CFP: Domestic Slavery, 15th-19th Centuries: Sources, cross-Perspectives, and Definitions / EHESS, Paris, March 24-25, 2016


  • Each participant will talk 25mn so as to leave space for extensive discussions
  • Proposals (paper abstract + short C.V.) shall be sent to before December 10th, 2015.

Contact and information:

For the past few decades, academic scholarship has been led to address the issue of the definition of slavery on many occasions: with the revival of ancient slavery debates, then under the influence of anthropological studies and, more recently, following the success of new trends in labor history. If specialists still do not agree upon a universally acceptable definition, slavery nonetheless remains the standard by which all forms of human bondage, coerced labor, and unfreedom –past and present– are evaluated. Yet, it has already been stressed that the historical experiences on which our conceptions of slavery are built were all but typical in the long history of world slavery. It has also been underlined that the still commonly employed “traditional” analytical frameworks are neither sufficient to understand all the aspects of slavery nor are they to encompass all the configurations and the extreme variety of slave conditions.

One can certainly not deny that an essential function of slavery was labor extraction, nor that Western colonial slavery, with its excesses and atrocities, was an unparalleled experience in human bondage history. Nonetheless, when faced with exceptions, with anomalies, and with configurations that stray from the models built on “genuine” slavery experiences, scholarship is too often led to relegate such configurations at the margins of slavery, into the imprecise categories of “intermediate” forms of human bondage. Though to some point functional, such categories remain largely unsatisfactory. Usually organized along a linear continuum ranging from total slavery to perfect freedom, they tend to erect artificial boundaries. They also introduce a hierarchy among forms of slavery and some confusion with other forms of bondage. This frequently leads one to discard elements that seem to be in contradiction with ideal models. Moreover, this has led to the construction of untenable myths such as the idea that all forms of labor coercion were “analogous” to slavery, that there existed “milder” forms of slavery, or that so-called domestic slavery was essentially non-productive. This has also led to striking contradictions: while the word “slavery” is widely applied to the case of internal bondage in modern Islamic societies, it is almost banned in the context of Far East Asian historiography despite astonishing similarities that have hardly led to any comparisons.

In this regard, “domestic” (i.e. “internal” or “endogenous”) slavery is an artificial and somewhat misleading catch-all category. Defined by the original belonging of the slave to the society of his master, it draws a convenient limit between “genuine” chattel slavery and all forms of internal slavery. One consequence of this segmentation is that the first function of domestic slavery as a category is not to contribute to the global debate over slavery, but to reinforce, by a mirroring effect, the apparent homogeneity and standardization of “genuine” slavery. This is partly due to the fact that domestic slavery is a highly heterogeneous category and that the slave appears all the more difficult to distinguish in domestic context. When he/she is not a stranger, when his/her condition does not seem to differ much from that of other members of the society, when he/she is caught in the webs of complex social organizations and multiple relations of obligation, and when concepts of “freedom” and “property rights” are no more applicable, then his/her identity as a slave is far more difficult to grasp.

Nonetheless, precisely because of its complexity and diversity, domestic slavery offers the conditions necessary to an in-depth examination of the very nature of slavery. This workshop thus proposes to discuss the definitions of slavery and bondage by shifting the focal point from “genuine” slavery to “domestic” forms of bondage. Following the paths opened up by previous scholarship, it proposes to consider slavery less as a uniform condition, a status or a system, than as a multiform relationship, the analysis of which must be replaced within specific social contexts. Scholars are invited to present particular forms of institutionalized domestic bondage from all possible geographic areas during the modern period. In the global perspective of this comparative workshop, we expect proposals dealing with well-studied forms of domestic bondage, as well as innovative studies dealing with less well-known and obliterated experiences. Since comparison is nonsense when drawing simple parallels and when comparing terms of too different a nature, presentations shall focus on highlighting criteria essential to the characterization of “slavery” (or bondage) in particular social and historical contexts, through an exploration of both normative constructions (whether they be of legal, customary or religious nature) and concrete practices (as they appear in judicial archives, contracts and private narratives). On this common methodological basis, this workshop will provide a unique occasion to confront studies in domestic forms of bondage, to discuss innovative approaches and to test the validity (and the limits) of the defining criteria delineated by previous scholarship, such as natal alienation, exclusion, infamy/dishonor, possession (rather than property), and usefulness (rather than productivity).

Scientific committee: Cecilia d’Ercole (EHESS, ANHIMA), Odile Journet (EPHE), Lionel Kesztenbaum (INED), Catarina Madeira Santos (EHESS, IMAF), Karine Marazyan (Paris 1), Alessandro Stanziani (EHESS, CNRS – coordinator), Thomas Vernet (Paris 1), Claude Chevaleyre (EHESS).

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