The Fifth Council of Orleans and Gregory of Tours Primary Source eText

Primary Source

Servant girls bathing their master during the Middle Ages in Europe. Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc. Servant girls bathing their master during the Middle Ages in Europe. Published by Gale Cengage Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc.
German serfs working in the field for the lord of the manor. Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc. German serfs working in the field for the lord of the manor. Published by Gale Cengage Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc.

The Fifth Council of Orleans

Excerpt from Laws Concerning Slaves and Freedmen
Published in A Sourcebook for Medieval Economic History, 1936
Edited by Roy C. Cave and Herbert H. Coulson

Greogry of Tours

Excerpt from History of the Franks
Published in A Sourcebook for Medieval Economic History, 1936
Edited by Roy C. Cave and Herbert H. Coulson

In the Middle Ages, the period between about A.D. 500 and 1500, the issue of slavery in Europe became more confusing. During this period, only about ten percent of the people in Europe were slaves—but another forty percent were serfs, poor farmers who enjoyed just a bit more freedom than actual slaves.

The dominant political force in Europe during the Middle Ages was the Roman Catholic Church, whose leadership passed laws that applied to the population as a whole, just like the laws of a government. Much of this activity took place at church councils, or conferences. It was at these events that bishops (high-ranking priests with authority over the believers in a given region) considered a number of matters. One such council was held in the French city of Orleans in 549.

The Fifth Council of Orleans, as it was called, addressed a number of issues, including the treatment of runaway slaves and serfs. The council urged masters to be merciful to runaway slaves, but as Catholic bishop and historian Gregory of Tours (538-594) reported a quarter-century later, many masters simply ignored the recommendations of the Church.

Things to remember while reading

  • The Fifth Council of Orleans was a group of bishops, or church leaders, making policy for the Church—and because of the great power of the Roman Catholic Church, all of Europe.
  • As the members of the Council of Orleans noted, the Church offered a safe haven, and in some cases freedom, to slaves. A runaway slave could be certain that the Church would forgive him or her for running away; the Church also encouraged slaveholders to be forgiving as well. On the other hand, Church leaders did not want to make the Church seem "as if it had appeared desirous of retaining the [runaway] slave," nor did they want to defy existing laws. Hence they made an exception "for those faults for which the laws ordered revocation of the liberties conferred on slaves": thus if a slave had committed a serious crime in the course of running away, there was nothing the Church could do to protect him or her.
  • In general, however, the Church was interested in limiting slavery. To this end, the council members encouraged free men who sold themselves into bondage to buy themselves out of slavery as soon as possible: "if they can find the price, as much as was given for them, when the price is given, they shall be restored to their former status without delay." Like Hammurabi (see entry), the council decreed, or ruled, that the children of a slave and a free person were free. In dealing with non-Christian slaveholders, the council suggested that a Christian should guarantee the protection of the slave, because a Christian would be kept in line by his fear of the Church's authority.
  • Gregory indicated that the cruel slaveholder Rauching punished a slave who, "as was customary ... held a burning candle before him at dinner." Presumably the slave was only providing the master with light, and perhaps he or she accidentally burned him. As for Rauching's treatment of a runaway slave couple, it appears that he ordered a coffin made for them and then forced them to get into it and buried them alive.

Laws Concerning Slaves and Freedmen

7. And because on the suggestion of many we have found for a certainty that those, who were freed from slavery in the churches according to the custom of the country, have been recalled to slavery again on the whim of all kinds of people, we have deemed it impious that those who have been freed from the yoke of servitude in the Church out of consideration for God should be disregarded. Therefore, because of its piety, it is pleasing to the common council that it be observed, that, whatever slaves be released from servitude by free masters, shall remain in that freedom which they then received from their lords. Also liberty of this kind, if it be questioned by any one shall be defended with justice by the churches, except for those faults for which the laws ordered revocation of the liberties conferred on slaves.

...14. Concerning freemen who sell themselves for money or other things, or who have pledged themselves, it is our pleasure that if they can find the price, as much as was given for them, when the price is given, they shall be restored to their former status without delay, nor shall more be required than was given for them. And meanwhile, if one of them shall have married a free wife, or if one of them, being a woman, shall have taken a freeman as husband, the children who are born of them shall remain free.

...22. But concerning slaves, who flee for refuge to the church on account of any offense, we decree that it should be observed that they be sent away certain of forgiveness, just as is acknowledged to have been written in ancient laws, after the lord, whoever he may be, has taken the oath to pardon the offense. For, if the lord, unmindful of his oath, shall be proved to have broken his promise, and the slave who accepted forgiveness shall be proved to have been punished in some way for that fault, the faithless lord shall be excommunicated. Again if the lord has taken the oath and the slave, though safe when pardoned, is unwilling to go and so seeks sanctuary because he might perish at the hands of his lord, then his master may seize the unwilling slave so that the Church might suffer no calumny nor molestation in any way whatsoever as if it had appeared desirous of retaining the slave; nevertheless the lord should by no means break his oath of forgiveness. But if he should be a gentile lord or one of another sect and be proved to be outside the pale of the Church and should seek the return of his slave, he shall have Christians as pledges of good faith who shall take the oaths to the slave on behalf of the lord; because they who fear ecclesiastical discipline for their transgression are able to keep what is sacred.

History of the Franks

[The widow of Godwin] married Rauching, a man of great vanity, swollen with pride, shameless in his arrogance, who acted towards those subject to him as though he were without any spark of human kindness, raging against them beyond the bounds of malice and stupidity and doing unspeakable injuries to them. For if, as was customary, a slave held a burning candle before him at dinner, he caused his shins to be bared, and placed the candle between them until the

flame died; and he caused the same thing to be done with a second candle until the shins of the torchbearer were burned. But if the slave tried to cry out, or to move from one place to another, a naked sword threatened him; and he found great enjoyment in the man's tears. They say that at that time two of his slaves, a man and a girl, fell in lovea thing which often happens—and that when their affection for each other had lasted for a period of two years, they fled together to a church. When Rauching found this out he went to the

priest of that place and asked him to return the two slaves immediately, saying that he had forgiven them. Then the priest said to him, "You know what veneration is due to the churches of Cod. You cannot take them unless you take an oath to allow them to remain together permanently, and you must also promise that they will be free from corporal punishment. " But he [Rauching], being in doubt and remaining silent for some time at length turned to the priest and put his hands upon the altar, saying, "They will never be separated by me, but rather I shall cause them to remain in wedlock; for though I was annoyed that they did such things without my advice, I am perfectly happy to observe that the man did not take the maid of another in wedlock, nor did she take the slave of another. " The simple priest believed him and returned the two slaves who had been ostensibly pardoned. He [Rauching] took them, gave thanks, and returned to his house, and straightaway ordered a tree to be cut down. Then he ordered the trunk to be opened with wedges and hollowed out, and a hole to be made in the ground to the depth of three or four feet, and the trunk to be placed therein. Then placing the girl as if she were dead, he ordered the slave to be thrown on top of her. And when the cover had been placed upon the trunk he filled the grave and buried them both alive, saying, "I have not broken my oath and I have not separated them. "

What happened next...

The sixth century in Western Europe was the beginning of a period sometimes described as "the Dark Ages," an era that lasted until about A.D. 1000. For much of this era, Western Europe was in a state of confusion and progress almost came to a standstill. But in the eleventh century, a number of factors propelled Europe out of the Dark Ages.

In 1095, European armies launched a series of wars known as the Crusades, or "wars for the cross," in which they attempted to gain control of the Holy Land (i.e., the Middle East) for the Roman Catholic Church. Although the Crusades ultimately proved to be a failure, they gave Europeans exposure to different parts of the world and hastened the pace of progress in Europe. As a result, Europe's economy grew and people gained more rights, which helped bring about an end of slavery.

Between 1347 and 1351, a widespread disease called the Black Death wiped out nearly a third of Europe's population. As a result, peasants (poor farmers and laborers) were in great demand. Suddenly there were alternatives to serfdom, and many talented peasants made their way to the cities, where they got jobs in skilled professions. Serfdom gradually faded away, and England became the first European country to outlaw it in 1574. The movement to abolish serfdom gradually spread eastward, until it reached Russia in 1861.

Did you know...

  • Peasants, or poor farmers, made up about eighty percent of Europe's population during the Middle Ages.
  • The term "serf" comes from the Latin word servus, meaning "slave."
  • The Franks gave their name to the country of France.

For more information


Cave, Roy C. and Herbert H. Coulson, eds. A Source Book for Medieval Economic History. Milwaukee, Wis.: Bruce Publishing Co., 1936.



Compareti, Alice. Gregory's Angels. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1972.

Macht, Norman L. and Mary Hull. The History of Slavery. San Diego, Calif.: Lucent Books, 1997.

Rice, Edward. A Young People's Pictorial History of the Church. Adapted by Blanche Jennings Thompson. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1963.


"Medieval Sourcebook: Fifth Council of Orleans: Concerning Freedmen, 549." (accessed on January 12, 2000).

"Medieval Sourcebook: Gregory of Tours: Harsh Treatment of Serfs and Slaves, c. 575." (accessed on January 12, 2000).