27 July 2016

Beyond Our Stars: What Does the Sky Tell Us about God?

By Kim Rendfeld

In Charlemagne’s day (748-814), astronomy was a blend of natural philosophy and religion, a study of the creation — and the creator.

Medieval people saw God’s hand in everything, from providing a good harvest to feed them through winter to healing the sick to deciding the victor of the war. So they would do what they could to gain God’s favor. Three days of litanies were part of the military strategy. In the medieval mind, searching the night sky for clues to God’s will made sense.

The universe had to be orderly, and Carolingians relied on Roman books to explain it: Pliny’s Natural History, Macrobius’s Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, Martianus Capella’s Marriage of Philology and Mercury, and Calcidius’s Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus. Early medieval intellectuals placed Earth at the center of the universe and the sun, moon, and seven planets revolving around it in eccentric patterns — that is, circles within each other but not sharing the same center — and at different angles to the Earth’s plane. Planets, the keepers of God’s time, could also move in epicycles, loops along a circle.

King Charles himself took a keen interest in astronomy and corresponded with scholars about phenomena such as eclipses and the size of the moon. His biographer Einhard elaborates, “He learned how to calculate and with great diligence and curiosity investigated the course of the stars.”  Charles passed on his interest in astronomy, along with the six other liberal arts, to his children, both sons and daughters. In a poem, the scholar Alcuin mentions a daughter gazing at the night sky and praising God, who created it.

The pursuit of knowledge fit into Charles’s imperial ambitions. In 780, he recruited foreign intellectuals, and in the decade that followed, workers were converting the royal villa at Aachen to a palace, one of many construction projects Charles would undertake.

Astronomical events were important enough to record in the annals. The year 810 saw two eclipses of the sun and the moon, and 812 had a midday eclipse of the sun. To Einhard, those eclipses, spots on the sun lasting seven days, and a ball of brilliant fire that fell from the sky during a war were among the signs that Charles was near the end of his life.

Einhard says Charles ignored the omens. Perhaps the emperor decided not to make a big deal of them publicly. But a year after that last eclipse, the 65-year-old monarch in declining health appeared to be putting his affairs in order. He invited his son Louis, the king of Aquitaine, to the assembly in Aachen, placed a crown on Louis’s head, and named him co-emperor. Charles also ordered that his grandson Bernard be called king of Italy, succeeding Louis’s late brother.

A few months after the assembly, a high fever and pleurisy sent Charles to his bed. He died a week later on January 28, 814. The annals say nothing about the sky that night.

  • Einhard's The Life of Charlemagne translated by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H. Zeydel
  • Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard's Histories, translated by Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers
  • P.D. King's Charlemagne: Translated Sources
  • Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, by Pierre Riché, translated by Jo Ann McNamara
  • Planetary Diagrams for Roman Astronomy in Medieval Europe, Ca. 800-1500, Volume 94, Part 3, by Bruce Eastwood and Gerd Grasshoff
  • A History of Western Astrology Volume II: The Medieval and Modern Worlds by Nicholas Campion
  • Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe by Stephen C. McCluskey
  • Ordering the Heavens: Roman Astronomy and Cosmology in the Carolingian Renaissance by Bruce Eastwood

Kim Rendfeld’s debut novel, The Cross and the Dragon, is set in the early years of Charlemagne’s reign. The story about a young woman contending with a jilted suitor and the anxiety her husband will be killed in battle will be re-released August 3, 2016, in print and ebook formats and is available for pre-order. Connect with Kim on her website, her blog, Facebook, and Twitter.

20 July 2016

Beyond Our Stars: The Thirteenth-Century Astronomy Patronized by Alfonso X

Gemini. Spain, thirteenth century. 

It’s something of a tradition to begin or end biographies of Alfonso X, el Sabio, with one historian’s sanctimonious judgment of him: “While he contemplated the heavens and gazed at the stars, he fell on the earth.” I quote it here not to perpetuate misconceptions, but because the wording shows the importance of the astronomy carried out in Alfonso X’s court. In spite of the other fields of inquiry enhanced under the wise king’s patronage, it was the astronomy that fascinated the most people first and longest.

Alfonso’s interest in the movement of the heavens was based, as most of his passions, in pragmatism. In Alfonso’s time, astrology hadn’t been separated from astronomy as a scientific discipline and was even farther from being as discredited as it is today, as many fourteenth- and fifteenth-century medical treatises (some of which refer to Alfonsine works) attest. The king likely believed knowledge of the stars could be an important tool in gaining the upper hand on Earth because of their obvious, albeit mysterious, influence on human character and behavior.

That said, many of the Alfonsine astronomy books are based on what is still considered solid science.

Alfonsine Tables. Spain, thirteenth century. 
The Alfonsine Tables are a set of measurements from about 1272 composed by Isaac ben Sid and Judah ben Moses ha-Cohen that track the positions of the sun, moon, and planets relative to Earth using Ptolemaic calculations. One of the astronomers who worked on the Alfonsine Tables took a copy with him in 1280 to Paris, where scholars adjusted the readings for the Paris meridian, enabling astronomers all over northern Europe to make use of the information for three hundred years. Copies survive today that were used by Copernicus and Galileo. The practical applications of the Tables are what made them popular. They well represented Alfonso X’s yearning for useful knowledge in the wider world.

The Alphonsus moon crater. Wikimedia Commons. 
Composed in the late 1270s, the most extensive book, the Book of Knowledge of Astronomy, also had the largest team behind it. The authors and translators named within the book include Jewish physicians, Muslim lawmen, and Italian and Castilian churchmen. The Book of the Eighth Sphere, which makes up the first part, describes the constellations with their celestial coordinates. The second part describes how to make and use nine different kinds of astronomical instruments, such as the astrolabe and the quadrant. Again, even in this most extensive and encyclopedic work, useful is paramount.

The Book of the Fixed Stars was translated from an Arabic book by Abd al-Rahman al Sufi composed around the year 964. In this book, the Alfonsine collaborators created a powerful combination of Ptolemy’s astronomy, Arabic traditions, and Castilian curiosity. The Andromeda Galaxy and the Large Magellanic Cloud, among other landmark bodies, were introduced to the European scientific community in this translation.

Ursa Major from a 1490 English copy of the Alfonsine Tables
The astronomy works are exemplars of the admirable Alfonsine traits of practicality and encyclopedism. The collaborators translated and compiled information from the best and most reliable sources. The majority draws from documents found in Arabic, with some information coming into Castilian from far-flung languages such as Chaldean. Without the bridge formed by these works, European astronomy might have had to start from scratch.

It’s much harder to see into the heavens if you’re not standing on the shoulders of giants.

Jessica Knauss earned her PhD in medieval Spanish with a dissertation on the portrayal of Alfonso X’s laws in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, which has been published as the five-star-rated Law and Order in Medieval Spain. A driven fiction writer, Jessica Knauss has edited many fine historical novels and is a bilingual freelance editor. Her historical epic, Seven Noble Knights, will be published in December 2016 by Bagwyn Books, and she is working on the sequel. Her contemporary paranormal Awash in Talent is now available from Kindle Press. Find out more about her writing and bookish activities here. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, too!

15 July 2016

New & Noteworthy: July 15

Kim Rendfeld will re-release THE CROSS AND THE DRAGON on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2016. The heroine, Alda, must contend with a jilted suitor bent on revenge and the anxiety her beloved husband will die in battle. Ebooks are available for preorder on AmazoniTunes, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble. Print copies will be available on the launch date, and if you'd like a friendly reminder, email Kim at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

M.J. Neary will re-release three of her novels with Crossroad Press in 2016. Founded by a bestselling author, Crossroad specializes in publishing new works of established authors and backlist for megasellers like Clive Barker. Congratulations M.J.!

Harlequin Historical has acquired Michelle Styles' latest Viking novel, SOLD TO THE VIKING. It will be out in February/March of 2017. Congrats Michelle!

29 June 2016

Dark Ages Slavery and the Battle for Souls

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.

Costumes of slaves or serfs from the sixth
to the twelfth century
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.

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.


Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché, translated by Jo Ann McNamara
Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce AD 300-900 by Michael McCormick

Kim Rendfeld's second novel, The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, features a pagan Saxon family sold into slavery. It will be rereleased in November and is available for preorder on Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and iTunes. It will available on Amazon in the coming weeks. Her first novel, The Cross and the Dragon, will be rereleased on August 3, in print and ebook. The ebook is available for preorder at Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble.

17 June 2016

New & Noteworthy: June 17

• To celebrate the release of her contemporary paranormal novel, AWASH IN TALENT, Jessica Knauss discussed its historical underpinnings with fellow U.H. contributor Kim RendfieldYou can read the blog post here. 

Michelle Styles' novel SUMMER OF THE VIKING has been released in Norway, Sweden, and France. Also, her novel TAKEN BY THE VIKING has been re-released in the UK as part of the "Forbidden Nights" anthology. For more information, visit michellestyles.co.uk.  

M.J. Neary's new novel THE GATE OF DAWN is now available for purchase at Amazon, and is receiving great reviews. Congratulations M.J.! You can get your copy at Amazon here.

Heather Domin is preparing a blog tour hosted by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for her novel THE HEIRS OF FORTUNE, scheduled to begin July 11. More information to come.

15 June 2016

African Servants in England

While researching my 17th century novel, it struck me how many aristocratic portrait paintings included a black child servant.  It made me wonder where these children came from, how they were viewed and treated in society, and what happened to them once they had outgrown being a pretty trophy for their masters?

John Blanke, The Black Trumpeter 1511
In 250AD, Rome sent a contingent of black legionnaires to stand guard on Hadrian’s Wall. When the Romans finally withdrew from England in the fifth century, the Germanic tribes replaced them, but no one knows what happened to this guard.

The Close Rolls of King John of July 1205, gives a ‘mandate to the constable of Northampton to retain Peter the Saracen, the maker of crossbows for the King’s service, and allow him 9 pence a day’.

Henry VII and his son Henry VIII both employed a black trumpeter named John Blanke, ‘the blacke Trumpet’, at a wage of 8 pence per day. He was depicted in the painted roll of the 1511 Westminster Tournament, [above] held to celebrate the birth of a son to Catherine of Aragon, who had arrived from Spain in 1501 with Africans in her entourage.

In 1540 Henry VIII employed a black diver to look for the wreck of the Mary Rose; but his name, and where he came from is unknown. 

In 1577 Elizabeth I issued an order for a ‘Garcon coate of white Taffeta, cut and lined with tincel, striped down with gold and silver … pointed with pynts and ribands’, for her ‘lytle Blackamore’. 

In Elizabethan times, masks of Black faces were considered fashionable, worn at court  functions and pageants. Members of the aristocracy were also known to paint themselves black, as 'nigrost' or as 'black Mores'. The character of the Black Moor also featured in Shakespeare's plays, and London street names, such as Black Boy Court, off Long Acre, and Blackamoor's Alley in Wapping, was an indication that black people were not an unusual sight in the city.

In 1555 John Lok reached Ghana on the John Evangelist, where he kidnapped the son of the chief and three others, brought them to England to be trained as interpreters. ‘Whereof sum were taule and stronge men and coulde well agree with our meates and drynkes’ but the ‘colde and moyst aire doth somewhat offend them’

The English believed that an Africans’skin colour was caused by the heat of the sun, therefore when one of the Africans married an Englishwoman who gave birth to a black-skinned child, it caused considerable astonishment. In 1578 George Best wrote that ‘I myself have seene an Ethiopian as blacke as cole brought to England who taking a faire English woman to wife, begat a sonne in all respects as blacke as the father’.

Anne of Denmark, James I's Queen
In 1584, the Duke of Leicester’s household records mention of a 'Mr Rawles blackamoore, XXs’. 
Sir Robert Cecil had a ‘blackmoor seruant’
Sir John Hawkins’ black page boy was named Samuel.

The King of Morocco’s ambassador arrived in England with a retinue of fifteen ‘Moors’ in 1600, and was given a warm reception by Elizabeth I. Nevertheless, they had trouble obtaining housing. When they did find accommodation, they lived alone and were ‘strangely attired and behavioured’, and reputedly slaughtered their own animals (presumably to fulfill religious requirements).

Francis Drake also had a black manservant called Diego, an enslaved man who defected from his Spanish masters during the raid by Drake on the town of Nombre de Dios. He advised Drake on the route taken by the Spanish carting gold and precious stones across the isthmus of Panama to Nombre de Dios. As a result, when Drake returned the following year, he was able to capture ‘the mule train laden with treasure’ and ship it to England, a cargo valued at £20,000. 

Drake named a fort he built on an island in the Gulf of San Blas ‘Fort Diego’. Sadly, while stopping for provisions and water on Mocha Isle off the coast of Chile in November 1578, Diego and another crew member were killed by unfriendly islanders.

Walter Raleigh’s page boy, aged about ten, whom he had brought from what is now Guyana, was baptised Charles at St Luke’s church in Kensington in 1597. Raleigh had brought two black men from Guyana with him; one entered domestic service in London and the other waited on him during the early years of his imprisonment.

Unfortunately, this toleration eventually turned to fear of an increasing black population in London, which lead to Queen Elizabeth I issuing a royal proclamation to arrest and expel all "Negroes and blackamores" from her kingdom. I wonder if her own little blackamoor was included in this edict?

Lady Charlotte Fitzroy 1674
This charming painting [Left]  is by Sir Peter Lely, principal painter to Charles II of Lady Charlotte Fitzroy, aged eight, the illegitimate daughter of Charles II and his mistress, Barbara Palmer, with her Indian page.

Dr Samuel Johnson's servant and valet, Francis Barber, attended a grammar school in Bishop's Stortford. He left Francis a £70 annuity in his will, and refused to let him go out to buy food for his cat, as he felt; 'it was not good to employ human beings in the service of animals'. 

This portrait of a black servant [below] shows the young boy was clearly a favoured companion, indicated by the fact that he is cup bearer, trusted and loved by his master’s lapdog.

Wealthy plantation owners sent their children to schools in England and would often send boy slaves to accompany them. The legal status of these people was vague, their arrival being tied to their English owner and their freedom depended upon whether or not they were Christian - although a man brought to a free country could not be anything but free - economics usually won over moral arguments and the trade grew. 

When these young boys reached their mid to late teens, they were sent back to Barbados to labour in the sugar plantations; a cruel end to a life of comparative luxury as a lady’s errand boy.  However, some remained in England as their masters and mistresses grew fond of them, often educating them in music, drawing and literature.

Pierre Mignard (1612-1695) in his portrait of Charles II's Mistress, Louise de Keroualle [below] shows the lady has the attributes of wealth and power: The pearls are symbols of purity, gold symbolises wealth and the black servant (with her slave collar) is a symbol of power.

Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth
The artists positioned black people on the edges or at the rear of their canvasses, from where they gaze wonderingly at their masters and mistresses, trophies to illustrate their owners' economic fortunes. They were often given Roman names, which accounts for the large number of Scipios, Plinys and Caesars buried in churchyards across the country. Anglicised names are rare and African names rarer still. 

Lady Grace Cartaret,  Countess Dysart 1753

Servants who ran away from their masters' houses were the subjects of lost-and-found ads in the press, and rewards sometimes offered for their return.  An advertisement for this house servant [below] was printed in a London newspaper in 1678.
'Africa' A Runaway

Africa had been living  with his master Arnold Pigeon, in Covent Garden. Described as wearing a livery coat with a reward for his capture being 20 shillings - then equivalent to two months wages for a servant. It is likely that he was recaptured, as a young black boy alone in a city would not have evaded capture for long. There were instances of Black slaves escaping to "safe houses" throughout the time of slavery such as one known as " Jerusalem " in East London.

Not all Black people in England were slaves, many worked as sailors, trades people of all kinds and in some cases as businessmen or musicians. Black writers played a role in the anti-slavery movement in England and famous 18th Century activists like Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano were pivotal to the movement in speaking and writing from their personal experience of the horrors of the trade.

After 1772, the continuation of slavery in Britain was a rarity and often likely to attract legal and social hostility. This change in attitude was illustrated by the Somerset case of 1772 in which Somerset, a fugitive enslaved African, brought a case against his owner who was attempting to force him to return to the West Indies. Lord Justice Mansfield * ruled that it would be illegal to remove Somerset from the country against his wishes. This ruling formed the beginning of a much wider campaign against slavery.

My favourite portrait is this one Dido Elizabeth Belle, in which Dido's beauty and personality comes through so well in this delightful painting, as well as the close relationship she enjoyed with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. 

Dido was the natural daughter of Sir John Lindsay, a British Navy captain on HMS Trent, a warship based in the West Indies where she was born. Little is known about Dido’s mother, apart from that her name was Maria Belle, but Lindsay was the nephew of William Murray, Lord Mansfield* the Lord Chief Justice
Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Elizabeth Belle
Lord Mansfield and his wife were childless, so raised Dido at Kenwood House, Hampstead, along with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had also died.

Dido’s status in the household was commented on by several visitors; one said that her great-uncle Lord Mansfield "called upon (her)…every minute for this and that, and showed the greatest attention to everything she said."

Dido would not dine with the rest of the family, especially if they had guests, but joined the ladies for coffee afterwards in the drawing-room. As she grew older, she took responsibility for the dairy and poultry yards at Kenwood, and helped Mansfield with his correspondence - showing she was well educated as well as loved.

She received an allowance of £30 10s and was provided with pretty furniture, birthday and Christmas gifts and ass’s milk when she was ill. When Lord Mansfield died, he left Dido £500 in his will, and a £100 annuity, and officially confirmed her freedom.

Dido married a John Davinier in 1793 at St. George's, Hanover Square and had three sons: twins Charles and John, also baptized at St George's on 8 May 1795, and William Thomas, baptized there on the 26 January 1802. Dido Belle Davinier died in 1804 and was buried in St George's Fields, survived by her husband, who later remarried and had two more children.

National Archives
International Museum of Slavery
Blacks In Tudor England
English Heritage-The Slave Trade
Westminster Gov
Video about Dido Elizabeth Belle

07 June 2016

Slaves, damnati and freedmen in ancient Rome

In 161 BC, the Roman jurist Gaius wrote:
Slavery is a human invention and not found in nature. Indeed, it was that other human invention, war, which provided the bulk of slaves, but they were also the bounty of piracy ... or the product of breeding.

A cold, yet trenchant statement. As in many early societies, slavery in ancient Rome was a mixture of debt-slavery, slavery as a punishment for crime, born slavery and by far the enslavement of prisoners of war, especially during the Republican period. These concepts are a very long way from our modern experience and feelings; many of us find the notion of paid servants or even a hired cleaner uncomfortable. But enslavement was a standard practice from ancient to relatively modern societies.
Trajan accepting the surrender of the Dacians - many would go into slavery

An estimated 30 to 40% of the population of Italy were slaves in the 1st century BC, around two to three million people. For the Empire as a whole, slaves numbered just under five million, representing 8-10% of the total population of 50-60 million. Roman slavery was not based on race; slaves originated from all parts of Europe and the Mediterranean, including Gaul, Hispania, Germany, Britannia, North Africa, Syria, the Balkans and Greece.

Legal status
The Twelve Tables, Rome's oldest legal code, promulgated in 449 BC, makes brief references to slavery, indicating that the institution was of long standing.

Slaves were considered property under Roman law and had no legal personhood. Unlike Roman citizens, they could be subjected to corporal punishment, sexual exploitation (prostitutes were often slaves), torture, and summary execution. The testimony of a slave could not be accepted in a court of law unless the slave was tortured—a practice based on the belief that slaves in a position to be privy to their masters' affairs would be too virtuously loyal to reveal damaging evidence unless coerced. Over time, however, slaves gained increased legal protection.

Vernae were slaves born within a household (familia) or on a family farm. There was a stronger social obligation to care for vernae; many would have been the children of free males of the household. Often, but not always, they were freed on the master’s death along with their own children.

Roman slaves could hold property which, although technically it belonged to their masters, they were allowed to use as if it was their own. Skilled or educated slaves were permitted to earn their own money from commissions, tips, etc. occasionally saving enough to buy their freedom. Such slaves could often be freed in their master's will, or for services rendered. A notable example of a high-status slave was Cicero’s secretary, Tiro, who was freed before his master's death. Tiro was successful enough to retire on his own country estate, where he died at the age of 99.

Evolution of status
Several emperors began to grant more rights to slaves as the empire grew. Claudius announced that if a slave was abandoned by his master, he became free. Nero granted slaves the right to complain against their masters in a court. And under Antoninus Pius, a master who killed a slave without just cause could be tried for homicide. Legal protection of slaves continued to grow as the empire expanded. It became common throughout the mid to late 2nd century AD to allow slaves to complain of cruel or unfair treatment by their owners.

Work  - not all slaves were equal
Slaves worked in roughly five categories: household/domestic, imperial/public, urban crafts and services, agriculture, and mining.

Four female slaves dress the wife’s hair: 
relief from a family tomb from Neumagen
Household (familia): Epitaphs record at least fifty different jobs a household slave might perform including barber, butler, cook, hairdresser, handmaid (ancilla), wet nurse or nursery attendant, teacher, secretary, seamstress, accountant, and physician. A large elite household might be supported by a staff of hundreds. Although inferior to those of the free persons they served, the living conditions of slaves attached to an urban household were often superior to those of many free urban poor in Rome. Indoor household slaves likely enjoyed the highest standard of living among Roman slaves, next to publicly owned slaves. Imperial slaves were those attached to the emperor's household, the familia Caesaris. The senior male, the pater familias, held full rights over his slaves as over his family, and women slaves were frequently used for sexual services as a matter of course.

In urban workplaces, the occupations of slaves included fullers, engravers, shoemakers, bakers, seamstresses, mule drivers, and waitresses/prostitutes. Farm slaves (familia rustica) probably lived in healthier air, but their work was heavy and manual. The workforce of a farm would have been mostly slave, managed by a vilicus, who was often a slave himself.

Ploughman with a team of oxen, bronze
1st-3rdC Piercebridge, Durham (British Museum)
Tens of thousands of slaves condemned to work in the mines or quarries (damnati in metallum), worked in notoriously brutal conditions; they were convicts who lost their freedom as citizens (libertas), forfeited their property (bona) to the state, and became servi poenae, slaves by legal sanction. Their status was different from that of other slaves; they could not buy their freedom, be sold, or be set free. They were expected to live and die in the mines.

In the Late Republic, around half the gladiators who fought in Roman arenas were slaves, the remainder free volunteers. Successful slave gladiators were occasionally rewarded with freedom. However, trained gladiators with access to weapons were potentially the most dangerous slaves as demonstrated by Spartacus, who led the great slave rebellion of 73-71 BC.

A servus publicus was a slave owned not by a private individual, but by the Roman people. Public slaves worked in temples and other public buildings as servants to the College of Pontiffs, magistrates, and other officials. Some well-qualified public slaves carried out skilled office work such as accounting and secretarial services and were permitted to earn money for their personal use. During the Republic, a public slave could be freed by a magistrate's declaration with the prior authorisation of the senate; in the imperial era, liberty would be granted by the emperor.

Runaways and rebellion
"I have run away; hold me. 
When you shall have returned me to my master, 
Zoninus, you will receive a gold coin."
Romans were preoccupied, if not paranoid, by the thought of slave revolts which had more than once seriously threatened the republic; in 135–132 BCE (the First Servile War), in 104-100 BCE (the Second Servile War), and in 73-71 BCE (the Third Servile War).

Rome forbade harbouring fugitive slaves; professional slave-catchers were hired to hunt down runaways. Owners or hired slave-catchers would post advertisements with precise descriptions of escaped slaves, and offered rewards.

If caught, fugitives could be whipped, burnt with iron, or killed. Those who lived were branded on the forehead with the letters FUG, for fugitivus and sometimes had a metal collar with the owner’s name riveted around the neck.

Masters could manumit, or free, slaves and in many cases such freedmen went on to rise to positions of power and accumulate great wealth. Manumissio, which literally means 'sending out from the hand', could be a public ceremony performed before a public official, usually a judge. The owner touched the slave on the head with a staff and he or she was free to go. Simpler methods were sometimes used, with the owner proclaiming a slave's freedom in front of friends and family, or just a simple invitation to recline with the family at dinner.

Slaves were freed for a variety of reasons; for a particularly good deed done towards the slave's owner, or out of friendship or respect. Sometimes, a slave had earned and saved enough money could buy his freedom and the freedom of a fellow slave, frequently a spouse. However, few slaves had enough money to do so, and many slaves were not allowed to hold money. Slaves could also freed by a provision in an owner's will at his death. Augustus restricted such manumissions to a maximum of  a hundred slaves, and proportionately fewer in a small household. Educated and skilled slaves were regularly freed and the practice became so common that Augustus decreed that no Roman slave could be freed under the age of 30.

Rome differed from Greek city-states in allowing freed slaves to become Roman citizens. After manumission, a former slave enjoyed political and public freedom (libertas), including the right to vote, though he could not hold public office, state priesthoods, nor attain senatorial rank. A freed slave who had acquired libertas became a libertus (feminine liberta) in relation to his former master, who then became his patron (patronus).

Marble cinerary urn provided by Vitalis, a former slave of the Emperor and 
Scribe of the Bedchamber, for his wife Vernasia Cyclas,. 
On the last line, AUG.L denotes he was a former imperial slave (British Museum)
Children born to former slaves enjoyed the full privileges of Roman citizenship, for example, the Latin poet Horace was the son of a freedman, and served as an officer in the army of Marcus Junius Brutus.

Freedmen of the imperial families often filled key positions in the Roman government bureaucracy. Some rose to positions of great influence, such as Narcissus, a former slave of the Emperor Claudius.

Other freedmen became wealthy. The brothers who owned House of the Vettii, one of the biggest and most magnificent houses in Pompeii, are thought to have been freedmen. A freedman is recorded with having designed the amphitheatre in Pompeii. But a freedman who became rich and influential might still be looked down on by the traditional aristocracy as a vulgar nouveau riche as shown by Trimalchio, a caricature of such a freedman in the Satyricon.

For an excellent historical fiction around household slaves  in the first century AD you can do no better than Lindsey Davis’s Enemies at Home; an impeccably researched mystery which is clever and poignant at the same time.

03 June 2016

Slaves and Servants: Concubines in the Islamic World

By Lisa J. Yarde

The 19th-century Orientalist period in art history, and the accounts of the explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British ambassador to Turkey,  once influenced knowledge on the life of concubines in the Islamic world.  I'm particularly fond of the artwork, much of which I've used in the debut covers of my Sultana series, but a common theme among the portrayals is often the image of a beleaguered woman trapped in uncertain circumstances and awaiting cruel fate. The terrified slave girl, shamefaced and paraded naked before strangers who prod and poke her to determine her suitability for sale or as a gift. Equally represented is the idle, languid slave laying around the harem or household with nothing better to do than await the summons of her master. Just as fanciful was the idea that the concubines engaged in nightly orgies with their master, blessed to have easy access to nothing but gorgeous women at his disposal. The truth about concubines in harems from Spain to the Middle East indicates a different lifestyle, governed by strict rules and offering other possible outcomes for ambitious slaves. For the most fortunate among such women, even those who began their career as captives, their lovers and eventual husbands, sons and brothers gave them access to power that might have seemed unimaginable upon their introduction into a new life.

From the Moorish era, there are the best-known examples of Subh who lived in 10th-century Cordoba, and the bitter rivals, Butayna and Maryem in 14th-century Granada. But how did women become concubines in the Islamic world? Religious customs allowed the conquerors to makes slaves of any person captured in warfare so that by the first century of the Moorish period in Spain at least 20% of the population lived in bondage. Slavery did not bar these women from conversion to Islam or manumission in the future. As the Arabs and Berbers went westward across North Africa and into Spain, they seized captives of every age. Pirates, particularly from the North African coast known as the Barbary also raided across the Mediterranean Sea, attacking France and Italy, and as far north as the English and Irish coastlines up through the 17th-century. Black slaves came from eastern and Western Africa across the Sahara. In 14th-century Morocco the ruler Abu Inan Faris, whose mother was described as a black woman, supposedly had a favored concubine, an English woman renamed Shams ed-Duna. 

Women became part of the tribute demanded by Moorish rulers, slaves prized for more than their beauty or potential sexual partners, as singers, dancers, and poets. The base price for most of the Islamic world seems to have been 1,000 gold coins or dinars for European slaves; very beautiful or skilled women commanded much higher prices. Most importantly for such concubines, the children they bore for their masters were considered free from their birth and the legitimate heirs of their fathers, or in the case of royal concubines, their sons might become future rulers.  In the 10th-century, Ramiro II of Leon, Garcia Sanchez I of Navarre and Count Fernan Gozalez of Castile each had the obligation to provide the first caliph of Cordoba Abd ar-Rahman III with sixty young women as tribute. Perhaps that means allowed Subh's entry into the harem of Abd ar-Rahman's son and successor, Al-Hakam.

Although no one knows her Christian birth name, Subh received her new name, which meant  'dawn' in Arabic, after her abduction from Navarre. She must have became part of the household of Al-Hakam by at least 965 based on the birth of her child. Sources indicate that it's almost a miracle she attracted the caliph's interest because he had been a homosexual for most of his life and had a male harem. Supposedly, Subh overcame this difficulty because her hair had been  cut short like a young man's and she wore trousers. Subh bore Al-Hakam's son Hisham in 966.  Ten years later, he ascended the throne as the third caliph after his father's illness, despite the attempts of one of Al-Hakam's brothers to rule. One of two official regents, Subh advanced the career of a minister from Algeciras, Al-Mansur ibn Abi Amir, who dominated Hisham's rule. There is also speculation that Subh took Al-Mansur as her lover. She might have come to regret this choice when Al-Mansur effectively robbed Hisham of power in 997 for the next five years. Nothing is certain about Subh's eventual fate afterward.

Of  the concubines Butayna and Maryam, there are other uncertainties. Each has been called concubine or wife interchangeably in the sources - if married, it's likely they would have converted to Islam. Both were born as Christians, but there's no indication of where these women came from or when they became part of the harem of Sultan Yusuf I of Granada. He had come to the throne at the age of fifteen in 1333 upon the assassination of his elder brother Muhammad IV at eighteen, himself a successor of a murdered father, Ismail I. As with Subh, the dates of the women's entries into Yusuf's household can only be assumed by the births of their respective first sons. Butayna, whose name meant 'one who possesses a young and tender body' bore her first son Muhammad on January 4, 1338, so she would have been part of the harem by the previous year at least. Later, she also had a daughter Aisha and possibly another son called Ahmad. Maryem, whose possible alternate name of Rim might have been transposed incorrectly from the original sources, had her son Ismail on October 2, 1338. This tiny detail about Yusuf's sons being born ten months apart led me to imagine a deadly rivalry existed between Butayna and Maryem in the third novel of the Sultana series. Latter events also suggest the vicious nature of their relationship.

Most of the sources agree that Yusuf favored Maryem over Butayna, as supposedly evidenced by Maryem's seven children as compared to Butayna's two or three. In addition to Ismail, Maryem became the mother of another son called Qays, and five daughters named Fatima, Mumina, Khadija, Shams, and Zaynab; while the eldest of these princesses isn't specified she becomes important in subsequent history. Most of the court ministers favored Muhammad as Yusuf's eventual successor, but there are indications that he would have preferred Ismail to rule Granada upon his death. Yusuf's end on October 19, 1354, occurred suddenly and as brutally as that of his elder brother and father; a slave stabbed him to death in the main mosque near Alhambra palace. Muhammad V ascended the throne, married his cousin and had a young son. In the interim, Maryem and Yusuf's eldest daughter had married her cousin. On August 21, 1359, over one hundred conspirators in support of Maryem and her son-in-law scaled the palace walls and overthrew Muhammad who fled into an eventual exile in Morocco. Not all the sources agree Butayna was with her son at the time, but none mentions her death during this tumultuous period. Maryem's eldest son became the ruler of Granada, but Ismail II suffered, too. Almost a year later, Maryem's son-in-law overthrew Ismail, executing him with his brother Qays and possibly Maryem.

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Other examples of famous concubines who became the power behind in the throne of Islamic societies can be found in my 2010 UH article, Women Did It Better: The Reign of Women, which explored how the 16th and 17th-century concubines Hurrem, Nurbanu, Safiye, Kosem, and Turhan influenced the reigns of their lovers and husbands, brothers, and sons. Georgians and Circassians were the most common among Ottoman concubines, but Hurrem was likely Polish, her daughter-in-law Nurbanu came from Venice, and Nubanu's daughter-in-law Safiye was either Venitian also or Albanian. Kosem was born in the Greek isles and her daughter-in-law Turhan came from the Ukraine or Russia. Turkey is enjoying a resurgence of interest in the lives and loves of those women as concubines or eventual wives within the Ottoman royal harems through the production of two series, Magnificent Century and Magnificent Century: Kosem. Both are well-done and entertaining, more than historical figures in fancy dress, illustrating the roles of concubines who became more than they might have once dreamed. 


All images are public domain, royalty-free. All data from numerous sources researched during the writing of the Sultana series.

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the Middle Ages in Europe. She is the author of two historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of one of the first countesses of Leicester and Surrey, Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers before the Battle of Hastings. Lisa has also written five novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana, Sultana’s Legacy, Sultana: Two SistersSultana: The Bride Price and Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree, where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family. Her short story, The Legend Rises, which chronicles the Welsh princess Gwenllian of Gwynedd’s valiant fight against English invaders, is also available.