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That sounds a bit like the Romans too - the Imperial slaves in the "Civil Service" were definitely a cut above a lot of people if I remember my O-Level rightly.


Gosh, thanks Jenny and Phyllis. 

A “hierarchy of slaves”, eh?  I can believe that a slave with a skill or trade, an experienced fowler say, would be rated higher than an elderly or crippled one, and I recall now that in the Classical world girls of elite backgrounds, if enslaved, were thought to make good nursemaids-cum-governesses.  Then of course the Romans imported many educated Greek slaves when they conquered Greece, didn’t they?  Such that many Roman lads in senatorial families had a Greek tutor, and the ensuing Hellenophilia gave Virgil such a hump he stalked off and wrote the Aenid. 

It also occurs to me that slaves, like free servants, of long standing may develop a more trusted and intimate relationship with their masters and mistresses.  The ones who end up “as much one of the family as a servant/ slave can be”.  You haven’t met him yet, but there is a Welsh slave-boy named Gwyon in my children’s book who is almost a brother to Lady Ethelflæd’s and Lord Athelred’s daughter, Ælfwynn, which as you know I’ve simplified to Elfwen.  Originally Gwyon was bought as a sweet-natured playmate from whom Elfwen could learn Welsh, since I portray the Old Mercian and Welsh aristocracies on visiting terms with each other, usually, and that means banqueting, hunting and heroic poetry.  So I’ve portrayed adequate Welsh as a desirable social accomplishment for upper-class Mercians, at least away from the Welsh Marches where I portray bilingualism as common amongst all social groups, mixed marriages still not raising eyebrows and where thanes and midshieldsmen ( a senior NCO status I’ve invented, anywhere you like between a modern-day platoon sergeant and a US master sergeant) need to know how to give orders in both languages.  By the time my other child characters meet Gwyon, Elfwen is fluently bilingual and Gwyon has developed into an all-round dogsbody and family pet. 

Also, I don’t suppose you ever saw my favourite ever, ever film: Escape from Sobibor ( Global 1987)?  It tells the true story of the only successful mass breakout of Jewish inmates from a Nazi extermination camp, 14th October 1943.  One trick the survivors learned was to whisper to newbies, stepping fresh off the train, to tell the Nazis they were seamstresses or cobblers by trade, since that gave them a chance of being kept back from the gas chambers to process the property of the victims.  Particularly seamstress and cobbler since those inmates with dress- and shoe-making skills could teach a newbie quickly enough to fool the Nazis in charge of them.

So it occurs to me that there may be more of an incentive for learning a skill in slavery than I expected.  Granted a skilled slave, and never mind a literate one, could expect better treatment.   

Also you’ve jogged my memory about something I heard about Negro slavery in the Old South, with echoes of the same in the Classical world: women were supposed to make the best and the worst of slave-owners.  The best if she is kindhearted, like the widowed mother of my twin-sister characters, Ashwen and Godwen, who owns two slave-girls but treats them like family, so theirs is very much an all-girls-together household.  The worst if, like a certain Massa’s wife on a sugar-cane plantation, she is capricious and cruel enough to order a Black man nailed to a tree by his ears for allegedly looking at her ankles as she stepped from her carriage. 

In an Old English context, given that slave-masters would have sexual access to their female slaves, I wonder if it wasn’t their wives who made sure the custom about female slaves having to have their hair cut short was observed?   

Any of the spindle-kin care to, er, comment on that, I wonder?

( I happen to be reading The Power by Naomi Alderman too, if anyone knows about that? Sorta The Midwich Cuckoos in skirts.  Don’t be too critical, lads!)

The moral right of the author to identify Jack Shepherd as Itzhak Lichtman has been asserted.  Lichtman was one of the leaders who was re-united with his wife in the woods after the breakout, and was still alive when the film was made.  Jack Shepherd is the same actor who played the Master of Jordan College in The Golden Compass and sorely underrated all round if you ask me.  They didn’t even give him a credit in Escape from Sobibor. 

In the laws of king Ӕðelbeorht of Kent there is definitely a hierarchy of slaves. For example
Ġif man wið cyninges mæġ denman geliġeþ, L scillinga ġebete. Ġif hīo grindede þēowa sīo XXV scillinga ġebete. Sīo þridde XII shillingas.
If a person lies with a maid of the king, he shall pay 50 shillings. If she be a grinding slave, (he) shall pay 25 shillings. If third(-class), 12 shillings.


Thank you David.

I’ve been a’googling trying to see if slavery tends to fall into any patterns that might explain those distinctions.  Yet I came up with nothing better than the one common sense might suggest: men, women and children.  For instance, the Muslim slave-traders who brought African slaves into the Middle East over the Sahara or up the east coast of Africa preferred women and children as they were less trouble.

Can you think of any such tendency that might explain King Æðelbeorht’s threefold distinction?  I’m guessing you’d have uploaded comparable Old English instances if you knew of any, so what if I were to back the ( gloomy) hunch that it probably reflects custom and practice peculiar to Kent and the circumstances of King Æðelbeorht’s day?

However, I am just old enough to remember the demarcation that UK trades unions used to insist upon in many closed shops, and the demarcation disputes to which these could give rise, based on differentials.  If memory serves these could be based on several things, but usually fell into a distinction between skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled employees and that pay differentials were insisted upon to reflect this.  That is: higher grades had to be paid more that the one below regardless of the claims of productivity, business sense or economic literacy.  Again this is on the cusp of my recollection ( I was born in 1965) but unions were once insistent about something called a “family wage” or “living wage” as skilled men were assumed to be family men with households to support, and competition ( real or imagined) with female labour could cause disputes as women were assumed to be working for “pin money”.  However, as anyone who saw Dad’s Army* will know, pay differentials also reflected social standing.  One of the great hidden hands in the UK class system was the subdivisions of social class between working-class people themselves ( or ourselves, as I am authentic rural proletariat and I can still do the funny voice to prove it), since skilled men were definitely considered a cut above semi-skilled, everyone looked down on the merely unskilled, and never mind the Gypos, tramps, floozies** etc.  Ġesìþas may know that Captain Mainwaring got to be the captain because he was the bank manager, but maybe not that Sergeant Wilson got to be the sergeant because he was the bank clerk ( skilled and white-collar) and that Corporal Jones got to be the corporal because he was the butcher, butchers being the sort of royal dukes of skilled blue-collar men because meat was considered essential to the diet.

So... what if I assumed the Old English tended to think in terms of skilled semi-skilled and unskilled, amongst slaves as indeed generally, and that King Æðelbeorht’s law is giving us a glimpse of some such thing in action?

Another difference between slaves and free workers I’ve been reminded about is guild membership.  In the event of accident, illness, injury or old age a slave was quite possibly screwed.  Co-incidentally I happen to be reading The Pinch by David Willetts, in the first chapter of which he gives that thanes’ guild from Cambridge in the late tenth century as an example of how far back self-help stretches and how it was not confined to families, even extended families.  Friendly societies used to fulfil a similar function, and provide for weddings and funerals ( to which the Co-op’s funeral services is the nearest thing left) in this country before the rise of the welfare state, though I think friendly societies do cling on in a niche market, and trades unions once arranged insurance against sickness and unemployment, too.   

How do you suppose enslavement affected a member of a guild?  If an enslaved guild-member died, were his guild-fellows still bound to fetch his body and bury it decently?  Is there evidence of guilds insuring against enslavement, in that they would try to buy an enslaved member out of slavery, or litigate on his behalf?  Is anything known about such contingencies?   

Willetts also made me realise that Old English guilds may be the best examples of people doing on purpose something which, according to natural selection and evolutionary psychology, all we Homo sapiens do unwittingly: be political animals.  It’s all got to do with the question some have raised against the ‘selfish’ gene, in the light of social and emotional bonding and reciprocal altruism, and the answer to it: that figuratively selfish genes by no means necessarily militate towards literal selfishness in individuals.  Rather the opposite in that the survival advantage behind emotional and social bonding lies in how it enables hominids to survive better in groups than as lone wolves, rather like a friendly society, guild or a cash-free DIY insurance co-operative.  The ‘premium’ you pay is that of pulling your weight and acting like you give a damn as a member of a kinship-group of hunter-gatherers, and the ‘cover’ you get is that, if you’re the unlucky one who falls in the rapids or gets chased by the woolly rhinoceros, the other members of your kinship-group ( your ‘significant others’) will do what they can do, because they like you, and you’re handy to have about.  Or at least, hominids who didn’t band together on this basis dealt their genes out of the pack, because sooner or later they all came to one or another sticky end because there was nobody nearby who saw any reason to dig them out of whatever poo they’d got themselves into.

This is how evolutionary psychology vindicates Aristotle’s point about humans being political animals because, like the jury principle, we are more intelligent in a group because our strengths can cover one another’s weaknesses ( IIRC social experiments using groups in mazes bear this out, too).  Now I think there were fraternities amongst the Orphics and certain gods’ devotees in Classical Greece ( I’m sure one god was Asclepius) that cover some of the same ground as this and Old English guilds but, again if memory serves, the evidence is seldom very clear and they do not seem to be all-singing, all-dancing guilds of the Old English kind.  I think dedicated Asclepians went Dutch on a kind of DIY sickness insurance, and the Orphics of course pooled their resources for funerals, but generally I think they were nearer to dining clubs than any kind of guild or friendly society.

The other thing is that Old English guilds are still with us.  At least in London, as many of the liveried guilds there are of pre-Conquest foundation.

And they may have originated as the best on-purpose examples of one of the keys to human survival...     

*PS: Did anybody catch the new Dad’s Army film? Never in my life would I have dreamed anyone could hold a candle to Clive Dunn as Corporal Jones, but damn me Tom Courtenay did it!  Otherwise I’d rate the film as a so-so comedy that wasn’t the Dad’s Army as I enjoyed it, frightfully so in that Toby Jones was abysmally miscast ( Warmington-on-Sea home guard was not led by a deformed dwarf, FFS) but it’s worth watching just to see Tom Courtenay pull off Corporal Jones. 

**PPS: Not so long ago Fenlanders and people from Stanground in Peterborough looked down upon each other in this way.  Some people think ‘Fen rat’ is an insult, you know!  Whereas Stangrundians are thin-skinned about snobbery, real or imagined, and have a reputation for being chippy, so they can be wound up by just about anything.  As a born and bred Fen rat with a mother from Stanground, I had to watch my mouth lest I be seen as a traitor to both camps...

The moral right of the author to identify Areala the Warrior Nun as his top Marvel comic superhero has been asserted.

You just can’t win, can you?

Instead of taking my Downton Abbey DVD set back to Barnado's I’ve been hanging on to it, party in case it proves more useful for my kiddies’ book, partly because I find it therapeutic, sometimes, to have a DVD on in the background whilst I’m proofreading.  Only nothing too interesting so it won’t stop me working.   

This is how I thought I’d arrived at the serious explanation for that bit of joshy nonsense about all those stuntmen.  In episode six the young and impressionable Lady Sybil slips off to that rowdy political meeting, an evil from which she is delivered by Branson the Fenian chauffeur and that second aunt of hers, Mrs Crawley the do-gooder debint from darkest Manchester, when it begins to boil over.  Enough, most likely, to explain what a mellow and sedate series about domestic service in Edwardian times should be doing with eight stuntmen.

Now guess what happened last night?  Only I couldn’t help but notice, in the end credits to episode one, it said “Stunt Co-ordinator/ Andy Bradford”. 

In episode one.  That’s the pilot episode in which nothing more physical happens than when Miss O’Brien, that conniving cow of a lady’s maid, trips over poor Bates, the new valet with the dickey leg, when the staff assemble to greet the Duke of Crowborough. 

So that’s me back to square one.  Wondering whether I missed the train crash or the custard-pie fight or the flashback to Carson’s time in the music halls, celebrated for his 200-foot somersault into a giant batter pudding. 

Unless the Dowager Lady Crawley was taken hostage in the St Trinian’s Mutiny of 1881*, or something?

*This is true. It's in the novel.


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