Dr Judith Spicksley
Lecturer in Economic History
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
Historians of slavery are very aware that enslavement in the past took a number of forms. One of the more unexpected of these for us today is voluntary enslavement, which presents us with something of a conundrum. We imagine slavery as the most extreme form of legal coercion, and so find it difficult to imagine anyone would enter of their own choice. Yet agreeing to enslavement in return for the means to survive was a well-known practice across many societies in which slavery was accepted in law. Where agreements survive, we can see that there were some differences between voluntary enslavement and its more coercive chattel form, and the idea of contract itself is often cited as a way to distinguish between the two types. Choosing to enter slavery voluntarily might mean that the conditions in which you served were more favourable, and your treatment was better. You may also have signed up for the option to exit unilaterally, that is, without the need for permission from your master. This was often the case with defaulting debtors and usually required payment of the appropriate redemption cost: your outstanding debt; or the provision of a substitute slave. But there was no guarantee of freedom, and during the period of your slavery, however long that might be, you were a chattel slave, and so were any children born to you during your enslavement.
There are examples in which people appear to have used voluntary enslavement strategically (when survival was not directly threatened), while at some periods and in some places such enslavement was illegal. What is clear is that societies recognised from an early point in time that voluntary slavery presented opportunities for exploitation, and tried to limit them: the decision of a Hebrew slave to remain in slavery in perpetuity in Exodus 21: 6 required him to make a declaration of love for his master before a judge and have his ear pierced as a sign of his condition. It was important to demonstrate as far as possible that those who chose to enter slavery voluntarily were doing so willingly and provide a means whereby the community and the enslaved had evidence of this change in status. As a result, voluntary enslavement had to be a public event, and could sometimes involve a symbolic act, undertaken to signal the changed status of the participant.
In this blog I introduce two medieval ceremonies of enslavement, one in England and the other in Scotland, that mirror the elements in this biblical example. As in biblical law, such events are described through a masculine lens, because women were rarely free to act independently. The process in England is relatively well-known. In the legal code known as the Leges Henrici Primi – the Laws of Henry I – the process of becoming enslaved by choice is clearly laid out. The Leges insisted that any voluntary enslavement had to be undertaken in a court, which in medieval England meant either the hallmoot, hundred or village court, depending on the ‘jurisdictional competence’ of the would-be master in relation to that court. Equally important was the public nature of the act: the declaration had to be made before witnesses. In addition, a toll was to be paid as physical evidence of the event, to ensure that the subject did not attempt to deny the enslavement later. Finally, the change in status required a symbolic ceremony in which the individual concerned was to ‘take up a sickle or a goad or the arms of slavery of this kind, and shall place his hands and head in the hands of his lord’. (See L.J. Downer, ed., Leges Henrici Primi (Oxford, 1972), 78: 2 and 78: 2c.) In giving his head to his lord, historians believe the enslaved symbolised handing over his mind and his will to the control of his master. But that was not all. Those men who entered slavery voluntarily committed all children born to their wives after their declaration to a life of perpetual enslavement too.
In medieval Scotland, as in England, the decision to enter enslavement voluntarily was inscribed in law, and in Scotland this action also had to be done in a public court. But the early fourteenth century Scottish law code known as the Quoniam Attachiamenta prescribed a slightly different ceremony: the symbolic tugging of the subject’s forelock as evidence of voluntary subjection. The Latin phrase in question – ‘per crines anterioires capitis sui’- literally translates as ‘through the hair at the front of his head’, but this is usually thought to have referred to a tugging of the forelock. The law also allowed for the master to recover anyone who had enslaved themselves voluntarily ‘per nasum suum’, meaning ‘through his nose’; this presumably referred to the use of a nose ring. The law was clear about the reason for this. ‘A free man is able to relinquish his liberty, if he chooses, in the king’s court and in some other courts. But once thus relinquished, it cannot be recovered in his lifetime’.
Unlike the English ceremony, this action of symbolic tugging has gained wider international currency, although current definitions of ‘tugging the forelock’ give no hint of its previous connection with enslavement. Described as ‘a traditional gesture of respect to the higher classes’, it is nevertheless associated with ‘obsequious or overly deferential behaviour’. This appears to have been the intention of the mid-nineteenth century American political caricaturist Henry R. Robinson, whose image of forelock tugging, still valuable as a measure of sycophancy today, satirised the ambitions of Major General Zachary Taylor as he sought election to the American Presidency in 1848. Taylor stood for the Whig Party, and though Robinson was a Whig supporter, he was clearly sceptical about Taylor’s Whig credentials. But what is perhaps more interesting in this context, is that Taylor was a slaveholder and plantation owner himself. As an echo of voluntary enslavement, the continuing relevance of forelock tugging today reveals surprising links between subordinating social practices in our present society and ancient forms of slavery.