The Medieval Review 16.10.33

Sutt, Cameron. Slavery in Árpád-era Hungary in a Comparative Context. East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450-1450, 31 . Leiden: Brill, 2015. pp. x, 241. $154.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-90-04-30158-0 (hardback) (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Hannah Barker
Rhodes College

This book, a revised version of the author's doctoral thesis, surveys the evidence for slavery in Hungary during the eleventh and twelfth centuries and compares it with the evidence for slavery in the Carolingian empire during the eighth and ninth centuries. In both cases, slaves were employed primarily as agricultural laborers on royal, ecclesiastical, and noble estates. The causes underlying the disappearance of slavery and the emergence of serfdom in the Carolingian context have been much debated. In the Hungarian case, Sutt finds that slavery disappeared over the course of the thirteenth century as a result of economic growth, the expansion and intensification of agriculture, and the consequent recruitment of German settlers to farm Hungarian estates. By comparing Hungarian sources with Carolingian ones, Sutt makes the case that Carolingian agricultural slavery also vanished as a result of economic growth rather than the ameliorating effects of Christianity.

Sutt's argument is constructed through painstaking analysis of references to slaves (servi, mancipia, and ancillae) in legal codes and charters of the Carolingian and Árpád periods. The laws in question are attributed to Kings Stephen, Ladislas, and Coloman, with the Lex Baiuvariorum as the main Carolingian point of comparison. The charters were mostly issued by ecclesiastical institutions. Two maps help the reader locate these institutions within Hungary and the Carolingian empire. A third body of sources worth consideration would have been canon law collections, since there has been significant debate about the relative influence of canon law and the Lex Baiuvariorum on the laws of Stephen (53-54). Examining the material on slavery in canon law collections might also have strengthened Sutt's argument that the spread of Christianity was not an important factor in the disappearance of Carolingian or Hungarian slavery.

Slavery in Árpád-era Hungary juggles several narrative structures. The first is a chronological account of the evolution and decline of slavery within Hungary from the eleventh century to the thirteenth. The second is a thematic account of the social life cycle of a slave from enslavement to manumission. The third is a point by point comparison of Hungarian and Carolingian forms of slavery. The chronological approach is typical of national histories; the thematic approach is typical of slavery studies; and the comparative approach ultimately provides the key to Sutt's argument. Welding the three approaches together results in an ungainly structure but preserves some nuances of the argument.

Chapter One surveys the historiography in three fields. First is an outline of the long-running debate about the transition from slavery to serfdom in the Carolingian empire. Second comes an overview of the literature on slavery in medieval Hungary, which is more substantial than one might expect due to Marxist interest in slavery as a historical mode of production. Finally, Sutt draws on the literature of comparative slavery to generate his own set of criteria for distinguishing slaves from other agricultural laborers. He chooses to define slaves as property subject to sale; as kinless persons deprived of heirs; as laborers whose work obligations were entirely at the discretion of their masters; and as spouses whose marriages were not secure and could be broken up by their masters. Chapter Two provides a brief account of the Magyar conquest of Hungary followed by a thorough explanation of their settlement and land use patterns. Hungarian estates, known as praedia, produced horses, cattle, and slaves for export as well as grain, wine, and fish for local consumption. As much as 85% of the land belonged to the king. The rest was held by ecclesiastical institutions and noble families.

The third and fourth chapters are organized chronologically. Chapter Three focuses on the laws of Stephen, comparing them with the Lex Baiuvariorum, Bavarian charters, and the few charters surviving from Stephen's reign. Free and unfree status were sharply distinguished during this period, and slavery was not associated with any particular religious, ethnic, or linguistic group. Some slaves were captives, but others were Hungarians reduced to slavery as punishment for various crimes. Chapter Four examines the laws of Ladislas and Coloman in comparison with contemporary Hungarian charters. Conditional manumission, debt slavery, limited labor obligations, fugitive slaves, and legislation against Jews owning Christians all muddied the boundaries between free and unfree status during this period. Slaves were also identified as speakers of Magyar, and therefore as members of Hungarian society, despite their low status (104).

The following three chapters are organized thematically using Sutt's criteria for identifying slaves. They rely more heavily on the evidence of charters, Hungarian and Carolingian, than on legal codes. Chapter Five focuses on slaves as property. It discusses the slave trade as well as the use of slaves to make payments, pledges, and gifts. Chapter Six deals with the labor obligations of slaves, both agricultural and domestic, and assesses the close association between slaves and ploughs in many sources. Chapter Seven investigates the capacity of slaves to create socially recognized marriages and stable families. Here Sutt notes several interesting patterns. Bavarian masters invested more effort in preserving slave marriages than Hungarians did. Hungarian masters were more likely to manumit women than men, since freed women usually remained on the estate after manumission in order to remain close to their enslaved husbands. Children of mixed-status marriages followed the status of the parent with the same gender as themselves. As a result, marriages in which the wife was manumitted but the husband remained in slavery produced free daughters and enslaved sons. This pattern of inheriting slave status is very unusual and its presence in Hungary is surprising. Medieval Japan is the only society of which I am aware that had a similar system, and there seems to have been no connection between the two cases. [1]

Chapter Eight reverts to the chronological narrative in order to explore the disappearance of slaves from Hungarian sources over the course of the thirteenth century. Sutt concludes that as control over land passed from the king to the nobility, Hungarian lords encouraged settlers to immigrate from Germany and granted them written privileges which placed limits upon their labor obligations. Over time, lords extended similar privileges to their slaves in order to dissuade them from fleeing. The result was a society in which agricultural work was done mainly by serfs with limited labor obligations rather than slaves with unlimited labor obligations. The final chapter argues that this transition from slavery to serfdom in Hungary closely resembles the earlier Carolingian transition and that both were rooted in economic growth.

Upon finishing Slavery in Árpád-era Hungary, I was convinced that agricultural expansion rather than Christian morality was the primary reason for the transition from slavery to serfdom. However, the book is handicapped by several flaws that weaken its argument and limit its probable readership. There is no indication in the front matter or chapter titles that the comparison promised by the book's title is a comparison with Carolingian slavery. Those concerned mainly with Carolingian slavery will not be able to tell at first or second glance that this book is relevant to their interests. The author also assumes substantial background knowledge of medieval Hungarian history on the part of the reader. This reader, a specialist in medieval slavery rather than medieval Hungary, would have appreciated a brief overview of the Árpád dynasty as part of the background information given in Chapter Two. At a minimum, parenthetical references to each king's regnal dates or chapter titles that mentioned the century to be covered would help readers orient themselves chronologically. Most seriously, Chapter Six (on the labor obligations of slaves) appears to be incomplete. It is only seven pages long and, unlike all the other chapters, it lacks a comparison section on Carolingian sources and a clearly demarcated conclusion. This truncated chapter may be a relic of the dissertation process or a mistake on the part of the editors in assembling the manuscript. In either case, Brill has done Sutt a disservice by publishing the chapter in this state.

Slavery in Árpád-era Hungary will appeal to a specialist readership. Historians interested in the transition from slavery to serfdom as the primary mode of agricultural production in medieval Europe will certainly benefit from it. It also contributes useful insights concerning the legal and economic history of Hungary as well as the meaning of slave status in the Carolingian empire. While it is too narrowly focused to be read by undergraduates or general readers, it may find an additional audience among those interested in comparative slavery.



1. Thomas Nelson, “Slavery in Medieval Japan,” Monumenta Nipponica 59 (2004): 474.

Copyright (c) 2016 Hannah Barker

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