Alice Rio has published extensively in early medieval history, as is apparent from her command of an extensive range of legal, ecclesiastical, hagiographical, and narrative sources. In this book, she examines the problem of the variety of states of unfreedom that can be discerned in those sources and that scholars have variously interpreted over time. Earlier assumptions that the slavery of Roman times gave way to medieval serfdom and just when and how quickly and thoroughly such a transition took place no longer seem to be convincing. She rejects the possibility of tracing a line of continuity and a smooth transition. Rather, early medieval slavery was complex, varied over time and place, and usually differed from both Roman slavery and the slavery that developed in high and later medieval Europe.
In the book's first section, Rio discusses how individuals could move into and out of servitude. Those born in the society, the insiders, could lose freedom though judicial punishment. They could also negotiate their way into a servile status by self-sale or self-gift to a superior. In such cases, and if they pledged themselves as collateral for a loan, they often were able to specify a fixed term. They could also sell their children or at least the children's labor, again usually for a limited time. Outsiders, brought in as captives or by slave traders, had little opportunity for negotiation and mitigation of the terms or the duration of their loss of freedom. Once enslaved, both outsiders and insiders could make efforts to improve their situations and to work toward manumission. Some attained that goal, even though in many cases, manumission did not guarantee complete freedom.
Examination of the lives of slaves occupies the book's second section. Rio examines the life and work of slaves, first in a chapter on those living in a household and then in a chapter on life on a large estate. Household slavery could fill a number needs for the slaveholder. Having slaves could demonstrate power and wealth and highlight the hierarchical nature of his dominance over all his servile, semiservile, and free dependents. Slaves and well as others could perform many of the duties involved in running the household and caring for the householder and his family. Slave and free could also work in the artisan production that went on within the household. Large estates operated on a greater scale but still with aspects of household management. Such estates could be operated as single units, with the lord of the estate providing the shelter, food, and clothing for the workers and their families, who would work at tasks assigned by the master, who in turn would reap the profits. Other estates could be divided into individual farms assigned to the servile families, who then would be responsible for feeding and otherwise maintaining themselves and producing a sufficient surplus to turn over to the lord, either in cash or kind. Management costs were high for the single-unit estates and much lower for those with individual farms. Bipartite estates occupied a middle ground, with individual farms occupying a portion of the lands and another portion reserved for the lord's exclusive use and worked by labor drafts on those living on the individual farms.
In these two sections, Rio surveys the similarities and the more usual and often striking differences between various parts of Christian Europe. The Byzantine Empire, particularly Constantinople, provides a case showing the greatest continuity with Roman Empire at its height, urbanized with a fully functioning monetary economy, a professional judicial system, and an operational bureaucracy controlled by the emperor. Even there, though, continuity was interrupted by changes in the economy and by decisions and decrees of the emperors. Elsewhere, in the less developed west, Rio is careful to show the distinctions that arose in Italy, the parts of the Frankish kingdom, Christian (but not Muslim) Iberia, Britain, and Ireland.
With the author's careful treatment, numerous fascinating details emerge from the sources. In the Byzantine Empire and Ireland, slaves were most often outsiders. In most other areas, until after 1100, they were most often insiders. Masters in the Iberian Visigothic kingdom seem to have felt, or at least expressed, the greatest concern about the potential threat from slaves. Rio questions Charles Verlinden's famous assertion that sclavus and slave were equivalent early on. Rather, it seems that the term indicated an ethnic origin and not a status. In Anglo-Saxon England, an early eleventh century archbishop of York fulminated about uppity slaves fleeing their masters and joining the marauding Vikings.
In the final section of the book, Rio provides a new approach to understanding what is often called the institution of slavery. For the period she studies, she suggests that negotiation was the key defining element. It was practiced by the lords, who of course had more power at their disposal, but also their dependents, who carefully used their limited resources to buttress their negotiating positions. The interplay between those parties produced the laws, customs, and practices that regulated their relations.
This is an important work that should be read by all those interested in slavery in medieval Europe. The argumentation is complex, as it must be to reflect the wide variations over a significant period and through regions that often tend to be lumped together rather than fully understood individually. The interplay of Rio's text and notes provide what amounts to a scholarly course in the early medieval sources and how they may be interpreted to illuminate the early medieval variety of servile and free statuses.