On the gradual unwinding of slavery

Nick Spencer says the reality is more complicated than we used to think.



Nick Spencer says the reality is more complicated than we used to think.


There used to be the idea put forward by people like … thinkers like Chesterton and Belloc a hundred years ago that the influence of Christianity on slavery in Western civilisation was a gradual unwinding of an institution that was solid in the classical world and unacceptable in the early modern world.

Not quite as simple as that. For a start, emancipation played a very big part in the classical world, and there were a whole load of serfs who might not have been quite as tied to their masters as ancient slaves were but were nonetheless very far from being free.

You do get fascinating glimpses – there is a few sermons preached, I think it’s by Gregory of Nazianzus [correction: Nyssa] in the fourth century, which blasts the idea of slavery: it is not legitimate for one man to own another man, because only God can own men. One could say that’s a lone voice crying in the wilderness. It is an extreme voice – it’s a remarkable thing to be saying at the time. And it certainly isn’t implemented. But the ideas, because they are so central to Christianity – about who God is and what being made in the image of God means – never go away and they make the wholesale owning of people just a bit more difficult to sustain.

That, plus the fact that the structures, the civic structures of the ancient world collapse as well, means that if slavery continued into the Dark Ages it has to continue in a slightly different form. So there is an unwinding, if you like, but it happens theoretically much quicker than it happens practically, and of course, as all these things are, it’s sporadic and circumstantial.