Beyond Slavery pp 179-189 | Cite as

“As If She Were His Wife”: Slavery and Sexual Ethics in Late Medieval Spain

  • Debra Blumenthal
Part of the Black Religion/Womanist Thought/Social Justice book series


In 1476, a Russian slave woman named Rosa appeared before a royal court in the city of Valencia and demanded her freedom. Describing how she and her late master had slept together in the same bed and “ate together at one table,” Rosa’s legal representative contended that her master had treated her more “like his concubine” (com si fos una concubina sua) than his slave. Indeed, he emphasized, she had given birth to two of his children: a daughter named Lucrecia and a son named Julia. For these reasons, he insisted, she was legally entitled to be awarded “freed” status. Rosa claimed her freedom under the kingdom of Valencia’s legal code, the Furs de València, which said: “Any Christian man who lies with his female slave and has a son or daughter by her, that son or daughter should immediately be baptized and both the mother and the son (or daughter) shall be free.”1 Countering contemporary prejudices that slave women were sexually promiscuous, Rosa appeared before royal officials and publicly declared herself to be her master’s faithful companion and the mother of his children. In the process, she exposed the underlying tensions between slavery’s practical reality, namely the absolute authority masters had over their slave women, and the demands of Christian ethics, that is, how a “good Christian” ought to treat the mother of his children.


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  1. 1.
    “Tot chrestià qui jaurà ab cativa sua e n’haurà fill o filla, que aquell fill o filla sia tantost batejat e que sien franchs la mare e-l fill o la filla.” Germà Colon and Arcadi Garcia, eds., Furs de València, vol. 5 (Barcelona: Editorial Barcino, 1990) 110 (Llibre VI. Rúbrica I, XXI).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Medieval historians have long debated how the spread of Christianity affected the institution of slavery in Western Europe. Although some scholars, such as Marc Bloch, argue that the spread of Christianity contributed to the decline of slavery, more recent work finds the opposite. As George Duby writes, “Christianity did not condemn slavery; it dealt it barely a glancing blow.” Scholars still, however, often tend to portray the predominantly urban and domestic slavery that persisted in the late medieval Mediterranean world as “a rather benign institution” that promoted the assimilation and integration of ethnically distinct peoples. It has been argued that with cheap domestic labor in high demand after the Black Death wiped out as much as half the population of Europe, enslavement was only temporary. Enslaved women traditionally would convert to the religion of their owners, eventually earn their freedom, and ultimately intermarry with members of the local free population. Moreover, some scholars have argued that Christianity and Islam both helped soften the treatment of enslaved men and women because masters began to see the slaves worshipping next to them as human rather than cattle, and the slaves themselves found in their faith a justification of their desire for freedom. See Marc Bloch, “How and Why Ancient Slavery Came to an End,” in Slavery and Serfdom in the Middle Ages, trans. William R. Beer (Berkeley-Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1975) 1–31, especially;Google Scholar
  3. Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy, Warriors and Peasants from the Seventh to the Twelfth Centuries (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974) 32;Google Scholar
  4. Stephen Bensch, “From Prizes of War to Domestic Merchandise: The Changing Face of Slavery in Catalonia and Aragon, 1000–1300,” Viator 25 (1994) 85;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Jacques Heers, Esclaves et domestiques au Moyen Age dans le monde méditerranéen (Paris: Arthème Fayard, 1981);Google Scholar
  6. Pierre Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in Southwestern Europe, trans. Jean Birrell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 31f.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    See, most recently, Robert C. Davis, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500–1800 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).Google Scholar
  8. 19.
    Julio Caro Baroja, “Honor and Shame: A Historical Account of Several Conflicts,” in Honour and Shame, ed. J. G. Peristany (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1965) 118.Google Scholar
  9. 26.
    For English translations of Pope Alexander VI’s papal bulls, “Inter Caetera (1493)” and “Dudum Siquidem (1493),” see the documentary appendix to Junius P. Rodriguez, The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1997). It bears noting that Pope Alexander VI (born Roderic Llançol, a.k.a. de Borja) was originally from Xàtiva, a city located about sixty kilometers south of Valencia.Google Scholar
  10. See also Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800 (New York: Verso, 1997) 102–125;Google Scholar
  11. James Muldoon, “Spiritual Freedom—Physical Slavery: The Medieval Church and Slavery,” Ave Maria Law Review 3 (2005) 65–93.Google Scholar

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© Bernadette J. Brooten 2010

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  • Debra Blumenthal

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