Friday, April 4, 2014

Medieval Black Slavery

Despite the Magi including a Black
king, the Middle Ages did not accept
Blacks automatically.
[detail from
an "Adoration of the Magi";
Anonymous, c. 1450]
Nowadays, we place all racism and intolerance on the same level, and like to assume that a persecuted group would have empathy for any other persecuted group. Such is not the case, of course, nor has it ever been. Here is an example.

Isaac Abrabanel (1437 - 1508) was a wealthy Portugese Jew, a statesman (when local government allowed him to be), and a scholar/philosopher. He experienced expulsion from his home for being Jewish.

The medieval attitude toward those whose skin was dark enough to be called "black" was complex. Abrabanel in a commentary on the Book of Amos, argues against an earlier commentary that derides black women. The earlier commentator had said that black women were promiscuous and did not know the father of their children. Abrabanel retorts:
"I don’t know who told Yefet this practice of promiscuity among Black women, which he mentions. But in the country of my birth [Portugal] I have seen many of these people and their women are loyal to their husbands unless they are prisoners and captive to their enemies. They are just like any other people."
There were other "truths" about blacks that Abrabanel accepted readily, however. Their (to Europeans) unusual skin color was accounted for by saying they were the descendants of Ham, the son of Noah who was cursed because he saw his father naked and drunk. Abrabanel accepted the Bible commentators—both Jewish and Christian—on this subject.

Another authority on slavery was Aristotle, who made a distinction between natural and unnatural slavery. Although subjugating people like yourself was wrong, in his Politics he acknowledges that there are men who are "different":
"those who are as different [from other men] as the soul from the body or man from beast—and they are in this state if their work is the use of the body, and if this is the best that can come from them—are slaves by nature."
These people—people who were not intellectually sophisticated, and who used their bodies more than their minds—were better off if they were ruled instead of being left as unguided savages.

A modern historian says of Abrabanel:
"...the great Jewish philosopher and statesman Isaac ben Abrabanel, having seen many black slaves both in his native Portugal and in Spain, merged Aristotle's theory of natural slaves with the belief that the biblical Noah had cursed and condemned to slavery both his son Ham and his young grandson Canaan. Abrabanel concluded that the servitude of animalistic black Africans should be perpetual." [Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World]

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