Bishops in Carolingian Francia disliked the slave trade, but not for the reasons you might think.

When Carolingian kings conquered a pagan land, it was an opportunity for Christian missionaries to spread the faith. That chance, along with many souls, was lost if war captives were shipped off to Muslim Spain, Egypt, or other parts of Africa or they became the property of Jews.

Bishop Agobard of Lyon was irked to find out that Emperor Louis the Pious required slaves owned by Jews to have their master’s permission before being baptized. In On the Insolence of Jews (as anti-Semitic as it sounds), Agobard rails against allowing Jews to own Christians at all because the Christians might pick up the Jews’ bad habits of observing the Sabbath on Saturday, working on Sunday, and eating the wrong food at the wrong times during Lent.

Bishops who assembled at Meaux in 845 objected to Christian and Jewish traders driving Slav war captives to be sold to Muslims. They thought it better to redeem the captives and baptize them than to allow them to fill the ranks of the infidels.

Reeve and serfs
14th century illustration of reeve and serfs (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In the mid-eighth century, King Pepin forbade the sale of Christian and pagan slaves. Perhaps realizing sales couldn’t be stopped completely, Pepin’s son Charles (Charlemagne) tried to regulate the practice, requiring the presence of a count or bishop and prohibiting sales beyond the frontiers.

Before Pepin became king, a male slave might have been worth slightly over half the price of a horse, the most expensive livestock. In the later years of Charles’s reign, the enslaved man might be about the same price as a horse.

Not only does this show inflation and why the slave trade became more attractive; it shows what slaves were worth compared to other possessions, more than most livestock and most garments.

Medieval serfs or slaves
Costume of serfs or slaves (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

A slave owned by an aristocrat might physically be better off than a peasant. In a time when having enough food to last through winter was not guaranteed, a servant in a noble household was more likely to have food and clothing. Nor was the servant subject to conscription in the army.

But slaves were vulnerable to abuse. A maid could not refuse her lord’s unwanted advances. If the master needed funds for a horse and armor, he could sell slaves and break up families.

In other words, slave were commodities in the eyes of traders and their customers, and war captives were inventory. Churchmen, however flawed their motives by 21st century standards, did see war captives as humans with souls worth saving.

Originally published June 29, 2016, on Unusual Historicals.


Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché, translated by Jo Ann McNamara

Agobard of Lyon: On the Insolence of the Jews to Louis the Pious (via Medieval Sourcebook)

Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce AD 300-900 by Michael McCormick