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Costumes of slaves or serfs

Costumes of slaves or serfs, from the sixth to the 12th centuries, from the 19th century Manners, Custom and Dress During the Middle Ages and During the Renaissance Period, by Paul Lacroix (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

Let me get one thing out of the way: Slavery is evil. No one has the right to own another person and do whatever they want to them.

But early medieval times present uncomfortable complexities to this tolerant 21st century American. Some slaves were better off than their free counterparts. Servants in a noble house were more likely to eat, sleep in a sheltered space, and have decent clothing, but they were more vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse.

A peasant’s life was uncertain, especially when it came to food. A bad harvest in the fall meant famine in the winter. Poverty was so widespread that the Church differentiated between killing a baby for the inability to provide for them and to hide a sin.

These tensions come into play throughout The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, where a free Saxon mother and her two children are betrayed by relatives and sold into slavery. In this excerpt, the heroine Leova considers an opportunity.

Emptying the ashes into a clay pot, she held her breath. If she and her children accompanied Naimes to Paderborn, they could escape slavery!

Trying to keep her hands steady, she scooped more ashes. Possibilities flooded into her imagination. Deorlaf could claim his farm and get his vengeance on Ealdgyth and her sons. She and Deorlaf could find a husband for Sunwynn.

Was freedom in Eresburg worth the risk? They would have to travel through the forest, risking demons, nixies, dwarves, and other creatures. If they were captured during the escape attempt, they could be maimed or killed.

Leova had little to complain of in Nevers. Clad in her lady’s castoffs, Sunwynn wore dresses prettier than any peasant’s, and even Leova’s and Deorlaf’s undyed brown woolen garb was better than what she’d had in Eresburg. And other than Lent and some fasts for Christian holy days, she and her children never went hungry. Eresburg held no such certainty.

She frowned, ashamed at considering comfort before honor. That comfort would not last forever, not for Sunwynn. Gerhilda would take Sunwynn with her to Le Mans when she married Pinabel.

Memories of Pinabel’s cruelty—the starving, the threats of rape—made her shudder. They had to take the risk and escape. Otherwise, their chance for justice would be lost, and Sunwynn would be at Pinabel’s mercy.