Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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Thursday, March 09, 2006
Demise of slavery - another installment, possibly the last. JEM writes:
I've found it!

As soon as the 14th century reared its ugly head in this slavery debate, I knew the essential reading on this was highly respected historian Barbara Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror -- The Calamitous 14th Century". But could I find it? I have vast numbers of books, yet am no librarian. I knew the book was there, but could not find it.

Until I went looking for something else this evening...

I'll have to read the whole thing. But one little point... well all right, big point, is worth bringing to the fore right now:

Tuchman focusses her history around the life and times and experiences of one French nobleman, Enguerrand de Coucy VII, who lived from 1340 to 1397, and through his marriage to the eldest daughter of the King of England, was closely entwined in the story of both England and France, although these countries were at war with each other throughout this period.

I quote:

[In 1368] ... [Coucy's] own domain ... suffered from the shortage of labor that was afflicting landowners everywhere since the Black Death. Picardy, in the path of English penetration from the start, had suffered not only from invaders but also from the Jacquerie and the ravaging of the Anglo-Navarrese. Rather than pay the repeated taxes that follow upon French defeats, peasants deserted to nearby imperial territory in Hainault and across the Meuse.

To hold labor on the land, Coucy's rather belated remedy was enfranchisement of the serfs, or non-free peasants and villagers, of his domain. From "hatred of servitude," his charter acknowledged, they had been leaving, "to live outside our lands, in certain places, freeing themselves without our permission and making themselves free whenever it pleased them." (A serf who reached territory outside his lord's writ and stayed for a year was regarded as free.) ... Coucy's territory was late in the dissolution of serfdom, perhaps owing to former prosperity. ...Abolition had occurred less from any moral judgement of the evils of servitude than as a means of raising ready money from the rents. Though the paid labor of free tenants was more expensive than the unpaid labor of serfs, the cost was more than made up by the rents, and, besides, tenants did not have to be fed on the job, which had amounted to an important expense.

In other words, quite clearly it was the profit motive, not morality, that freed the serfs. And further reading makes it equally clear how the difference between slaves and serfs was in real life a difference without a distinction.

All of which is just about exactly what I've been saying.

Game, set and match, I think!

I hope I don't unduly annoy JEM, whose emails I value, but I don't think so at all. This is not because I disbelieve the information quoted from A Distant Mirror, which I also own. It's a fine book. Rather it is because I think that what ARC has been saying is not invalidated by the evidence Tuchman provides.

Re-reading some earlier posts by JEM, ARC and others, it seems to me that although there are significant differences as to points of fact (for example, was the Black Death more or less severe in Britain than elsewhere, was serfdom significantly different from slavery), nonetheless neither side disputes that serfdom had gone by around 1500 and that this was not brought about by moral scruples or religion. Correspondents differ as to how big a role various non-moral causes such as the Black Death, the Little Ice Age, various wars or the invention of the horse collar played.

JEM then goes on to say that, whereas this or that economic or environmental cause could end slavery in this or that country, only for the institution to rise again later, it was the Industrial Revolution that put the stake through its heart wordwide. Short term it may not have done, but long term it did.

But whereas ARC agrees (I think) that the Industrial Revolution and its Siamese twin, capitalism, had the long term effect of finally making sure slavery did not pay, he says that one of the reasons that the Industrial Revolution happened in England was that England had been a non-slave society, until it was "re-infected" with the slavery virus via the African trade. Mere circumstances had taught them that a non-slave society could work just fine. Then they had the moral choice whether they wanted that sort of society or not. It is true that eventually mechanical inventions would, in Adam Smith's words, produce "their legitimate effect, that of abridging labour" and "effect those great changes in human destiny, which it is in their nature and in their futurity to accomplish". It is true that this destiny was widely predicted, as evinced by the famous prediction from Smith himself that I just quoted. But it wasn't obvious to everyone. And the prospect of just allowing this outrage to continue for decades or even centuries while the glacier of economic necessity inched its way to the sea was unbearable to good men.

This brings me to a recent Samizdata post by Johnathan Pearce, "A good man who made a difference." It is about the anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Clarkson. Pearce writes:

But even though there is some truth in ascribing changes to these things [economic forces], as this Wikipedia entry accepts, it still requires the energy and commitment of actual people to force the pace of change. We do not know, for instance, how long slavery might have persisted under the British Empire had people like Clarkson not bothered to campaign against it. It is fair to assume, however, that it ended a good deal sooner than otherwise and hence millions of people probably owed what freedoms they had to people such as this fellow.
I am conscious that I have, perhaps, both put words into the mouth of ARC (whose opinions on this are close to mine but not identical to mine) and given a slightly rough ride to the words of JEM. It is clear from many other emails of his that JEM has no desire to denigrate those who campaigned against slavery, he just thinks that economics came first.

Guys, I just don't think we are going to agree. Unless anyone feels really hard done by I think the destiny and futurity of this thread is to be put to bed for a while.