The paper examines the evidence for slavery in the late antique and early medieval penitentials. This body of sources has only recently been rediscovered for the study of slavery. Most of the earliest extant penitentials contain canons that deal in one way or another with slaves (servus or ancilla) or slavery (servitium). These canons can roughly be grouped into three categories according to the aspect under which slavery is considered in them: In the first category of canons, slaves are merely mentioned in the description of a sin in which they are either involved in or the victim of. The second category of canons considers slavery as a penitential punishment. The third category, finally, offers more general rules or laws on slavery. Samples for these three categories and their analysis form the main part of the paper. The presented evidence is then evaluated with regard to the questions what kind of insights the penitentials offer for the study of slavery in general, and the involvement of the Church in slavery in particular.
In response to critiques of the ‘slavery versus freedom’ binary and its limitations, researchers at the international Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies (BCDSS—