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Forms of unfreedom in the Medieval Mediterranean

Introduction: ties that bind and shape unfreedoms

Maria Filomena Lopes de Barros et Clara Almagro Vidal

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  • 1 We are thankful to Ana Echevarria Arsuaga and Jessica Tearney-Pearce for their suggestions and comm (...)
  • 2 Donne, 1959, p. 108.

1In the sixteenth century,1 John Donne wrote “No man is an island”.2 This quote, albeit not originally linked to the topic that is at the core of this collected volume, serves as an excellent starting point to present the central idea that is explored in the different contributions included in the chapters here presented. That is, the fact that different kinds of dependences linked people together during the Middle Ages and, in turn, that those links that bonded them together limited their freedom in different ways. Servitude, slavery and other forms of personal dependence were present in the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages, both in areas of Christian and Islamic rule. Moreover, political and economic structures enhanced and perpetuated these bonds that were also personal in nature. Each and all of those varied relationships established written and unwritten boundaries that defined what was allowed and what was not permitted to the individuals that entered them. They shaped the limits of their freedom and the forms that their unfreedom took. In that way, they contributed in a fundamental manner to establish written and unwritten rules that set the pace for the societies of their time.

2This volume explores the particular ways in which those relationships established between people determined how they lived their lives and the forms and limits of their actions. More particularly, it probes at bonds that people established with each other and that were asymmetrical, in the sense that they made one of the participants in the relationship dependent on the other in societies in medieval Europe and the Mediterranean.

3Personal bonds of dependence, and especially those that were defined through an inequality of power in the relationship, could take many forms and impact the freedom of individuals in different manners. Dependence did not manifest itself as a dual phenomenon regarding the loss of freedom during the Middle Ages. It did not necessarily operate in absolutes, even in the more extreme cases of power asymmetry in the relationships, such as slavery. Rather they have to be understood as an irregular gradation that unevenly affected different spheres of life. Moreover, as some of the contributions included in this volume show, there could sometimes be an overlapping of different relationships that created unique and, so to say, tailored boundaries to the freedom of each individual. Likewise, considerations of unfreedom cannot be only restricted to the involuntary and total loss of agency. All-or-nothing situations were rarely the case. Freedom was taken away in many cases, but people also could and did give away parcels of personal freedom/autonomy in many ways, affecting different spheres of life and with variable duration. Unfreedom and dependence came in many shapes and forms and, associated with the creations of all kinds of bonds with other people, the acceptance of institutions’ authority over a person’s life, and social customs.

4The bonds that created restrictions to a person’s freedom have been given many labels, both in the past and today. The combination of this factor together with the wide variability of manifestations that the bonds could create fosters a rich and complex area for historical research. However, it also produces conditions that potentially can lead to misunderstandings concerning the interpretation of terminology contained in the sources that provide unclear or incomplete contexts. That is, the same terms could be and were used to refer to similar but nevertheless differentiated situations at different moments or in several geographical areas, and vice versa.

5The aim of our approach is to problematize meanings and labels given by current historiography and past sources to observe the inner workings of the relationships. In order to approach these issues, the contributors of this volume were asked to probe the meaning of those bonds from the point of view of what they implied for those involved in the interactions, considering not only the presence or absence of categories, but also their shapes and implications. Moreover, it was requested that they look at each bond, where possible, in such a way that allowed for the observation of parallels and differences among them.

6This volume sets its attention on the relational facet of these relationships more than on the quantitative and demographic aspect of these groups. By switching the focus in this direction, the lines between different categories become somewhat blurred, but at the same time common patterns arise between different contexts and situations. This underlines the existence of common dynamics within the ways through which people entered relationships of dependence and how their freedoms became limited by those bonds.

7There is always a degree of uncertainty when defining the borders of these relationships but that same uncertainty allows for a re-examination of assumptions and labels contrasting them with the actual information contained in the sources and with their circumstances. For that reason, the juxtaposition of cases such as the one offered in this volume makes similarities and differences, continuity and changes, and how these variables relate to each other, starker and more easily perceivable.

8As the contributions to this volume show, individuals could lose agency over their own bodies or their own work in different configurations, either through a complete change of legal status or through private informal and/or unregulated arrangements that did not concern the whole of their being. This loss of freedom could be willingly ceded, forced or the result of unconscious degradation. Also, the degree and areas affected by the ties were variable. The bonds could be strictly economic in nature, but also usually had implications as to the social and legal status of those involved. Moreover, as religion constituted a fundamentally defining element of society and its regulations, it also played an important role in how the relationships took form. A person’s religion was one of the defining factors in determining whether their possession by another was considered legal, fair or even moral. Nevertheless, the ways around these limitations were many and should not be overlooked.

9The contributors to this volume explore and analyse expressions of personal dependence contained in the sources and their characteristics, situating them in their respective contexts and putting them in relation with the bigger frame. They were also encouraged to test boundaries between statuses, address the problems of definition both for historians and for the protagonists themselves, and consider religious difference as a factor that influenced how those relationships played out. They rose to the challenge, offering suggestive and compelling analysis that cover a time period that runs from the ninth to the early sixteenth century and presents case studies from both the Iberian Peninsula and from other areas of the Mediterranean.

10The papers included in this volume are organised in chronological order. While the Iberian Peninsula is at the centre of the majority of the chapters, the Mediterranean as a whole is always present in the way of contacts and influences that reached Iberia from other areas, or through the inclusion of case studies from Sardinia and Cyprus that bring contrast and parallels to what is seen in the Iberian scenario. Thematically, the contributions to this volume focus on different aspects that surrounded phenomena of unfreedom and dependence situations, grouped into two main but not exclusionary strands:

11On the one hand, González González, Almagro Vidal, Barros and González Arevalo’s main focus lies with terminological issues related to situations of unfreedom and dependence as they appear in their sources and their interpretation in light of the different contexts at play. Their examination of the dynamics within the relationships are oriented towards clarifying what the words used to describe these relations in the sources meant.

12The volume opens with Raul González González’s chapter on the forms of unfreedom found in the Iberian Kingdom of Asturias during the early Middle Ages (eighth to thirteenth centuries). By doing so, he questions the previously prevalent historiographical assumption that slavery was mostly substituted by servitude during the transitional period towards the Middle Ages. In the particular case of the Kingdom of Asturias, slavery survived this transition from late Roman times into fully medieval structures, coexisting and overlapping with other forms of dependence and being transformed in the process.

13Clara Almagro Vidal explores the bonds of dependence among Muslims who worked for the military orders in the medieval Kingdom of Castile (thirteenth to fifteenth centuries). She does so by focusing on the different ways in which Muslims could end up being dependent on military orders, and contrasting it with terminology contained in the sources that refer to them and the characteristics that those same sources attach to them. Her findings show that the terms employed to refer to dependent Muslims were not universal, that the conditions attached to such labels changed over time and were influenced by external factors, and that Muslims could be affected by more than one bond of dependence at a given time.

14The terminology used to refer to unfree Muslims in the kingdom of Portugal during the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries is the focus of the late Filomena Barros’ chapter. In particular, she explores the semantics of the term Moor, and its links to captivity and slavery during medieval times. In the case of Muslims, ethno-religious identity and social and legal status were greatly intermeshed, especially in early times of the kingdom, but later the meaning and usage of the term Moor experimented transformations that diverged from the original meaning given to the word: they were not necessarily unfree nor Muslim on occasion, and regional differences can be detected, dependent on the context in which the term was used. She also explores the implications of gender in the lived experience of those under that term, as well as the available information on how Muslims could escape from their unfree status: including conversion to Christianity, the possibility to buy one’s own freedom, running away, and the role of free communities in the latter two phenomena.

15Raúl González Arévalo’s chapter brings the reader to the western part of the Mediterranean during the fifteenth century. With a very detailed analysis, he re-examines the connections and differences between captivity and slavery in the Iberian Peninsula, and the implications that the use of each term had in practice, by challenging current interpretations that use both terms as synonyms. Multiple case studies from the late Middle Ages dealing with captivity in the wars between Muslims and Christians in the Iberian Peninsula and western Mediterranean support his observations on how captivity was defined and regulated both under Christian and Islamic law, and the circumstances that had to be fulfilled for it to transform into slavery. He points towards variables such as geographical provenance, religion of the captives, context of capture and economic factors as important elements that affected how those who became unfree were treated and under which category they ended up.

16On the other hand, the chapters penned by de la Puente, Gallinari, Coureas, and Dincer focus on analysing different aspects of the ways in which the different bonds of dependence worked at different moments of the relationships. Their contributions depict the inherent complexity of these bonds and the variety of situations in which they can be found not only among different areas and moments, but also within particular contexts.

  • 3 Ferrer Abárzuza, 2021.

17The persistence of ties after manumission as perceived in tenth to twelfth century al-Andalus is the subject of Cristina de la Puente’s contribution. Using notarial manuals as the main set of sources, she analyses how owners could reach a freedom agreement with their slaves on the condition of subsequent payments for their release. This contracted form of manumission by instalments, which shows similarities with practices such as that of the Talla in Christian lands in that same period,3 created a new form of dependence even after the formal bond of slavery was dissolved in name. Manumitted slaves through these contracts maintained obligations towards their former owners.

18Luciano Gallinari’s contribution focuses on the manifestations of the different kinds of dependencies to be found in a very particular case study: that of Sardinia in the period between the eleventh and the fourteenth century before it entered the Aragonese sphere of influence. The dominion of the Eastern Roman Empire lasted beyond the physical presence of its representatives, leaving its imprint on relationships on different levels: servile work was determined by the fact that masters owned exclusively the work of those dependent on them, creating conditions for multiple configurations of shared ownership; at the same time, institutions were in good part dominated by family ties in which women played a significant role. Lastly, on a larger scale, he approaches the struggles of Sardinia as a political entity to limit their submission towards external elements such as the Papacy.

19Nicholas Coureas’ chapter focuses on the manumission of slaves in fourteenth and fifteenth century Famagusta. The author analyses notarial deeds to determine the profile of the slaves that were manumitted, of their owners and how those variables came into relation with the conditions under which they left their unfree status and how it was justified in the sources. The records show that aspects such as ethnicity religion, gender, age, and so forth were significant factors in how the manumissions took place and also in how they were recorded.

20Aysu Dincer’s chapter serves both as a sort of chronological epilogue for this volume and an invitation to further reflect on the continuity and self-perpetuation of forms of dependence beyond the artificial borders of established historical eras. Her analysis centres on a mid-sixteenth century survey carried out at a lordship in Cyprus that recorded all dependent peasants of that lordship. Through her analysis, she paints a picture frozen in time that shows the active equilibrium that regulated the freedoms and limitations of peasants according to the interests of their lords. Dependent peasants’ lives were curtailed by the bonds that they had with their lords. A whole give and take, looking for control on one part and trying to evade it on the other, can be perceived by the description of the situations of these individuals in the written records.

21Among these papers, also, common threads surface in relation to a number of aspects. A recurrent motif is the overlapping of different forms of personal dependency on the same person. These overlaps could happen because the bonds operated at different scales, but also because the system allowed for concurrent bonds that linked the same individual to different people in the same manner, as shown by the Sardinian case explored by Gallinari in his paper. The mechanics involved in shared dependences could and did bring conflicts of interest among the different parties involved and also result in a wide range of manifestations in the way that the submitted individuals were obligated, coerced and restricted in their actions.

22Another phenomenon that repeats itself in different case studies is the continuity of forms of dependence –and the obligations that they implied- even when the original bond had been formally interrupted by manumission or some other mechanism. De la Puente and Coureas, for example, highlight this point, as well as the liminal spaces that could be found in the process of dissolving the bonds.

23Another aspect that is shown by the papers, and especially González González and Aysu Dincer’s, is that ruptures in the forms that unfreedom took were not common. Bookending the medieval period, their analysis shows how change in dependence forms was slow to happen and gradual, as without a traumatic event the forms tended to perpetuate themselves. This allowed for forms of slavery inherited from Roman times to survive into the medieval kingdom of Asturias, where it transformed to adapt to the new times, and medieval servitude kept many of its traits in sixteenth century Cyprus.

  • 4 Not in vain, the symbolism found in visual depictions of vassalage and captivity were similar throu (...)
  • 5 Uebel and Robertson, 2004, p. 6.

24This coexistence of continuity and change through time play an important part in the configuration of restrictions imposed and self-imposed, and in sum, in the limitations to freedoms that is implicit in the establishment of bonds of dependency. For that reason, it is a necessary task to endeavour to distinguish the sometimes ambiguous terminology contained in the written sources. It is the hope of the editors that this volume contributes to rethinking and more accurately defining concepts such as captivity, slavery, manumission or serfdom, among others used in the sources to imply dependence.4 Categories such as those of serfs and slaves were far from being fixed during the Middle Ages, and moreover, as pointed out elsewhere, the characterization was often turned into ideological and philosophical questions by the Church and secular authorities.5

25Each of the chapters included in this volume offer original and innovative ways to look at the unfreedom brought by the bonds of dependence, from their establishment to their dissolution. Still, after working on this collective volume, we, the editors, are left with the certainty that there is still a lot to be known and explored, and that throwing out assumptions and building from the ground using the information that comes from the sources with an open mind is a necessary and unavoidable task.

26For this reason, this volume has been purposely left without conclusions. This is because it does not aim to solve the questions that we posed at the beginning when we invited the contributors to present their case studies, but rather to problematize them and to stir debate and reflection to advance our understanding of the forms of unfreedom and their implications for the societies of the medieval Mediterranean.


DONNE, John (1959). “Meditation XVII”. In Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions; Together with Death's Duel. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, pp. 107-109. Available online:

FERRER ABÁRZUZA, Antoni (2021). “Contracts of talla, from captivity to precarious labour in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries”. Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies 13:3, pp. 331-349.

KULAYEVA, S. B. (2003). “Symbolic Gestures of Dependence as Part of Medieval Homage Ritual”. Medium Aevum Quotidianum Sonderband 13, pp. 13-27.

UEBEL, Michael and ROBERTSON, Kellie (2004). “Conceptualizing labor in the Middle Ages“. In Robertson, Kellie and Uebel, Michael (eds.). The Middle Ages at work: practicing labor in late medieval England. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 1-15.


1 We are thankful to Ana Echevarria Arsuaga and Jessica Tearney-Pearce for their suggestions and comments to this text.

2 Donne, 1959, p. 108.

3 Ferrer Abárzuza, 2021.

4 Not in vain, the symbolism found in visual depictions of vassalage and captivity were similar throughout the Middle Ages (Kulayeva, 2003, p. 18).

5 Uebel and Robertson, 2004, p. 6.

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