Slavery in Cornwall: the Bodmin manumissions

No-one likes to think their ancestors were slaves. These days, it’s probably much worse to imagine that our ancestors may have been slaveholders. Yet at the time of Domesday Book, in 1080, Cornwall had more than its fair share of slaves. These not only worked their lord’s land, like later serfs, but were owned outright by someone. Their owner could buy and sell them, although they had the responsibility of feeding and housing their slaves. And they could also free them.

A page with the freeing of a slave
recorded in the margin

At Bodmin, some acts of manumission, the freeing of slaves, were recorded from 939 to 1100, written in the blank pages of a gospel book originally produced in Brittany. This source lists a total of 129 freed slaves. Fully 84% of those slaves had Cornish-language names. In contrast around two thirds of the 34 slave owners had English names. This, plus the evidence of Domesday Book, was taken by Henry Jenner and other Cornish patriots to show that the English had enslaved some of the Cornish.

However, slaves, whether born into slavery, captured or made a slave as an act of punishment, were far from unknown in the other Celtic countries at that time. There is evidence for slaves in Wales and in Ireland. In the latter place female slaves and cattle were units of currency before the economy became monetized. In Brittany even peasants in the 800s were recorded as owning some slaves so it’s very likely the same occurred in its sister society in Cornwall.

Moreover, the names may not mean what they appear to mean. As early as the late 800s some Cornish landowners were adopting English language names in addition to or instead of their Cornish ones. This may have just been a fashion or it could have been a wise tactical move in view of the growing English grip on Cornwall.

Therefore, we can’t be sure that those slaveowners with English names were actually English or ethnic Cornish who had changed their names. What the manumissions do show us is that ordinary Cornish people (witnesses to the manumissions) and the slaves themselves were much more likely to retain their Cornish names as late as the Normans’ arrival. Meanwhile, landowners and the upper clergy were conversely quicker to adopt the cultural practices of their new colonial masters.

6 thoughts on “Slavery in Cornwall: the Bodmin manumissions

  1. It would be extremely interesting to learn more about slavery in Cornwall. Could they inherited? Were some families locked into being slaves for generations (like bonded labour)? Who named them – from your text it seems like their parents gave them their names whereas we well know that African slaves were denied their names (hence Malcolm X).

    Perhaps you can recommend a good source or two? Would love that.

    Would also like to know more about how women could be units of currency (for what – 1 woman = ? units of livestock?)

    Wonderful article!

    Small spelling mistake in last para – I think – ethnic not ethic (a bit paradoxical in the circumstances, Freudian slip?)

    Like

  2. Hi all, I have heard that slaves were used in Cornish mines, does anyone know if this is true? If so, I think it would make a fascinating research project for Black History Month. Many thanks, Ben

    Like

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