Philology and Jurisprudence? A new perspective for the study of the deprivation of freedom in the late medieval Mediterranean

Ana B. Cano-Carrillo, Universidad de Granada

Abstract: Since its beginnings in the 20th century, the research on slaves and captives has increased in recent years almost exponentially. Today it is one of the most studied and debated topics from different perspectives, in different time periods and geographical spaces because the conditions that slaves and captives suffer could vary depending on territory and time. However, they are mainly studied in a general way, even assimilating the two terms and concepts. Fortunately, the difference between the two is becoming more and more apparent. However, it is still necessary to establish limits between the two states of deprivation of freedom, which is what this paper will attempt.

The study of slavery and captivity has been prolifically studied for decades, identifying these two realities little by little. However, the study of the deprivation of freedom has always been carried out from economic, political, social or commercial perspectives. In addition, it is focused on specific territories or very broad time frames. What is the problem? Human merchandise was a meeting and divergence point in the Mediterranean where the diversity of cultures, religions and languages is evident. Therefore, we cannot limit these studies to a single geographical area. In the same way that the political or economic and, therefore, commercial situation was not the same at the beginning of the Middle Ages as it was at the end. The jurisprudence and the philology of these terms provide us with objective and specific data from different perspectives and they allow us to know the differences and similarities between captives and slaves.

From a philological perspective, in Arabic the distinction is clear.1 However, this is not the case in Christian territories where the words are ambiguous. In many documents of this period, especially from Aragon, the terms are used interchangeably. In addition, words such as “sarrahí” are found, mentioning the ethnic group of the slave or captive. For this reason, complementing this study with jurisprudence provides us with more clarifying data to be able to establish this differentiation, which is not always clear or easy. For example, Christian juridical sources are clear on where we can find the definition of “captive” and “servant/slave”.2

From a juridical perspective, one of the numerous legal examples where we can see the difference between slave and captive is the way to recover freedom. On one hand, a slave obtains his status in various ways: by being the son of a slave mother, as punishment for a crime, or being part of the loot after a raid or military campaign. On the other hand, captives acquire their status after they lose their freedom being part of the loot. We could say that the captive status is the state prior to the slave. What is the difference? The captive will wait until he is ransomed and, consequently, obtain his freedom; the captive turned into a slave will be sold to serve his buyer and only if he manumits him, the slave will become free. So, the loss of freedom for the captive is relatively temporary, while it is not for the slave, who depends on the will of his master.

And this is where the concepts of manumission and redemption come in. The manumission of a slave refers to a Roman civil law concept while the redemption of captives is related to the salvation of the soul, a religious concept. That is why one of the characteristics that Alfonso X gives in his definition of “captive” and that marks the difference to the “servant/slave”, is “that they fall into prison of men of another religion.” Thus, rescuing a co-religionist is a way to save not only the soul of the unfortunate but also one’s own. In fact, this concept is present in both Christianity and Islam. These constitute only some examples where philology and jurisprudence work together to shed a light on the distinct history of these unfortunates.


Photo: Verkauf christlicher Sklaven in Algier, Amsterdam 1684, in: Wikimedia Commons, URL: [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marche_aux_esclaves_d_alger_gravure.jpg] (11.10.2023).



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Ana B. Cano-Carrillo (2023, 11. Oktober). Philology and Jurisprudence? A new perspective for the study of the deprivation of freedom in the late medieval Mediterranean. Blog der Arbeitsgemeinschaft Iberomediaevistik. Abgerufen am 22. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/psgg

  1. In Arabic we find that for “slave” ‘abd or raqīq are used in the Qur’an. Also, euphemisms denoting “boy, girl” or “servant, maid” are frequent: Fata (fem. Fatat.), or ghulām for slave and jāriya for woman slave, wasif particularly for men (the fem. waṣīfa is also found), and khadim particularly for women. For captives we find different terms depending on the religious confession of the prisoner, thus, appear asīr and sabī. However, they are two terms that present variations in their form, therefore, we can find asīr and its plural usarā’, or asrà and its plural usārà; as well as sabī and its two plurals sabāyā or subī. In other consulted texts, the term asir also appears with the short vowel “i”. []
  2. A priori, Christians also conceive two different realities for the individual deprived of freedom depending on whether they have been held by enemies who profess the same or different religion: prisoner and captive, respectively. In addition, in the 13th century the Siete Partidas of king Alfonso X define the term “captive”: “Captives are called, by right, those who fall into prison of men of another religion. They kill them after they have them imprisoned, […] or they torment them with cruel punishments, or they use them as servants, putting them into labors that they prefer death more than life”. In the last decades of the XIV century, we can also find the term “slave” instead of “servant”. In the 15th century, the term “slave” began to be used, relegating “servant” present in different legal works such as the Partidas of Alfonso X. []

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