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Debra Blumenthal (2004)

Defending Their Master’s Honour: Slaves as Violent Offenders in Fifteenth-Century Valencia

In: A great effusion of blood?: interpreting medieval violence, ed. by Mark D. Meyerson, Daniel Thiery, Oren Falk, pp. 34-56, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Buffalo, London.

The slave population of 15th-century Valencia that is subject of this investigation is characterized, in contrast to urban Italian slavery, by a preponderance of male slaves (due to the continuing war and raiding activities that provided a great number of the Valencian slaves), and by a considerable number of black Africans, brought from the western coast of Africa by Portuguese explorers.

Cases of slaves rebelling against their masters and brutally offending them, as they can be found in the records of the civil magistrate of Valencia, are not the main subject of this article. The author deals with instances, to be made out in the records of the “Justicia Criminal”, of slaves performing acts of violence against their owner’s enemies in the name of their master’s honour, especially in feuds in which different households are facing each other in order to defend the status and honour of the family. Detailed descriptions of such incidences that ranged from verbal attacks to humiliating actions against certain persons as well as bodily harm and murder are followed by an investigation of the reasons that could motivate the slave holders to order their slaves to participate in or instigate such crimes. In violent assaults masters often mobilized their slaves to execute the death blow against their enemies, avoiding in this way to bear the responsibility alone and being able to especially degrade their enemies.

Blumenthal turns to the question of how a slave was held liable for his actions. As the records reveal, the dependence of slaves on their master’s orders was recognized. However, slaves were also credited with free will in executing such crimes; this is why they could be charged before the criminal court for those acts of violence.

The author finally asks what the cases discussed indicate regarding the integration of the slave into his master’s household and his social environment. She concludes that slaves “were favoured agents in these assaults precisely because they were liminal figures. Masters could accept and deny responsibility for a slave’s actions as they willed” (p. 45).

Valencia Spain 15th century violence
by Christine Breckler last modified 2008-04-29 10:41

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