Speaking of Slavery: Color,Ethnicity,and Human Bondage in Italy

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The language of slavery is the last but steep price any society must pay for having tolerated the institution and profited from it. . . . The hypocrisies, the racism, the sexism, the brutality bound up with the daily practice of slavery live on in language, where they continue to punish the descendants of both owners and slaves indiscriminately. The habits of expression that excused slavery endure as unfinished business, unexpiated sin, in all those societies that used words to exploit the enslavement of others. Thus slavery lives on long after the last slave has died.—Speaking of SlaveryIn this highly original work, Steven A. Epstein shows that the ways Italians employ words and think about race and labor are profoundly affected by the language used in medieval Italy to sustain a system of slavery. The author's findings about the surprising persistence of the "language of slavery" demonstrate the difficulty of escaping the legacy of a shameful past.For Epstein, language is crucial to understanding slavery, for it preserves the hidden conditions of that institution. He begins his book by discussing the words used to conduct and describe slavery in Italy, from pertinent definitions given in early dictionaries, to the naming of slaves by their masters, to the ways in which bondage has been depicted by Italian writers from Dante to Primo Levi and Antonio Gramsci. Epstein then probes Italian legal history, tracing the evolution of contracts for buying, selling, renting, and freeing people. Next he considers the behaviors of slaves and slave owners as a means of exploring how concepts of liberty and morality changed over time. He concludes by analyzing the language of the market, where medieval Italians used words to fix the prices of people they bought and sold.The first history of slavery in Italy ever published, Epstein's work has important implications for other societies, particularly America's. "For too long," Epstein notes, "Americans have studied their own slavery as it if were the only one ever to have existed, as if it were the archetype of all others." His book allows citizens of the United States and other former slave-holding nations a richer understanding of their past and present.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The heart of the book examines the language used in many kinds of medieval documents dealing with slavery. . . Many interesting individual stories and insights. . . "—Choice, November 2001, Vol. 39, No. 3

"Scholars with specialisms outside Italy will find a great deal of interest in this book and many intriguing parallels with systems of slavery elsewhere. . . . Epstein's persuasive notion of the corrupting and normalizing language of medieval slavery will effect a permanent change in the way in which Italian slavery will be approached in the future. His pioneering, well written and constructed study is very timely, and it is to be hope that it will provide a lead for other much needed investigations of the culture of Italian slavery, both historical and interdisciplinary."—Kate Lowe, Slavery and Abolition, 25:3, Dec. 2002.

"Focusing on medieval slavery on the Italian peninsula . . . , Epstein examines how the system of slavery was sustained by the language used to describe it."—International Review of Social History 48:2

"Steven Epstein's study of slavery in medieval Italy focuses on language, the ways people talked or wrote about slaves in a variety of contexts and the ways slaves talked about themselves. He makes it clear that slavery's significance in Italian history is more cultural than economic; although he does discuss the kinds of work that slaves did, he is more concerned with the intellectual and social implications of markets than with quantifying the contributions of slaves to production. . . . In the later Middle Ages women slaves outnumbered men slaves, while among free servants men were the minority. Epstein implies that the feminization of (free) domestic service in sixteenth-century Venice may be a result of the decline of slavery and the replacement of female domestic slaves by free female servants. . . . A final contribution of Epstein's work is to set slavery in the context of servanthood and poverty. Servants and poor laborers were not legally property, but their lives might be in effect quite similar to those of slaves, and the kind of language used about them could be similar as well."—Ruth Mazo Karras, University of Minnesota, Speculum July 2002

"Each chapter sets up a dialogue between medieval language about slavery and language in more recent times—for example, in the Risorgimento, the anti-slavery movement in Italy, colonial experience, and fascism. Epstein concedes that the Italian contribution to slavery has been insignificant in global terms but that Italy's medieval experience with slavery has colored modern language about color and ethnicity. . . . The third substantive chapter deals with day-to-day life for slaves: the work that was expected of them, the treatment of slave pregnancy, cultural resistance from slaves, and other related issues. Epstein combs through notarial charters in search of language that is 'personal' rather than formulaic in order to humanize this picture of domestic slaves' daily life. This chapter and the following one on the Great Economy explore the heritage of medieval slavery for the plantation system in the New World, which will be of interest to those who study slave systems in the modern world. Throughout his study, Epstein pays attention to the practice of slavery on the islands of the Mediterranean and in overseas colonies of Italian city-states. . . . This monograph presents a case for a historical memory of slavery that colors modern discourse in Italy and carries important implications for perceptions of race and ethnicity."—Susan Mosher Stuard, Haverford College, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Autumn 2002

"Speaking of Slavery argues that Italian words specifically, and Italy's spoken culture generally, supported the owning and exploiting of humans, thus mainstreaming ideas about cultural superiority and inferiority that are still evident in Italian nomenclature today. . . . Epstein's study is successful on two fronts. First, he successfully challenges the alienation of discussions of New World slavery to the American context; moreover, he demonstrates that the attitudes of explorers like Christopher Columbus cannot be separated from preexisting slave traditions and language traditions. While the international slave market lost its stronghold long ago, the language established to support it still shapes ideas about race. In the end, the relationship between early Italian slavery and Italian ideas about ethnicity is still evident in the language used to talk about color and race, specifically the language reserved for immigrant laborers and ethnic minorities living in Italy today."—Audrey Kerr, Southern Connecticut University, Sixteenth Century Journal Vol XXXII No. 3, Fall 2002

"In his important book, Steven Epstein demonstrates the ways in which Italian slavery endures as a rhetorical topos and as an often distorted historical memory. Originally conceived and thoroughly researched, Speaking of Slavery is a significant accomplishment."—Paul Freedman, Yale University

"This is book is that rare event, a truly original work on an important and much discussed subject. Epstein's work will profoundly change the ways in which we think about slavery in the context of European culture."—James Given, University of California, Irvine

"Narratives of European modernity often assume too sharp a break with the pre-modern past. In this fine and nuanced study of the (largely) non-racial slavery of medieval Italy, Steven Epstein not only retrieves for historical memory an insufficiently known episode of the Old World's past. He also shows how the normalization through language of human servitude would provide a discursive foundation for the racial slavery of the New World, and leave a poisoned linguistic legacy for a modernity characterized simultaneously by freedom and equality for some and bondage and inequality for others."—Charles Mills, author of The Racial Contract

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Product Details

Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Ch. 1 The Language of Slavery 16
Ch. 2 The Language of the Law 62
Ch. 3 The Human Behavior of Slavery 103
Ch. 4 The Language of the Great Economy 150
Conclusion 192
Selected Bibliography 199
Acknowledgments 209
Index 211
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