecdotes that bring these incursion to vivid life.

    Chapter 3, on the trafficking of slaves, negotiates slave trading under the Romans, Visigoths, Muslims, and Christians (Spain and Portugal). Prices varied according to factors such as age, skin color, good features, talents and professional background, and gender.  Females were preferred almost everywhere for household labor but also for outside employments as well, and many were entertainers. Slaves were also culled from Slavic areas via raids. Many slaves originated from northern Africa early on but from further south with the passage of time. Slaves could be white, black, Muslim, Jew, pagan, Christian, eunuchs, but the most saleable on the market were—generally—those from eleven to forty years old.

    Chapter 4 depicts the complex realities of what slave’s lives were like in various areas and periods of Iberian history and narrates anecdotally the many variations—positive and negative—of the living conditions slaves experienced. Though most slaves had no legal rights, in reality slave owners were often generous in their treatment of them. Slave owners who married slave women and had children, slaves who learned the master’s language, slaves who converted to the master’s religion, and other slave types thus bent prevailing legal norms and thus took initials steps to manumission, even though required often to continue to serve the family and respect and honor it long after freedom was achieved. By contrast, many unhappy slaves resorted to antisocial behaviors, and we them committing crimes and being punished, even assigned curfews at night in some areas. Cases of intermarriage among slaves and other incidents that shaped the life of slaves fill this chapter and show how varied life and complex life was. Treatment often depended on the kind of masters the slaves ended up serving, on a spectrum that ranged from the kind and understanding to the harsh and imperious.

    Chapter 5 deals with the trades and tasks that salves were involved in, the variable conditions imposed, areas where slaves were treated differently, the length of the workday, and more. Owners of slaves were individuals, in all areas of Iberia, but also the State and the Church, in the Christian areas, owned or controlled  umbers of slaves. Interesting, too, are the kinds of crops—seasonal and otherwise—the kinds of artisan work (jewelry, weaving, pottery, stonework, etc.), the severe restrictions imposed on slaves as sailors or oarsmen (fear of possible attempts at escape), the use of slaves as soldiers (Visigoths and Muslims especially), as harem guards and as road and aqueduct builders. Many slaves were rented out to other masters for a fee. Quality females often became favored concubines, though most were limited to domestic chores: cleaning, weaving and cooking. However, diverse as were the trades in which slaves were involved, and varied as were the conditions under which they lived, the common thread that groups them together was the dream of freedom.

    Chapter 6 addresses freedom (mostly via manumission) and the several ways it might be earned, even paid for.  Flights to freedom were infrequently successful, since the punishments administered and harsh laws (though not uniformly enforced) acted as strong deterrents. False documents of manumissions were available on the black market but cases of usage are few.  Manumissions under the Romans, the Visigoths, Islamic law, and Spanish and Portuguese Christian laws are described, profiled and compared.  Most slaves were freed by owners who became fond of them, most often by testamentary declarations. Slaves who served thirty years could be freed. Others could pay, outright (with savings) or by installments, or even have others pay for their freedom Still, many who were freed were held to longer terms of service, a few were freed with no conditions and even given a small inheritance. Some women were provided for so they could marry and live honestly.

    Slaves who achieved freedom could often make do with a trade already learned, but others needed charity and turned to begging for alms, while others turned to criminal activity, theft and prostitution the most common. A very few acquired wealth and held positions in the governmental structures where they resided.  Again, the complexity of the theme of freedom is such that we are left with the knowledge that slavery, in all its aspects, requires a broad approach and deep respect for the many variables in its practices.  Phillips makes clear the final step for slaves that over time could be foreseen: “individual slaves of all races gained their freedom through flight and even more through manumission, and their descendants gradually assimilated into the general population “(p. 145).

    The Epilogue carefully shows how the general style of slavery in Iberia (and Europe), based on individual slaves (many masters could only afford a few) was transformed by its usage in the landscape of the Americas, where the need for gang slavery in huge agriculture projects (plantations), and the widespread mining of gold, silver, copper and other minerals, was a sine qua non. It took, literally, regiments or gangs of slaves to get these jobs done. The Epilogue also reviews the growing desire for better treatment of slaves, leading to an expanding Abolitionist movement that takes root in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and finally wins its case in the later nineteenth century. Thus, as slavery was declining in Iberia, it was in a growth pattern in the different atmosphere, climate and geographical reality of the Americas until almost the end of the nineteenth century.

    That the importance and continued relevance of the study of slavery has not dissipated is suggested in the final sentence of Phillips’s fascinating study: “Even in the early twenty-first [century], legacies of slavery’s long history are still apparent throughout the Americas” (p. 161).  This could substitute for a call for a complementary history of modern styles of slavery on this side of the Atlantic.  Phillips methodology of work and his careful and perspicacious scrutiny of existing documents, on splendid display here, could serve as a model for such a history.

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