14.09.36, Phillips, Jr., Slavery in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia

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Thomas Barton

The Medieval Review 14.09.36

Phillips, Jr., William D.. Slavery in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Pp. 257. ISBN: 9780812244915 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Thomas Barton
University of San Diego

The past few decades have witnessed a proliferation of scholarship on slavery in the medieval and early modern Mediterranean. Even though most of these studies have been obliged by the limitations of archival research to narrow their geographical and temporal focuses, they have nevertheless collectively made great strides in questioning, complicating, or overturning persistent assumptions about the economic orientation and ethno-religious dimensions of slavery established by traditional but still widely read surveys, such as those by Charles Verlinden and Jacques Heers. At the same time, driven largely by evolving scholarly proclivities, the influence of socio-scientific theory, and archival elbow grease, this new research has delved into aspects of slavery that either did not interest these earlier survey writers or eluded them due to deficiencies in the source materials at that time. In place of excessively generalized and inaccurate overviews of faceless masses of the unfree, these sophisticated new contributions have furnished much more vivid, diverse, and historically conditioned snapshots of the enslavement, trafficking, and servitude of slaves in different environments throughout the medieval and early modern periods.

Such an efflorescence of inventive, localized archival research has made the need for an equally fresh and up-to-date new synthesis on Iberian slavery especially acute. As a longtime student of slavery since his initial foray into the subject with the synthesis Slavery from Roman Times to the Early Transatlantic Trade (University of Minnesota Press, 1985) and an award-winning author of several research-intensive books, Phillips is more than up to the task. His experience shows in the way that he has organized and executed the book. He set aside any ambition to add to our extensive evidence of enslavement through further archival research and instead devoted his full attention to weaving this vast new body of scholarship into a coherent overview. His introduction notes that the recent proliferation of scholarship has prolonged the project, and a glance through his notes and bibliography immediately shows why. Even though he wisely limited his survey to medieval and early modern Iberia and avoided all but fleeting discussions of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, thus vastly cutting down the size of his subject, Phillips has nevertheless undertaken a formidable project. His ability to sift through, digest, and synthesize such a huge body of secondary and primary literature in numerous languages (including numerous esoteric and hard-to-find works in Catalan) addressing over one thousand years of history in such a clear, concise, readable, and convincing manner constitutes an impressive achievement. As a synthesis of primary research, the book does not adopt a strong central argument. Rather, Phillips pursues a multitude of smaller arguments that are derived from carefully selected sources to paint a convincing and authentic picture of medieval and early modern Iberian slavery. Throughout the book, he eschews simple over-generalizations and finds clever ways to invoke historiographical insights without sacrificing the readability of the prose.

Although it would have been considerably easier to organize the book chronologically, Phillips chose to construct the narrative topically. It follows the rough progression of a prototypical slave's existence, from enslavement to liberation. This framework enabled the author to break free from a rigid, chronological, event-based narrative and conduct in his analysis much more freely and creatively, resulting in a much more lively, engaging, and ultimately satisfying book. Phillips does often follow a chronological organization within the subsections of each chapter--usually running sequentially through the Roman, Visigothic, Arab, Christian medieval and early modern periods--but this approach does not bar him from identifying continuities and disjunctions among the different periods or pursuing illuminating digressions and case studies. The relative paucity of evidence for Roman, Visigothic, and Andalusi slavery led the author to spend substantially more time on the Christian medieval and early modern periods. This lopsidedness, which was likely augmented by Phillips' own expertise in these latter periods, is noticeable but does not prevent the book from achieving its primary objectives. That said, readers specifically interested in these earlier situations may want to rely on this book chiefly for an overview and preliminary bibliography before proceeding to dedicated volumes or articles on the Roman, Visigothic, and Andalusi periods for more in-depth treatments.

After an introductory chapter that surveys the seminal traditional and recent historiography and maps out the book's objectives and organization, Phillips orients the reader through a brief first chapter spanning the history of Iberian slavery from Roman to early modern times. This is a familiar strategy that in this case enabled the author to jump around from period to period in pursuit of the inquiries of the following chapters without getting hung up on the overarching chronology.

The meat of the book thus commences with the second chapter. Phillips takes the reader through a nuanced accounting of the historical scenarios most conducive to the creation of slaves. Juggling the complex changes in regulations concerning what people under what conditions were subject to legal enslavement must have been no easy feat, but Phillips managed to lay it all out neatly and concisely with impressive clarity. The third chapter segues nicely into a discussion of the trafficking of slaves, which satisfied demand when raiding, warfare, and rebellion could not produce a sufficient supply, especially during the Christian medieval period when only ethno-religious minorities could be enslaved. We learn about the policing mechanisms used by different states to ensure that marketed slaves had lost their liberty legally. The social lives of slaves has been one of the most hotly researched topics of late, and Phillips does an admirable job synthesizing how scholarship collectively now understands gender roles, the changing legal rights of slaves, and the ethno-religious dimensions of servitude. Of particular interest is his example-rich discussion of how unfree people generally lived: how they managed their families (with free and enslaved offspring), endured sexual relations with their masters, practiced their religion, and coped with sickness and death. Phillips turns to the diverse working lives of slaves in the fifth chapter and explains how servile workers engaged in artisanry, agriculture, domestic services, or who fought for the military were integrated within the wider economies of the different Iberian societies. The possibility of institutional ownership as well as ability of owners to contract out their slaves to perform economic functions for other employers increased the viability and incidence of slave holding. The sixth and final chapter studies the conditions under which (and the means by which) certain slaves secured their freedom. Although manumission by the owner was the most common and surest pathway to liberation, some slaves were able to purchase their own freedom or free their family members, especially if regulations permitted them to repay their owners in installments (as was the case, for example, in the late medieval Crown of Aragon). In the grand scheme, however, manumission was a relatively rare phenomenon, and freed slaves generally did suffer legal and social discrimination that often made it difficult for them to escape poverty.

Rather than reviewing the accomplishments of the study and the extensive ground it covers, the concluding remarks take the form of an epilogue. Here Phillips opted to spend most of his time exploring how the uses of slaves in Iberia and the Mediterranean complemented, contrasted with, and ultimately helped engender the trans-Atlantic slave system of the early modern and modern period. The clarity of the book's chapters allows them to stand alone without a comprehensive conclusion. Furthermore, given that trans-Atlantic slavery is the elephant in the room throughout the study and that Phillips was highly disciplined in keeping it at the margins of his discussion, it is fitting that these final pages should complete the job of illuminating how the slave systems interrelated.

As one would expect with a project commanding such a vast body of sources, there are some omissions. For example, Phillips apparently did not consult Robin Vose's Dominicans, Muslims and Jews in the Medieval Crown of Aragon (Cambridge University Press, 2011), and this oversight made his discussion of the missionary efforts of the friars feel less accurate and up-to-date. Minor quibbles aside, this is an important book not because it advances any revolutionary new theories of its own making or brings to light any illuminating new evidence its author has uncovered but because it is able to draw on a wide range of recent work that has accomplished these feats in order to fill, more than adequately, a major void in the scholarship. Phillips' patience as researcher and experience as an historian has equipped him to fashion an unusually well documented, up-to-date, and elegantly written synthesis. Although many scholars will find it a helpful starting point or resource for general reference, the book will be especially useful for advanced undergraduate and graduate courses.

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Author Biography

Thomas Barton

University of San Diego