Oct 022012

Brooten, Bernadette J., ed. Beyond Slavery: Overcoming Its Religious and Sexual Legacies. Palgrave MacMillan, 2010.

Although Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious leaders have always recognized the difference between slavery and marriage between men and women, they have sometimes applied concepts from slavery to marriage.

Pg. 8, “Introduction” by Bernadette J. Brooten

All three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) present rules about marriage and the family. All three also make various statements and accommodations concerning slavery, such as the Bible’s rules regarding slavery in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Marriage and slavery co-existed in uneasy tension. Could an enslaved woman marry a free or enslaved man, if at all? And if she could, would she obey her slave husband instead of her master? There were two laws in effect within the same household, and the existence of slavery, and therefore free access to enslaved women’s bodies, made any pledge of marital fidelity by men basically just lip service. These ideas and tensions reach into the present day: some people still promise to “love, honour and obey” at their marriage ceremonies.

Women who blurred the line between “wife” and “slave” often came to bad ends. The second century Acts of Andrew told the legend of Maximilla, a Christian woman who wanted to lead a celibate life over the wishes of her pagan husband. Maximilla selected a slave woman nicknamed Euklia (ironically, Greek for “of good reputation”), said to be beautiful and “undisciplined”, to fill in for her in the marriage bed. This arrangement would seem to satisfy all three parties, until Euklia started telling people about sleeping in the marriage bed. Her master mutilated Euklia and threw her out into the streets. [Pg.13] In medieval Spain, a number of slave women filed lawsuits for their freedom on the grounds they lived as concubines, de facto wives, of their masters. Out of thirty-three cases, fifteen succeeded.

Slave women lived under a completely different set of rules than free women, not least of which was different bodily rules. In the Antebellum South, black women were paraded for display at sale and stripped naked for punishment. [Pg.44] Blacks were seen as closer to animals, and therefore incapable of chastity. This ideology served not only white men but white women too by displacing the sexual labour onto black women. Slave women were considered to be non-virgins by definition. This division was maintained in many different ways: in the Virginia colony, one of the first laws of racial difference was that white indentured servants could not be stripped naked for punishment, unlike blacks. (Pg.215)

Christ didn’t condemn slavery, though his act of washing the feet of his disciples was a potent symbol of his dictum, “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

Foot washing was a chore assigned to to one of the least regarded slaves in a household, a role often played by women. By washing his friends’ feet at the meal where he predicted his betrayal by one of those friends, Jesus defied the hierarchical and gender norms of his day.

Pg. 145

This inversion suggests a ritual inversion, including a change of clothing and body postures.  The idea is repeated by Paul in the letter to the Galatians: “Through love become slaves to one another,” with slavery standing as a symbol for humility and devotion. They essay quoted above, by Jennifer A Glancy, discusses how many people have problems with the idea that slavery, even in a symbolic or ritual sense, could be positive.

A number of women [who heard a draft of the essay], however expressed alienation from this teaching. After long struggles to define themselves apart from subordination and violence, it was too painful to embrace a self-image as a slave. Although I think that in Jesus’ cultural context his instruction to become a slave of all subverted hierarchical relationships, I am sympathetic to those who are troubled by the teaching.


As I discussed earlier in my thoughts on the Master-slave conference, a lot of people see “slave” as only an object of exploitation, and not as a symbol of devotion.

Glancy uses the foot-washing parable to introduce the concept of habitus, borrowed from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. (Pg.146) Habitus is society on the level of the individual, personal action: the words one uses, the way one carries oneself, dress, food, dwelling, actions such as foot-washing. “John’s narration of Jesus washing feet subverts status hierarchy, but it relies on the habitus of slavery to do so.” (Pg.147)

Master-slave, in the modern BDSM usage, could be seen as taking on the habitus of a tightly disciplined person.

Sheila Briggs’ essay on “Gender, Slavery and Technology”, looks into the Roman amphitheatre and the spectacles staged there, especially the “naked prostitutes” who did stripteases. Christian writer Tertullian described it in De Spectaculis:

The very harlots, too, victims of the public lust, are brought upon the stage, their misery increased as being there in the presence of their own sex, from whom alone they are wont to hide themselves:  they are paraded publicly before every age and every rank—their abode, their gains, their praises, are set forth, and that even in the hearing of those who should not hear such things. I say nothing about other matters, which it were good to hide away in their own darkness and their own gloomy caves, lest they should stain the light of day. Let the Senate, let all ranks, blush for very shame! Why, even these miserable women, who by their own gestures destroy their modesty, dreading the light of day, and the people’s gaze, know something of shame at least once a year.

As the empire aged, the punishments once reserved for female slaves were extended to free women too, blurring the distinction between the categories. (Pg.167)

However, Tertullian and other ancient Christians quailed at the violence of the coliseum not because of the suffering and death of the people in the pit, but because the spectacle harmed the soul of the onlooker who succumbed. (Pg.171)

The us/them distinction continued into American slavery. Josiah Priest’s 1843 book Slavery, as It Relates to the Negro, or African Race dumped Western civilization’s Jungian Shadow onto the shoulders of black people, allegedly the descendants of the Sodomites and Jezebel. Slavery was a necessary institution to keep civilization from sliding into barbarism. Of course, that same institution created the same problem as it did to the people in classical times.

Mary Boykin Chestnut, the White wife of a pr0-slavery general, wrote of the parallel between America’s slaveholding households and the biblical ones of ancient times in this system of concubinage. “Like patriarchs of old,” she lamented, “our men live in one house with their wives and their concubines.”


The existence of slavery meant slave marriages had no weight, and that white men could break the rule of monogamy at no cost. The new cult of domesticity and the nuclear family saw slavery as an enemy, a thesis articulated by Harriet Beecher Stowe’sUncle Tom’s Cabin and other sentimental abolition works.

All of these themes and ideas are still being experienced today. What people in BDSM mean when they talk about “slaves” is a complex mixture of ideas: on the one hand, devotion and humility and an intimacy of teacher and pupil; on the other, the dark, abject reflection of Puritan ideals of chastity and sexual order.

I, too, live in the time of slavery, by which I mean I am living in the future created by it. -Saidiya Hartman


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