Slavery and the Pursuit of Freedom in Later Medieval Mediterranean Europe – LECTURE

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Date / time: 11 October, 5:00 pm - 7:00 pm

University of Edinburgh

Slavery and the Pursuit of Freedom in Later Medieval Mediterranean Europe - LECTURE


The 2023/2024 Lecture in the History of Slavery considers the passage from slavery to freedom in Mediterranean Europe between 1280 and 1450, during the height of the Mediterranean slave system. One of the distinctive features of Mediterranean slavery is that a considerable proportion of enslaved people were manumitted after a decade or two of servitude. Scholarship, to date, has emphasized the formal legal mechanisms that enabled the passage from slavery to freedom, including acts of manumission and freedom lawsuits.

In this talk Professor Smail will argue that a successful passage, for those who sought it, also depended on informal processes that are much less visible in the record but no less important, notably acculturation and embodiment. The gradual acquisition of the traits of a free person allowed at least some formerly enslaved individuals to pass from a state of perceived unbelonging to one of belonging in the eyes of the community. The premise is that acculturation and embodiment preceded and therefore made thinkable the ensuing process of formal legal manumission.

The talk engages in close readings of two cases from the city of Marseille: an unusual contract of manumission from 1376 and a series of court cases from 1406–1408. Both cases feature formerly enslaved women who gained their freedom despite the active opposition of their former masters. The analysis allows us to piece together the suite of traits and resources each had acquired while in servitude.

Please register here:

The lecture is hosted by the Edinburgh Centre for Global History, with co-sponsorship from the Edinburgh Medieval History Seminar.

Daniel Lord Smail is Professor of History at Harvard University where he works on deep human history and the history and anthropology of Mediterranean societies between 1100 and 1600. His books include Legal Plunder: Households and Debt Collection in Late Medieval Europe (2016); On Deep History and the Brain (2008); and The Consumption of Justice: Emotions, Publicity, and Legal Culture in Marseille, 1264–1423 (2003), and he is also one of the principal investigators of the digital scholarship project, ‘The Documentary Archaeology of Late Medieval Europe’. He is currently writing a microhistory of a formerly enslaved North African woman in later medieval Provence.

Attendees are also welcome to a companion event to the lecture:

Date: Wednesday, 11 October 2022 | 3 pm
Venue: 40 George Square, Lower Ground Floor, Room 10
Roundtable: “Writing the History of Slavery from the Medieval Mediterranean to the Atlantic World”
Speakers: Dr Peggy Brunache (Glasgow), Dr Mike Carr (HCA), Dr John Latham-Sprinkle (Ghent), Professor Diana Paton (HCA), and Professor Daniel Smail (Harvard)
Chair: Dr Sonia Tycko (HCA)