The Slaves of the Churches: A History

ISBN : 9780190073268

Mary E. Sommar
296 Pages
156 x 235 mm
Pub date
Sep 2020
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In recent years, stories of religious universities and institutions grappling with their slave-owning past have made headlines in the news. People find it shocking that the Church itself could have been involved in such a sordid business. This timely book, the result of many years of research, is a study of the origins of this problem. Mary E. Sommar examines how the church sought to establish norms for slave ownership on the part of ecclesiastical institutions and personnel, and for others' behavior towards such slaves. The story begins in the New Testament era, when the earliest Christian norms were established, and continues up to thirteenth-century establishment of a body of canon law that would persist into the twentieth century. Along with her analysis of the various policies and statutes, Sommar draws on chronicles, letters, and other documents from each of the various historical periods to provide insight into the situations of unfree ecclesiastical dependents. She finds that unfree dependents of the Church actually had less chance of achieving freedom than did the slaves of other masters. The church authorities' duty to preserve the Church's patrimony for the needs of future generations led them to hold on tightly to their unfree human resources. This accessibly written book does not present an apology for the behavior of past Christian leaders, but attempts to learn what they did and to arrive at some understanding of why they made those choices.


1: Introduction
2: The New Testament and Slavery
3: Slavery in the Early Church
4: Slavery in the Imperial Church
5: Ecclesiastical Slavery in the Germanic Kingdoms
6: Carolingians and Ecclesiastical Servitude
Ecclesiastical Slavery in the British Isles
7: The Classical Canon Law
8: The Slaves of the Churches: Conclusions
Latin Lexicon

About the author: 

Mary Sommar has taught ancient and medieval history for the past twenty years, most of them at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. She also spent two years as a visiting scholar at the Stephan Kuttner Institute for Medieval Canon Law in Munich, Germany and a year as a Visiting Fellow at Yale University.

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