Tag Archives: slavery

Owning words: some musings on categories and captivity

I have had cause to think quite a lot about the idea of people as property. Amongst other places in which this has come up in my teaching and research have been: medical law (yes – once upon a time used to teach that) where it features in relation to embryos and organs, for example; property law (can you have property in a corpse?) and of course legal history. In thinking about the history of women and the law, it is not uncommon to see references to the effect that ‘oh well, of course women used to be the property of their husbands/fathers etc.’. I have never been very happy with this line – apart from anything else, it often seems to be something of a device to encapsulate and dismiss a whole messy and uncomfortable area of historical (mis)behaviour, a somewhat ‘othering’ tendency too (for, if older dispensations can be seen as stark, and starkly different from present ideas, any nasty continuities and analogies of injustice can be ignored). I made some comments on the ‘women as property’ idea in the recent book on Women in the Medieval Common Law. It continues to bubble away in my mind, and here are a couple of other thoughts on it.

  1. Working with words and processes

One of the reasons why it might feel right to make a link between legal treatment of women and property in chattels is the recurrence of words in legal process relating to both categories. Thus abduxit would be used in relation to both the removal of a woman and the removal of a sheep, and relevant legal processes might also bear some resemblance, one to another. I am not sure, though, that that can be taken to indicate that ‘women were property’ in any meaningful sense.[i] The truth is that there were limitations of both linguistic and procedural sorts which go quite some way to explaining why there would be such similarities. The linguistic issue is that those choosing words for legal process and its records had a limited selection from which to select, and we should be slow to infer from the use of a term in two different legal contexts that it was understood in an identical sense in both. To take a possibly silly example, just because the verb used in relation both to wrongful cutting of a tree bough, and also to wrongful removal of a person’s arm in a sword fight would be amputavit, it does not mean that medieval common lawyers thought people and trees were the same. Likewise, the ‘vocabulary’ of legal process was finite, and the fact that a husband’s action with regard to the removal of his wife looks a bit like an action for the removal of a chattel cannot be taken too far. As students of legal history will know, the process of putting a set of facts into a few pre-existing procedural patterns is one of the hallmarks of common law development. Of course, the fact that the husband is accommodated in seeking legal action in relation to wrongs to his wife shows that he was seen as, and made, her superior – but I am not convinced that this should be seen as ‘property’ rather than ‘power’.

  1. Women/slaves/property

The links between ‘women as property’ and the explicit treatment of enslaved people as property are potentially problematic. Those noting the difficulities of women, or involved in campaigning for improvements in women’s rights have long made the connection (see also Jacobites, American independence fighters). It is particularly hard, now, to understand the viewpoint of those who talked of the injustice of women’s position in terms of ‘slavery’, while living in an age which did not reject the slave trade or the material benefits derived from such exploitation. See, for example,these lines from  a poem which makes this analogy:


Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762),

Epistle from Mrs Yonge to Her Husband (1724)[ii]


All bargains but conditional are made;

The purchase void, the creditor unpaid;

Defrauded servants are from service free;

A wounded slave regains his liberty.

For wives ill-used, no remedy remains,

To daily racks condemned, and to eternal chains.

O’er the wide world your pleasures you pursue.

The change is justified by something new;

But we must sigh in silence – and be true


It did strike me today, however, when reading a review of a new publication on resistance by enslaved women, that, if we proceed with extreme caution, there could be some useful transferring of ideas for modern scholars of women’s history from the growing body of work done on enslaved people. In particular, I was arrested by the observation of the author, Rebecca Hall, that slave traders, afraid that there would be resistance by those being shipped into slavery, insured against cargo insurrection, and noting the complete contradiction between (explicitly) calling something a cargo (and really treating it as such – see the Zong Massacre) and yet admitting that there is a human will there. The point which is useful, from the point of view of women’s history, is not exactly the ‘persons as property’  part, it is the ‘subordinated persons as amenable to being put into whichever legal class we want, maybe even two arguably contradictory classes at the same time’ idea which is implicit. That unrepentant mental gymnastics point certainly applies to the history of women’s legal treatment (see one of my recent posts, on petty treason) , and I think deserves some further thought.



[i] Let’s leave aside the difficult question of defining ‘property’, and comparison of ‘property words’ and expressions in different languages. I am sure a better linguist would be able to do more with the comparative aspect of this, though I do enjoy this distinction between English and colloquial Welsh: ‘I have a cat’ v. ‘Mae cath gyda fi’ (= ‘There is a cat with me’). If you will excuse a reference to extreme high culture, it is somewhat reminiscent of the distinction between ‘You belong to me’ (Police, The, ‘Every Breath You Take’) (stalky and unacceptable) and Swift, T. ‘You Belong With Me’ (a touch desperate, perhaps – the object of Ms Swift’s affections in this classic work clearly not being worth it – but both ‘relatable’ and acceptable).

[ii] Norton Anthology of Poetry, p. 580, footnote – ‘In 1724, the notorious libertine William Yonge, separated from his wife, Mary, discovered that she (like him) had committed adultery. He sued her lover, Colonel Norton, for damages, and collected £1,500. Later that year, according to the law of the time, he petitioned Parliament for a divorce. The case was tried in public. Mrs Yonge’s love letters were read aloud, and two men testified that they had found her and Norton “together in naked bed”. Yonge was granted the divorce, his wife’s dowry, and the greater part of her fortune’. I have long used this as a source in my undergraduate legal history teaching.

Image: Photo by Junbeom Ahn on Unsplash Clearly not a medieval sheep, but there to show property rights – indication of ownership in its ear-tag, see.

Laws of Ice and Fire: George R.R. Martin, Song of Ice and Fire cycle from a legal historian’s perspective Part IIA

Substantive Law

A: Slavery, thralldom and freedom

Personal freedom – or its absence – is a recurring theme in the Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. Different territories have difference attitudes to, and laws concerning, slavery, and it is a particular concern of Daenerys Targaryen in her progress through various lands outside Westeros. Slavery is lawful in some realms and groups, such as Astapor, Volantis, and amongst the Dothraki.

Where slavery persists, slaves are essentially chattels, and can be ‘bought and sold, whipped and branded, used for the carnal pleasure of their owners, bred to make more slaves’ ’[V:870]. They are inherited when their master dies, unless explicitly freed [V:755-6]. Manumission appears to be possible, particularly on death of the owner, but the process is not described. Slaves can also buy their own freedom, which suggests that they are able to amass savings, rather than paying all incoming money over to their masters [V:443].

There is a variety of standards of treatment for the slaves. Some – such as the Unsullied – are mutilated, and may be made to kill and die for their masters. It is noted that the slaves of Volantis are assigned to a role – sweeping up dung, acting as prostitutes, fighting or other functions – and are tattooed to indicate this role [World: 7563]. Dothraki and some other slaves are obliged to wear collars, presumably to mark their status [I:32]. Ancillary laws are necessary to safeguard the institution – so in Volantis, it is forbidden to help a slave escape [V:371].

Slavery is not permitted in Braavos, a state founded by escaped slaves, [V:89], nor in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. [III:264]. A major feature of the progress of Daenerys Targaryen is her strong opposition to slavery, and her freeing of slaves wherever possible. Victarion Greyjoy also frees galley slaves, modelling himself on Daenerys [V:830].

So important a principle is the outlawry of slavery in Braavos that it is regarded as the First Law of Braavos that ‘no man, woman or child in Braavos should ever be a slave, a thrall or a bondsman’, and this rule is engraved on a prominent arch [World: 7635]. Slavery is described by those of Westeros as an evil, and an ‘abomination’ to all of the gods of the Seven Kingdoms.[III:264], and Ser Jorah Mornomt’s selling of some poachers to a Tyroshi slaver instead of giving them to the Night’s Watch’ was regarded as a capital offence [I:33].

Pentos does not maintain with any great enthusiasm the ban on slavery which it was forced by the Braavosi to enact [I:28; World: 7563; V:21] So, for example, those who were enslaved elsewhere seem to remain slaves there, [I:28] and although they are not technically slaves, there are those who are very close to such a status, so Magister Illyrio Mopatis tells Tyrion that his house servants will not refuse him sexual service, and makes it clear that he sees captives as the chattels of a captor [I:33].

A state of servitude which falls short of full chattel-slavery is traditional to the Iron Islands. The Ironborn use some captured on raids as thralls, to do things considered beneath the Ironborn themselves, in particular mining [World: 5035]. While the life of a thrall is very difficult, this does not amount to slavery, since the thrall is regarded as a man, not a chattel, and may not be bought and sold. Although the thrall owes his captor service and obedience, he may hold property, and may marry a spouse of his choice. What is more, the children of such a union would be regarded as free and Ironborn [World: 5041]. Some rulers of the Iron Islands disapproved of thralldom and sought to end the status, [World: 5248; 5478], but it was allowed by Balon Greyjoy, and so is legal at the time of the Song cycle [World: 5478]

Those who free slaves find themselves having to deal with the aftermath of abolishing the institution. They may offer compensation for the damage caused by escaping slaves. For example, the Iron Bank of Braavos compensated the successors of former slave-owners for the ships seized and sailed away by the original escaping slaves more than a century beforehand, though they would not restore the value of the slaves themselves [World: 7649].

Daenerys Targaryen faces claims by former slave owners, who have been, or say they have been, damaged by the process of abolition. A boy attempting to claim for offences of murder and rape by his family’s former slaves against his father, brother and mother, during the rising which led to the overthrow of Meereen and the abolition of slavery there, is sent away without the sentence of hanging which he had desired for the former slaves. Daenerys rejects his claim both because she had pardoned all crimes committed during the sack of the city, and also because she will not punish slaves ‘for rising up against their masters [V:42].

Some claims are for economic loss. A nobleman of Meereen, Grazdan zo Galare, makes a claim for a share in the profits of weaving done by his former slaves. These women had been taught the skill by another of his slaves, a woman now dead, whose name he was not able to remember. The nobleman’s claim is, however, unsuccessful, since it was the old woman, rather than the ex-master, who had taught them to weave. In addition, the noblemen is ordered to buy the women an expensive loom, as a punishment for forgetting the name of the old woman [V:42].

Daenerys is faced with the problem of retroactivity, and, whether as a matter of law or policy, decides that slave owners cannot be punished for conduct which, prior to the abolition of slavery in Meereen, was regarded as legitimate. So, when an ex-slave accuses a nobleman of rape for his actions towards the ex-slave’s wife, formerly the noble’s (slave) ‘bedwarmer’, the noble having ‘taken her maidenhood, used her for his pleasure, and gotten her with child’, this is unsuccessful. The ruling is that, at the time when the noble had sex with the ‘bedwarmer’, she was ‘his property, to do with as he would’, so that ‘By law, there was no rape’. The claimant does, however, obtain money to pay for ‘raising the noble’s bastard as his own’ [V:42].

Daenerys finds it impossible to maintain her absolute anti-slavery stance, due to political opposition. A peace deal struck between her city of Meereen and Yunka’i meant the partial acceptance of slavery. If a slave was brought into her realm by a Yunkish owner, he did not thus become free. This was the price she had to pay for the Yunkish promise to ‘respect the rights and liberties of the former slaves [she] had freed [V:664].

In addition, she is faced with the situation of some noble Meereenese wanting to sell themselves into slavery, because their lives have become squalid, and they think that they will be better off as slaves in the Free Cities: an interesting problem of present free will versus anti-slavery absolutism. In the end, she decides that she cannot or will not stop this, as long as it is actually voluntary: thus, ‘[a]ny man who wishes to sell himself into slavery may do so. Or woman.’ … But they may not sell their children, nor a man his wife’ [III:809]. Having accepted that such transactions are allowed, she imposes a tax on them [III:809].

Her freeing of the slaves of Astapor does not lead to a no-slavery area there either, since, once she has left, slavery is restored, albeit with a reversal in those who were masters and those who were slaves [V:39].

The issue of slavery in the Song of Ice and Fire is particularly interesting because characters (and particularly Daenerys Targaryen) have to negotiate a world in which the issue is contested, with contrasting rules and views in different countries. In many ways, the issues and views are more reminiscent of those prompted by African slavery in the New World, rather than medieval slavery. While there were strong voices condemning slavey in the medieval period (e.g. St Wulfstan), Daenerys’s attitude – and her solutions – are rathe more post-Enlightenment.

Gwen Seabourne



I:          George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

II:        George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

III:       George R.R. Martin: A Storm of Swords

IV:       George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows

V:        George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

World: George R.R. Martin, E M Garcia Jr, L. Antonsson, The World of Ice and Fire: the untold history of Westeros and the Game of Thrones