Abstracts: Freedom, Slavery, Imprisonment


Sarah M. Anderson, Princeton University: Sex Work and Forced Labor in Three Old English Riddles

In three Old English riddles found in the late-tenth-century Exeter Book manuscript (12, 52, and 72), the forced labor of an ox is imaginatively bound to the work of an enslaved person, a wealh.  Although this OE word may mean simply “foreigner”, its denotations include both a person of Celtic ethnicity (i.e., a Welsh man or woman) and a slave.  That has rendered wealh everything but simple to construe, especially in this riddling literary genre. 

That native Britons were enslaved by invading Anglo-Saxon people is recorded as early as the sixty-century account of Gildas, in which he melodramatically declares that Celts who surrendered to their conquerors “were fated to be slaves forever” (dabant in aevum servituri).  Since David Pelteret’s pathbreaking 1995 study of legal, literary, and historical witnesses to slavery from the ninth-century reign of Alfred through the twelfth-century collapse of Anglo-Saxon England, the violent social reality of slavery in this period and place has been exposed as the operating poetic fiction in an increasing number of OE texts.  These three “oxen riddles” are no exception, and scholars have yoked the cattle of the riddles to the forced labor of human chattel (e.g., Neville [2012] and Brady [2014]) through the word wealh

In this paper, I will argue not only that these three riddles exploit the ox and wealh as doubled figures for forced labor, but also that riddle 12’s word-play takes advantage of the sex work of a “dark-colored slave woman” (riddle 12, line 6a, wonfah wale; cf. riddle 72, line 11a’s “dark herder” [sweartum hyrde]) to make its poetic point.  How do the “color” words in these riddles darken the problems of OE wealh?  These three riddles also add evidence to arguments about how the labor economy was directly contributed to by the unfree in the medieval West (cf. Michael McCormick, The Origins of the European Economy [2001]).  Broadly, the riddles suggest, too, how multiplying trade routes from the British Isles to Mediterranean ports and even to Byzantium were indirectly sustained by the exchange of slaves for luxury items like silk, incense, and spices (cf. Alice Rio, Slavery after Rome [2017]).

Carlee Arnett, University of California at Davis: Thralls in Old Icelandic Literature: Historical trope or literary device?

It should come as no surprise that the sagas and laws of Iceland in the medieval period reflect the cultural norms and views of the elite.  As the phrase goes, history is told by the victors.  In addition, in Iceland, it is also told by those who have the social standing to be heard as a story-teller or lawspeaker and those who have access to writing and the patronage to write without fear of reprisal.  The elite social status of the crafters of the sagas and the laws has caused many scholars to view whatever is written about the thrall in Icelandic sagas as not reflective of the realities of their lives and also as unduly positive (Brink 2008). Although Brink is correct about the authors’, thralls are portrayed in the sagas as ‘others’ as a result of their lack of lineage and the way they have entered Icelandic society.  There are recognizable characteristics of thralls that show that they are at the bottom of the Icelandic social hierarchy (Karras 1998). The Icelandic culture of the time constructs the identity of a slave as someone who is not a real part of society because they have no family history, they did not come to Iceland of their own volition and they are expected to serve in order to bolster the material status of others.

The worst punishment in medieval Iceland was to be outlawed or outside of the law-stripped of family status and heritage, banned from the support of society and forced to leave. A banished person is free to seek their fortune elsewhere without the resources of Icelandic society. A thrall is also able to improve their circumstances without resources or support from society, but without whatever good fortune an outlaw can find elsewhere. Outlaws and thralls who achieve what is valuable to Icelandic society against the odds are highly praised and gain a certain status. But just because a few can rise in the social hierarchy, the daily reality of those at the bottom of society does not change. Since the ‘saga slaves’ are not known to be actual historical figures, these thralls cannot be seen as models for social advancement.

              This paper will give a brief summary of the historical and archaeological evidence for slavery in Iceland and show how society constructs the thrall’s identity as a slave.  Using a historically based portrait of the thrall as a benchmark, the passages in the sagas that refer to slaves can be analyzed to see to what extent they reflect known historical reality. It is my hypothesis that while slaves (primarily women) were taken captive in raids and either sold at a slave market or ransomed back to their families and their function is to generate wealth, we will not see this reflected in the sagas.  Instead, the sagas present certain thralls as complex individuals who serve a purpose in the narrative, which is to either help or hinder the character in focus, and move the story along.

Brink, Stefan. 2008. Slavery in the Viking Age. In The Viking World (eds.) Brink, Stefan and Neil Price, 49-56. London: Routledge.

Karras, Ruth. 2017. The Identity of the Slave in Scandinavia. In Critical Readings on Global Slavery (eds.) Pargas, Damian and Felicia Rosu, 699-741. Leiden: Brill.


Maha Baddar, Pima Community College, Tucson, and Sally Abed, University of Alexandria, Egypt: Rescuing and Relocating Muslims and Jews after the Reconquista: An Examination of the Ottoman Role

After the Spanish Reconquista (1492), the promise for Jews and Muslims to continue living and practicing freely in Spain did not hold for long. Both groups were subject to persecution, expulsion, and the harrows of the Inquisition according to archival accounts. This joint paper looks at the efforts of persecuted families and individuals to maintain their religious and cultural identity while going under cover. What forms of resistance did people put up to avoid possible imprisonment and persecution? Along with this, the paper also looks at the Ottoman rescue attempts at the hand of the controversial Barbarossa brothers and the relocation of the persecuted families in other parts of the world. The whole paper treads new ground and underscores issues of identity, visibility, resistance, persecution, lack of freedom, relocation and migration, all of which are still pressing questions carried over from the global Middle Ages to our modern-day life. The paper will shed light not only on the Ottoman efforts at rescuing and relocating the Andalusian Muslims and Jews, an effort that has been consistently undermined or overlooked in medieval and early modern scholarship, it will also examine the assimilation of Jews in the Ottoman society with a special emphasis on presenting evidence of religious freedom and assimilation within the multicultural Ottoman empire.



Nayel A Badareen, University of Arizona: Conventional Slavery in Historical, Institutional, and Jurisdictional Contexts: The Ottoman Empire’s Challenges in Forbidding Conventional Slavery

The institution of slavery is considered by many to be one of the darkest chapters in the history of humanity. The practice of purchasing and selling human beings into human bondage survived for centuries. Abolishing slavery was a difficult task due to the complex economies of many nations, where slavery contributed to the main economy. By analyzing Islamic substantive law (fiqh) regarding slavery and the history of changes in Islamic substantive law, in this presentation I argue that the underlying Islamic jurisdictional, institutional and historical causes allowed slavery to continue unchallenged despite the human suffering and the ban on such practice by Western states. The presentation will illustrate the difficulty some of the Muslim states, the Ottoman government, face when attempting to abolish and forbid such a practice sanctioned by the Holy Qur’an and the tradition of Prophet Muhammad. The presentation will also contextualize the processes that enable slavery to continue by tracing the practice’s history, jurisdictional lineage, and institutional supports.


Chiara Benati, Università degli Studi di Genova: "Insprinc haptbandun, inuar uigandun: Magical remedies to escape from imprisonment in the Germanic tradition"

Despite class differences, the concern with freedom was present, at different levels, throughout medieval and early modern society and, as history clearly demonstrates, representatives of all classes were constantly struggling to expand their liberty. Complementarily, the lack of freedom in form of confinement, imprisonment, captivity or servitude was a condition that medieval and early modern people would desperately try to avoid. In order to do this, they also had recourse to magic: special runes were used to loosen fetters and charms (German Lösesegen) were pronounced to obtain the release of prisoners. The best-known formula of this kind is certainly the 9th-century heathen-flavored First Merseburg Charm. Nevertheless, as I will try to show in this paper, in the Germanic language area the tradition of release charms and blessings is much richer and more heterogeneous, as far as forms and motifs are concerned, than the immediate association to its most famous example would suggest.

Siegfried Christoph, Emeritus Professor of German, University of Wisconsin-Parkside: Instances of Kidnapping and Hostage-Taking in Medieval German Literature

Following terminological clarification, the paper will examine the motives of several instances of kidnapping and hostage-taking in selected medieval German examples from largely vernacular literature.

Discussion will focus on examples will include courtly literatures, e.g. Hartmann von Aue's Iwein, and non-courtly literature, e.g. Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan.

The aim of the paper will be to contrast real instances of kidnapping or hostage-taking and fictional instances. The argument will be made that literary instances of kidnapping and hostage-taking have distinctly different aims and motives, depending upon the character of the presumptive antagonist. In this way, fictional instances of kidnapping and hostage-taking can be shaped to fit the mold of an idealized, 'courtly' self-perception.

Finally, the paper will propose that the idea of parole becomes a ubiquitous mechanism in literature to create a form of voluntarily surrendered liberty that preserves the dignity and order of an idealized value orientation.


Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona: The Experience of Imprisonment in Late Medieval Verse and Prose Narratives: Marie de France, Caesarius of Heisterbach, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Oswald von Wolkenstein, and Marguerite de Navarre


This paper discusses the motif of imprisonment as used by a wide range of late medieval poets who obviously realized the great use of this topic for many different purposes. Both satire and lament are at play, depending on the circumstances. Whereas most of the poems and narratives have already been discussed from a variety of perspectives, the topic of imprisonment in the literary discourse during the late Middle Ages has not yet been considered with any attention.


Allison P. Coudert, University of California at Davis: "A Question of Nerves: The Role of Neuroscience in Justifying Slavery and Incarceration in the Long Eighteenth-Century”

Although many scholars have rejected Foucault's characterization of the Age of the Enlightenment as one of repression and incarceration rather than progress and increasing liberalism, his contentious reappraisal encouraged scholars to investigate the less salubrious aspects of eighteenth-century culture. This essay examines the way the new science of neurobiology, established by Thomas Willis at the end of the seventeenth century, was deployed during the long eighteenth century to justify the enslavement and imprisonment (in reform schools, poor houses, and asylums) of those members of society deemed neurobiologically unfit and incapable of becoming fully civilized. This latter category included individuals from what were described at the time as the primitive races (especially slaves), the poor and disabled, and a significant portion of women depicted as childlike and hysterical. This is not to deny the progressive aspects of much of eighteenth-century science and philosophy but to emphasize the fact that neither science nor philosophy are neutral but embedded in culture and responsive to the convictions and prejudices of individuals. 


Leah Faibisoff, Scuola Normale Superiore, Letteratura e filologia romanza, Pisa: ‘Liberi soggiacete’: Fortune, Free Will, and Political Subjecthood in Inferno VII, Purgatorio XVI, and De Monarchia I, xii

In Inferno VII, Dante represents Fortune as a heavenly force appointed by God to administer the conditions of his providential vision. Happily indifferent, Fortuna distributes worldly goods amongst humans according to necessity: “necessità la fa esser …”, “necessity compels her” (my translation; Inf. VII, 89). This heterodox, determinist view of the goddess generated a deal of discussion amongst Dante’s contemporaries and earliest commentators as, for example, Cecco d’Ascoli, Benvenuto da Imola, and Giovanni Boccaccio. At stake was the perennial question of what constitutes the good life and, in pursuit of that life, whether man is governed by necessity or retains the capacity of free will. Dante complicates this determinism in Purgatorio XVI where, on the terrace of the wrathful, Dante and Virgil meet Marco Lombardo. For Dante, as for political thinkers before and after him, fortune and freedom were not merely philosophical questions; they were political ones, and in Purgatorio XVI the discourse on determinism and free will is part-and-parcel of Dante’s convictions about faulty government in Italy. The discussion between the pilgrim and Marco Lombardo, placed at the very center of the Commedia, is the key moment in which Dante delimits the roles of Fortune and free will and reveals an idea of subjecthood within his political theology. “You, free, are subject (“liberi, soggiacete”) to the higher power and better nature that created the mind in you, which the heavens do not have in their care; and if the world goes astray, in you is the reason” (my translation; Purg. XVI, 79-83). This paper will key these two cantos of the Commedia to Dante’s description of freedom in chapter twelve of De Monarchia in order to gauge the range and limits of Dante’s human freedom. Ultimately, the way Dante treats the concept of Fortune (or, contingency in socio-political life) within his vision of ideal authority informs his notion of freedom and subjecthood in political society.

Fidel Fajardo-Acosta, Creighton University, NE:

Title: How to Celebrate Being Released from Prison: A Cat, A Crusader, and Two Courtly Ladies in William IX's "Farai un vers, pos mi sonelh"

The infamous red cat featured in William IX's "Farai un vers, pos mi sonelh" (I will make a song since I am sleepy) (ca. 1106) is a creature endowed with the proverbial nine and even more lives, at least symbolic ones. One of those symbolic incarnations involves its association with matters of freedom and imprisonment, captivity and delivery. The song in effect, as has been known for quite some time, at least since the studies of Rita Lejeune and Gerald Bond, appears to have been inspired by the 1106 visit to the Midi of the crusading hero, Bohemond (ca. 1054‒1111), after his release from almost three years of captivity (1100‒1103) among Danishmend Turks. In addition to visiting William in Poitiers, Bohemond made a stop at Noblat, near Limoges, to offer his thanks and tribute at the shrine of St. Leonard, the patron saint of prisoners. Both Bond and Lejeune believed that Bohemond was the model of the rascal pilgrim in William's song, who, while traveling on a road in the vicinity of St. Leonard's shrine, pretends to be mute and allows himself to be mauled by the red cat so he can spend over a week of debauchery in the company of two rather adventurous and sexually voracious courtly ladies, Agnes and Ermessen, said to be the wives of the Lord Guari and the Lord Bernart. In addition to his functions as patron saint of prisoners, however, St. Leonard was also venerated as a protector of women, especially during childbirth, seen as a moment of delivery, for both mother and child, from the captivity of pregnancy. In keeping with both sets of functions of the saint, the chains kept at his shrine represented both the instruments used to restrain prisoners and the umbilical cord tying child and mother. Further strengthening those associations, the town of Noblat appears to have ties to the cult of cats, which were seen, like St. Leonard, as protectors of women. A cat cult in the Midi included figures like St. Agatha (known as Santo Gato in Toulouse) and involved feast days allowing women both sexual freedom and freedom from domestic labor. The week of sexual license enjoyed by the pilgrim and the ladies in William's song is, in that sense, a manifestation of a, perhaps only imaginary but nonetheless culturally significant, medieval tradition of orgiastic celebration of liberation from literal imprisonment and also of the enjoyment of freedom from gender roles, social conventions, and the sexual restrictions and burdens associated with marriage and child-bearing.



J. Michael Fulton, Oral Roberts University, OK: Variance in Inquisitorial Prison Conditions: The Valladolid Trials of Fray Luis de León and Three Other Humanists in the 1570s.

The Spanish Inquisition developed a formidable reputation during the years it operated, a reputation that persists today in popular culture. To be sure, this institution was unique in several important respects. But historians who examine its impact in Spain must not forget an important variable: the human element. In fact, despite the Inquisition’s pervasive influence in Early Modern Spain and its well-deserved reputation for bureaucratic efficiency, the individuals who composed it introduced an element of unpredictability that resulted in fascinating exceptions to the ordinary protocols that were followed generally. In order to explore these exceptions, this paper will compare lists of instructions published by the Inquisition in the sixteenth century with the trials of Fray Luis de León and three other scholars imprisoned in Valladolid in 1572. Their trial transcripts, consisting of notes taken by Inquisitorial scribes during audiences with prisoners, reveal that conditions in the Valladolid jail differed from standard procedures in significant ways.

Filip Hrbek, Ústí nad Labem, Czech Republic: Health and Community Rescue or Soul’s Salvation? Incarceration as an Anti-plague Measure in the Bohemia in the 16th and 17th Centuries

The paper will focus on an analysis of selected anti-plague prints and selected regulations issued in the Czech language in Bohemia in the Early Modern Age before the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War. Both of these types of sources were designed primarily for an individual person as being a kind of recommendation for their “well-being” and “good lifestyle” during the period of the threat of plague. As well, these documents were also designed for the entire communities in the towns’ population in order to provide the means to fight the plague in the public environment of these towns in early modern Europe. Besides there being plague treatises written by a single author, there were also official administrative regulations issued that were designed to protect the public environment and localities and to set up mechanisms for local governments and urban society for the period of a threat of a plague epidemic.

The paper will mainly analyze the pieces on collective prophylactic measures. The analysis will be focused on the measures that caused the action of imposing quarantines on whole cities, the incarceration of the infected population within their homes and further social marginalization. These precautions occur both in the sources designed for individuals and in the sources designed for whole communities; and consequently, as such, they will be confronted by the defiance of some church representatives regarding these precautions. These negative attitudes on the anti-plague collective measures represent the views of authors that are for the purpose of this paper denoted as clergy. This group of authors attempted to point out a social and human dimension of the given measures and the impact of such measures on the life of a community as a whole. They also tried to point out that the plague is primarily a punishment for the sins of humankind and therefore the plague is not to be treated as a contagious disease here.

The introduction of severe collective prophylactic measures in spite of the clerics’ defiance is thus possibly interpreted as one of the related phenomena of disseminating scientific knowledge in early modern Central Europe and the clash of progressive scientific knowledge with the conservative part of society. At the same time, such disputes could be observed as a discourse, where the contradiction of health versus illness serves as a disciplinary instrument for the population by means of state secular power and thus as an instrument for gradual rationalization of the early modern state. On the grounds of such knowledge, we can illustrate that the assertion of collective measures for the fight with a plague epidemic could be understood also as a clash between progressive scientific, partly objective medicine (represented by the “men of progress,” who are of almost an enlightened nature) with the church values defended for ages by traditionalists, who mainly tried to preserve the fundamental function of human society and its individual communities in accordance with Christian ethic norms. This topic is even more acute now, as to be currently seen that humankind is confronted with new contagious diseases, whose outbreaks end up introducing similar measures that may not differ so much from the instruments of protection of public health in the period of European Early Modern Age.

Daniel F. Pigg, The University of Tennessee at Martin: From Imprisonment to Liberation: Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale as a Multi-Layered Exploration of a Paradigm

Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, the first tale in The Canterbury Tales, explores the concept of imprisonment to liberation on several seemingly independent, but interconnected levels. The tale begins with Theseus’s imprisoning of Palamon and Arcite after a war, but without the possibility of ransom. Thus Chaucer through his knight begins with a very material representation of the classical-age taking of prisoners, but, of course, is understood through the concept of imprisonment, particularly among the knightly classes of the Middle Ages. Closely connected to the knightly class is a pattern of written discourse that Chaucer had explored in The Book of the Duchess, and in the Knight’s Tale, the Knight has Arcite to explore this dimension with the songs that he sings in lament over unrequited love. It too, of course, is another aspect of imprisonment, but one rooted in futility given that Emelye knows nothing of his pain that is valorized in the lyric.

The first two of these imprisonments to liberation narratives are specifically related to Palamon and Arcite. As the tale continues, the building of the enclosure or theatre in which Palamon and Arcite will engage in a tournament designed by Theseus to reward the winner with the hand of Emelye represents another kind of imprisonment. In this case, three temples, shrines, or stations are built for Venus, Mars, and Diana, with the iconography of each space containing within the design images of violence, entrapment, and liberation. These geographically oriented centers around the circle present a more cosmic view of imprisonment to liberation, but they also introduce ambiguity in the interplay with the central narrative related to the tournament of Palamon and Arcite.

Finally, at the end of the tale, Theseus ask the question in a final meeting with the court, Palamon and Arcite relative to life itself; “Why grucchen we, why have we hevynesse, / That goode Arcite, of chivalrie flour, / Departed is with deutee and honor / Out of this foule prisoun of this lyf?” That life itself is called a prison raises the concept of imprisonment to the theological level, not unknown to the speculation of Theseus in the tale. The sense of transcendence is clearly present in Theseus’ words, and those words form the basis of reconciling images of imprisonment and freedom seen throughout the poem.

Chaucer through the Knight in his tale explores the implications of imprisonment and freedom in ways that critique and transform the understanding. Clearly, the Knight believes he has won the contest for the pilgrim tale with the most “sentence” from the very start, and in that sense, he may actually be correct. What Chaucer does, however, is to critique that very stable sense of meaning by introducing the deconstructive analysis of each of these kinds of imprisonment to freedom paradigms in the clever analysis provided by the Miller. In that sense, Chaucer problematizes the very polarities and humorous contradictions of imprisonment and freedom from the outset of the quest toward Canterbury.


Filip Radovic and David Bennett, University of Gothenburg, Sweden: A Rendezvous with the Angel of Death: Puzzles on Free Will and Fatalism


This paper will examine a parable that is expressed in Rumi’s Masnavi about a man who meets the Angel of Death and attempts to escape his fate only to find that Death expects him at the very location he seeks refuge. The parable has deep roots in Near Eastern folklore and religious traditions, going back to the Babylonian Talmud. The paper will focus on Rumi’s version of the story and the murky traces of other medieval sources. The story has many allegorical layers, but it is most effective as a meditation on the crucial question of free will, i.e., as an illustration of how actions can be conceived as free even if the consequences of these actions are fated or foreknown. Rumi was well-versed in contemporary Islamic theology and philosophy, as his framing of the story demonstrates. Various themes in the parable are highlighted such as backward causation, freedom of action in relation to the inevitability of fated future events, and the element of coercion; these themes all figure in medieval discussions of free will in the Islamic and Christian traditions. Older ancient texts that highlight similar points are briefly considered as well as modern adaptions of the story known as Death speaks (from William Somerset Maugham's play Sheppey, 1933) or Appointment in Samarra (a novel by John O’Hara from 1934).

SCOTT L. TAYLOR, Pima Community College: “De carceribus: Differences between the Leges et consuetudines Angliae and the Jus Civile respecting Uses and Abuses of Detention, and the Early Evolution of the “Great Writ” of Habeas Corpus

In an era when imprisonment so oft brings to mind notions of penitentiaries and reformatories, it is sometimes forgotten that under the civil law tradition, incarceration could be utilized for a number of purposes such as detention pending investigation, guarantee of appearance at trial, or even coercion, but never as a form of punishment.  This doctrine reached a certain zenith with the tract De carceribus, variously attributed to Bartolus of Saxoferrto, Baldus Ubaldi or Peter of Ancarano, inter alia, although this paper will suggest that there is some evidence it may have been composed a century before these writers and have come into vogue within jurisprudential circles because contemporary practice favoring punitive incarceration was gaining in popularity despite venerated theory to the contrary.  In any event, though Henry de Bracton in deference to Ulpian repeats the general rule of the ius civile concerning incarceration in his magnum opus, De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae, to the effect that “carcer ad continendos et non ad puniendos haberi debet,”  English practice had always utilized imprisonment as a form of punishment, albeit sparingly,  and under successive Plantagenet monarchs continued to do so at an increasing incidence, typically under the provisions of statute rather than pursuant to the common law per se.  Consequentially, English law also fashioned a complex system of bail and of mainprise which generally presumed an entitlement to release pretrial or pending appeal.  As with any intricate apparatus, it was ripe for self-serving manipulation, and the system frequently led to abuses in setting terms of recognizance. Furthermore, the expansion of case mid-fourteenth century no longer requiring either covenant or the privity inherent in assumpsit, meant that in general, jailers had more to fear by not holding prisoners than ever they had from appeals or actions for false imprisonment, particularly within a political and social context that generally considered there to be too little, not too much, incarceration. However, the necessity of transferring those in gaol on whatever basis, either to answer in a different court, or to provide testimony, or simply as part of  mesne procedure, gave rise to a multiplicity of writs bearing the name habeas corpus, including habeas corpus ad deliberandum et recipiendum, habeas corpus cum causa, habeas corpus ad prosequendum, habeas corpus ad respondendum, habeas corpus ad testificandum, and habeas corpus ad satisfaciendum.  From these ultimately emerged the writ habeas corpus ad subjiciendum, which contrary to some popular and simplistic opinions did not emerge from Magna Carta and certainly not from the Assize of Clarendon, but was at first nothing more than a procedural device to produce the defendant ad faciendum, subjiciendum et recipiendum.  But as Maine so famously enunciated, the substantive law is “gradually secreted in the interstices of procedure,” and from what commenced as simply a procedural device emerged that remedy for unlawful detention or imprisonment which Blackstone described as the great and efficacious writ in all manner of illegal confinement, and which courts denominated “the great writ of liberty”. This paper will argue that this transformation of the writ into a guarantor of “the liberty of the subject” might never have taken place were it not for the association of imprisonment with punishment that distinguished English practice from continental theory – a distinction vestiges of which survive even today between Anglo-American practice and that of many civil law jurisdictions.


Warren Tormey, Middle Tennessee State University: Gehenna: From Biblical Wasteland to Renaissance Prison

Gehenna is a theologically loaded concept, emerging from the deep roots in the Old Testament in the Book of Jeremiah and elsewhere as the valley of Ben Hinnom, the domain of Moloch where pagan parents sacrificed their children, and in the New Testament, most notably in the Book of Mark, where Jesus describes his harrowing episode in terms of recalling the forlorn district outside of Jerusalem.  From these origins, Gehenna is associated with judgment, punishment, and banishment.  A range of early Christian commentators reference it in this context, most notably in the Pastoral Care of Gregory the Great but also Augustine, in De Civitas Dei and also in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, and in Bede’s discussions on the Epistle of St. James and on Holy Places. In these Latinate contexts, these writers apply a hellish character to this forlorn biblical wasteland in discussions about the fiery character of hell and the nature of sin.  I propose to explore the concept of Gehenna in its carceral associations, in ways that the term evolves to assume the character of a tangible prison environment.  Isidore of Seville reflects this habit most directly, while later Anglo Saxon writers, including Ǽlfric and Aldhelm express the habit of using gehenna as a synonym for the vernacular term hellefýr, but in these uses we see an impulse to ascribe a more deliberate, punitive character to the term.  In his commentaries on the Passion of St. Peter, for example, Aldhelm refers to gehenna in portraying the Saint’s banishment to Hell with the devil as a form of penance, and though not appearing directly in the twelfth-century Visions of Tundale or the Monk of Enysham, these works portray hellish dens of torment as physical and purgatorial spaces where sinners are tormented using specific instruments of torture to gain their atonement.  In medieval Latin, the term was elided with gehine, a term used in inquisitorial contexts referring to confession. This development that perhaps enabled the Renaissance writers Nashe and Milton also to reference gehenna more directly in this punitive context, with each associating the term directly with a prison space.  My essay will, therefore, explore the overlapping connections between the hellish wasteland, the character of sin, the exacting of punishment, and the deliberate evolution of this loaded concept into connotations suggesting a tangible carceral space. 

Justin Walden, Solmsen Visiting Fellow, Institute for Research in the Humanities, University of Wisconsin-Madison: “Not Adept at the Oar”: Racialized Justifications for Enslavement and SubSaharan Africans on Mediterranean Galley

Mediterranean slaving, which lasted from about 1550 to about 1750, initially took religion as the basis of enslavement: Christians enslaved Muslims and Muslims enslaved Christians, and galleys rowed by enslaved have been referred to as ‘floating prisons’. Yet as the enslavement of subSaharan Africans by Iberian powers progressed along the Atlantic coasts of West and Central Africa, new bases for enslavement—arguments resting on civility and pigmentation—were congealing. Given that these two slaving systems developed concurrently, proximally, and involved some of the same actors, how did they inform each other, particularly as relates to diverse justifications for enslavement?  Why, moreover, given the alarming and ever-increasing number of subSaharan Africans who were enslaved and sent across the Atlantic starting in the fifteenth century, did black Africans ultimately play a comparatively negligible role in the long life of Mediterranean galley slaving? 

A roster describing the characteristics of 126 slaves in Cagliari, Sicily from 1564 provides a window into Mediterranean enslavement at a key time and place and helps answer these questions. Geographically, Cagliari represents a central crossroad of the Mediterranean and one of the region’s busiest ports, and so can be seen as paramount in shaping the fortunes of Mediterranean slavery. The 1560s, too, were a critical decade for Mediterranean slaving, for it was by this point that the major Mediterranean powers had completed their galley fleets and had begun to formalize modes of slave selection and procurement. Mid-sixteenth century Cagliari can, therefore, be taken as both an index of and a vanguard for broader Mediterranean currents in the sale, exchange, purchase, and deployment of slaves as they developed over the next two hundred years.

The Cagliari roster provides critical information on slave lives and fortunes, indicating the varieties of labors to which slaves were assigned, the degree to which slaves were manumitted and integrated into their ‘host’ society, and the nature and extent of concubinage and children born from couplings between masters and female slaves. These indications, plus the roster’s listing of slave physical condition, ethnicity, skin color, and religious affiliation provide an important cross-section of the fluid and diverse nature of Mediterranean slavery.

Critically, the roster indexes a specific moment in the fortunes of Mediterranean, and hence world slavery in that it offers a determination of whether a given slave should be conscripted for galley service and why. That is, for example, it declared elderly and ill slaves to be unfit for galley service. Surprisingly, this list uniformly categorized subSaharan Africans as not able to row and excluded them from galley conscription, terming them “not adept (or adapted) to the oar”. Properly contextualized and understood, this determination shows that Mediterranean and Atlantic slave systems did, in fact, inform each other, though in unexpected ways. In short, the list exposes how emerging racializing attitudes developing in the Atlantic impacted justifications for enslavement in Mediterranean settings and why subSaharan African slaves did not come to play a prominent role in Mediterranean galley slaving. My paper will analyze, explicate, and critically examine this roster so as to unpack and explain Mediterranean slaving at this decisive moment.


Tom Willard, University of Arizona: “Freedome, high-day!”: The Savage Slave in the Early Modern Imagination


The figure of Caliban in Shakespeare’s 1611 romance The Tempest has become a point of reference for the consideration and reconsideration of the indigenous “other” in early modern culture. Described as “a saluage and deformed slaue” in the play’s dramatis personae, this character has a name commonly understood as an anagram of “canibal.” However, the play makes explicit reference to Montaigne’s essay “Des Cannibales,” which paints an idealized, almost utopian, image of the inhabitants of Brazil, showing them in stark contrast to the ostensibly civilized people of Western Europe.


For most of The Tempest’s stage history, Caliban was cast as a subhuman creature, more fish than human—one whom his master described as “a borne-Deuill, on whose nature / Nurture can neuer sticke.” In the nineteenth century, a university president wrote a book suggesting that he was “the missing link” between humans and lower life forms. Caliban and his counterpart Ariel, who is described as “an ayrie spirit,” were allegorized to represent the physical and mental aspects of Prospero, the play’s main character and almost a stand-in for Shakespeare himself as the manager of its stage action. Only in the later twentieth-century did directors like Peter Brook decide to cast Caliban as a handsome man whose only abnormalities were his moral outrage and his skin coloring—black if he was taken to be Negroid, his mother being of North African origin, or brown if he was taken to be an Indian of the New World or an Arab of the Maghrib. The Martinique playwright Aimé Césaire revised the play for a troupe of black and mulato actors. Whereas Shakespeare’s Caliban repents his attempted rebellion against Prospero, Césaire’s shouts “La liberté ohé!” as the play’s dernier cri.


As readers and theatergoers have become increasingly sympathetic to Caliban’s attempt to free himself from presumed slavery, others have retold his story as a postcolonial parable. The proposed paper will end with a reading of Marina Warner’s 1992 novel Indigo, based on the story of Caliban’s mother and her descendants over several generations. Perhaps the postcolonial interpretations of the play, though supported by evidence about England’s early experience with slavery, simply continue the tradition of allegorizing Shakespeare.



Birgit Wiedl, Institut für jüdische Geschichte Österreichs, St. Pölten, Austria: Jews in Christian Prisons

When in 1404, a Christian thief accused the Jews of the city of Salzburg of having incited him to steal host wafers for them, all the Jews "young and old, male and female" were immediately incarcerated, where they confessed to what their Christian torturers wanted to hear.

While Jews could be imprisoned in Christian prisons for 'normal' crimes as well, the bulk of Jewish prisoners were sent there on grounds of perceived crimes that were thought to be specifically Jewish. In their narratives and trial records, Christians often paid particular attention to Jews in (their) prisons; e.g., the records of the Simon of Trent-trial give an in-depth account not only of the Jews' interrogations but also of their fate(s) in prison. Most notably, suicides of Jewish prisoners were described in detail, with a particular focus on male suicides, and were often interpreted as a mirror punishment for the Jews' crime. By analyzing selected narratives, the paper aims at discussing the Christian fascination with imprisoned Jews and the Jewish bodies in their captivity.



Angela Zhang, York University, Toronto: Discourses on Freedom and Slavery in Florentine Thought

When Petrarch writes to the archbishop of Genoa about the “deformed Scythian faces” of slaves coming into the port of Venice, he was placing himself in the long humanist tradition of the association of otherness with slavery and dehumanization. Florentine humanists engaged in the creation of civic liberty through the rhetoric of slavery. They established themselves as citizens of a free Christian city – simultaneously a new Jerusalem and a new Athens – while holding Christian female slaves. This contradiction was an uncomfortable one for Florentine humanists, whose creation of a humanist and moral identity rose out of their experiences with their own slaves.

While Florentine humanists produced many prescriptive literary works on the responsibilities of a wife to control her servants, they penned no literary treatise on the proper way to treat slaves. Florentine humanists avoided writing about their experiences with slavery at all despite writing extensively on prescriptions of ideal behavior. This lack of discussion was significant since Florentine humanists used the household as a microcosm of the state – a city with well-run households indicated a well-run state. It is no surprise then that Florentines did not talk about slavery within the household in an argument that positioned Florence as the ideal free city. In engaging with this tradition of liberty and Christian charity, Florentine humanists avoided the discussion of actual slavery within their city and engaged with it only theoretically as a rhetorical device.

This paper argues that Florentine humanists created their identity through the rhetoric of a free state based on the ongoing processes of othering through domestic slavery. One result of Florence’s strong republican tradition was that citizenship was based on civic and established procedures rather than the whim of princely favor. Florentines thus created the conditions of citizenship through defining an “in-group” with the categories of citizenship. Through this in-group, their vision of “Florentine-ness” excluded those that did not belong due to their foreign attributes. By finding the meanings of “Florentine-ness” through its humanists, this paper will attempt to find the justification for slavery in the dichotomy of belonging and otherness.  Florence had a unique position as the progenitor of a European narrative of liberal republicanism while simultaneously holding foreign slave women as domestic slaves. Insofar as Florence is part of the historical canon as the basis of European uniqueness, Florentine ideas on slavery also play a crucial role in the construction of the European settler-colonial narrative.