Early witness against slavery

Daily Reading for January 19 • Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester, 1095

The frequent enactment of legislation against the sale of Christians abroad supports the evidence that Englishmen regularly transported slaves across the sea to sell. . . . From the mid-tenth century on the slave trade was geared mainly to the export of persons abroad, although the internal trade did not cease. Until that time, inter-tribal fighting and the final subjugation of the South-west afforded the opportunity to increase the overall number of slaves within the country. Thereafter the unification of England meant that the main source of slaves lay on the periphery—in other words, Wales and the northern border. . . .

The trade continued under the Normans. Only the vigorous opposition of various churchmen was to bring about the termination of the trade. The Bristol slave market proved particularly hard to eradicate. The Vita Wulfstani, II.20, mentions that it had been a “very ancient custom” to buy persons from all over England and transport them to Bristol for eventual sale in Ireland. “You could see and sigh over rows of wretches bound together with ropes, young people of both sexes whose beautiful appearance and youthful innocence might move barbarians to pity, daily exposed to prostitution, daily offered for sale.” It took the strenuous opposition of Wulfstan of Worcester to bring this activity to a halt there. According to William of Malmesbury, Lanfranc also brought pressure to bear on the somewhat reluctant Conqueror to outlaw the Anglo-Irish slave trade. Presumably because of the tolls that it gave him, the trade was profitable to the king, and William of Malmesbury declares that he would have been unlikely to have prohibited it “had not Lanfranc commended it, and Wulfstan, powerful from his sanctity of character, commanded it by episcopal authority.” Finally, in 1102 the Council of Westminster completely outlawed the trade in England.

From Slavery in Early Mediaeval England by David A. E. Pleteret (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: The Boydell Press, 1995).

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