European Christianity and Slavery

European Christianity and Slavery

European Christianity and Slavery: The concept of race and racial hierarchy did not determine who could and could not be sold into slavery in Western Europe prior to the New World’s invasion.

Instead, the Early Middle Ages, which spanned the fifth through the ninth centuries, marked the limits of slavery in Europe. According to historian David Brion Davis, it was eventually possible to avoid European Christians enslaving one another because to the Judeo-Christian belief in a monotheistic God who rules over a single race of people.

As more people in western Europe adopted Christianity, slavery on that continent gradually declined, but other rigid social and economic structures persisted. By the year 1500, Christians in Europe thought that slavery was a more cruel penalty than death for offenders and prisoners of war.

In northwestern Europe, non-Christian (or pagan)

Between the fifth and the eleventh century, Vikings frequently assaulted coastal settlements in search of slaves. While certain regions were shielded from these slave expeditions by the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, tensions and conflicts between Christian and non-Christian Europeans persisted.

Even when a large number of Irish Celts adopted Christianity beginning in the fifth century, English Christians still thought less of them because they believed they continued to follow pagan rituals in their religious practices. In later years, the English were able to defend Irish colonization with the aid of their feeling of Christian superiority.

Another factor in the split between Christians and Muslims was the Christian crusades of the High and Late Middle Ages, which were conducted against Islamic countries in the eastern Mediterranean, western Asia, and northern Africa.

Religious wars were already raging prior to the trans-Atlantic commerce when Islam began to spread in the fourteenth century through the Ottoman Empire, which by the sixteenth century included parts of Southeast Europe, North Africa, Western Asia, and the Middle East. In addition, Barbary corsairs (or pirates) invaded coastal towns in Europe from the fifteenth through the nineteenth century and sold European Christians into the Islamic slave trade.

In the end, European Christians were aware of the prospect of slavery even under the protection of church law.

In response to these conflicts, a series of fifteenth century popes argued for the enslavement of non-Christians as “an instrument for Christian conversion.” According to church law, Christians were protected from slavery, but Muslim “infidels” and non-Christian “pagans” were acceptable to enslave. Similarly, in Islamic law, only non-Muslims could be enslaved. While Jewish populations living in Christian-dominated Western Europe were protected from slavery in the Middle Ages, widespread anti-Semitic prejudices amongst European Christians led to Jewish persecution, exile, violent massacres, and even accusations of causing the Black Death.

European Christianity and Slavery
Emperor Frederick II, a Christian crusader from Italy, meets al-Kamil, Muslim ruler of Egypt, during the Sixth Crusade (1228-29), from a manuscript of the Nuova Cronica by Giovanni Villani, ca. 1341-48.

In the New World, the criteria for enslavement increasingly shifted from non-Christian to non-European. As Europeans began emphasizing religious, racial, and ethnic differences between themselves and American Indians and Africans, this boundary moved further, from non-European to non-“white,” particularly to enable the enslavement of “black” Africans and their African American descendants.

The recovery of classical Greek texts before and during the European Renaissance also provided philosophical and theological justification for a Christian social hierarchy that included slavery. For example, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 BC to 322 BC) produced writings about slavery that influenced prominent Christian theologians such as Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, and later provided legal and moral justifications for implementing slavery based on a racial hierarchy in the sixteenth century.

Aristotle argued that the master and slave relationship was natural and that some are marked out for subjection, others for rule. Aquinas built on Aristotle’s argument to assert that the slave was the physical instrument of his owner. This condition allowed a slave owner to claim everything his or her slaves possessed and produced, including their children.

Aquinas attributed the plight of enslavement to sin and the inevitable conditions of a sinful world. Other theologians before and during the Renaissance emphasized Aristotle’s belief in a natural order, but asserted that some men were slaves by their very nature.

Based on this evolving theology, European Christians initially saw non-Christians as “natural slaves.” With New World expansion, however, Europeans came to primarily associate Africans with the institution of slavery.

To explain this racial shift from a Judeo-Christian worldview, sixteenth and seventeenth century theologians merged Aristotle’s theory of “natural slaves” with the biblical Curse of Ham. According to this interpretation, Africans are the descendants of Ham and Canaan, who Noah cursed into slavery for Ham’s transgressions (Ham is Noah’s son and Canaan’s father).

European Christianity and Slavery

Though the Bible does not mention race or skin color in this narrative, according to these sixteenth and seventeenth century theologians, Africans inherited Ham and Canaan’s curse of slavery. By the nineteenth century, pro-slavery advocates in the United States continued to use this misleading biblical justification, as well as Aristotle’s theory of natural order and New World racial prejudices, to defend their support of slavery.