You are here: Home News and Events ONLINE VIA ZOOM: Slavery and Other Forms of Strong Asymmetrical Dependencies: Semantics, Lexical Fields and Narratives

ONLINE VIA ZOOM: Slavery and Other Forms of Strong Asymmetrical Dependencies: Semantics, Lexical Fields and Narratives


— filed under:

International Conference

Event details
  • Conference
When Oct 01, 2020 09:00 to
Oct 02, 2020 05:00
Where Online via Zoom
Contact Name Mr. Jan Hörber
Contact Email
Contact Phone +49 228 73 62946
Add event to calendar vCal

Download program | More information


The conference intends to approach the phenomenon of slavery and other types of strong asymmetrical dependencies (e.g. debt bondage, convict labor, tributary labor, servitude, serfdom, and domestic work as well as forms of wage labor and various types of patronage) from three methodologically and theoretically distinct perspectives. The conference will conclude the thematic year of the BCDSS which is dedicated to the topics of its Research Area A Semantics – Lexical Fields – Narratives.


Thursday, October 1, 2020

9:30–10:00 am
Welcome and Introduction


10–10:40 am
Semantics I – Chair: Hermut Löhr

Chris de Wet, University of South Africa, Pretoria
The Discourse of Slavery and the Making of Early Christian Identity: A Case Study from Late Antique Syria

The purpose of this paper is to investigate how the discourse of slavery – which I have termed doulology – functioned in the construction of early Christian identity, with a specific focus on early Christianity in late antique Syria, as a case study (using both Greek and Syriac primary sources). In this paper, I use the notion of discourse specifically as conceived by Michel Foucault. Discourse, in this regard, refers to the dynamic way knowledge and the meaning of an idea (e.g., the idea of slavery) are constituted and enunciated, a type of language in practice, as well as how different forms of knowledge relate to each other, focusing on the role, operation, and effect of discourse with regard to social and cultural practices, forms of subjectivity, and relations of power. Thus, when I speak of doulology, I refer to when slavery as a constitution of knowledge, a language, and a social practice is enunciated and used to produce and reproduce meanings and behaviors in various related contexts.

The paper furthers the research which was published in my monograph in 2015, entitled Preaching Bondage: John Chrysostom and the Discourse of Slavery in Early Christianity (California), and in another book in 2018, The Unbound God: Slavery and the Formation of Early Christian Thought (Routledge). In this paper, I will now focus on and elaborate in more detail how Christians shaped and transformed their identity by means of the discourse of slavery.

Questions to be addressed include: what did it mean when Christians called themselves "slaves of God"? What were the "real" and embodied implications of accepting this appellation of asymmetrical dependency to God? How did early Christians, especially monks and ascetics, perform the discourse of slavery, materially and physically, in their religious practices? Finally, how did the idea of the Christian as slave of God, in turn, influence and (re-)shape the social institution of slavery in antiquity?

In this paper, I aim to show that early Christian conceptualizations of identity were not only reliant on the discourse of slavery as a structuring principle, but that the Christian transformation of doulology, in turn, had a lasting and significant impact on slavery as a social institution in late antiquity, and that it reaches even further beyond antiquity, continuing to shape and inform other forms of strong asymmetrical dependencies.

Egbert Koops, University of Leiden
Ownership or Oversight? The Vicarius in Legal and Extralegal Roman Sources

"A slave patrimony (peculium)", says the early third c. Roman jurist Ulpian, "may contain anything, chattels and land, and sub-slaves (vicarii) can be held in the patrimony too, and the patrimonies of sub-slaves" (Dig. For the Roman jurists, vicarius has a precise technical meaning. A vicarius is a slave who belongs to the patrimony of another slave, to be used as a replacement slave or sub-slave. In this sense, the vicarius appears in some 64 fragments of legal writing. Yet outside of legal sources the meaning is less clear.

Vicarii appear in roughly 330 published inscriptions, and by the fourth c. the term sometimes refers to provincial governors outside of any context of slavery. Were vicarii indeed originally people owned by other slaves, and if so how prevalent, and how socially stratified was the practice? Weaver (1964, 1972, 200–206) has argued against too technical a reading of the word vicarius in inscriptions, positing instead that the term was used as a functional description ("assistant", "underling") for slaves belonging to the imperial household, cities or tax associations. It is perhaps more likely that his vicarii served him as staff, than that the slave accountant Scurranus (CIL VI 5197) actually "owned" 16+ slaves. Yet outside the realm of administration, the term is explicitly connected to slave speech by the poet Horatius (Sat. 2.7.79–80), contrasting the so-called vicarius to the conservus which he properly is.

This paper explores the ambiguity in the usage of the word vicarius in Latinate legal, literary and epigraphic sources from the period of the Roman empire. It attempts to reconstruct how the language of vicarii was used to signal asymmetrical dependencies within the social pyramid of slavery.

11:10–11:50 am
Semantics II – Chair: Martin J. Schermaier

Caroline Laske, BCDSS, Ghent University
Textual Representation of Women's Legal Capacity During the High Middle Ages: A Semantic Approach

Among the many preconceived ideas about the Middle Ages is the notion that women totally lacked legal capacity, an issue that has always been at the heart of women's agency, and is directly linked to the degree of the asymmetry in their dependencies, usually on male members of their family. The lack of legal status, legal capacity and legal competence are the quintessential expressions of women's asymmetrical dependency in society and in the eyes of the law. This is particularly poignant in relation to the capacity to hold land, dispose of property, run a business, appear in a court of law etc.

The aim of this research is to reveal the extent of that legal dependency in both real and rhetorical terms. This involves studying the textual and semantic representation of women in legal, quasi-legal and customary law texts, as well as in reports of (legal) disputes and private documents such as wills. It allows us to go beyond the content analysis of the sources and undertake a linguistic study of texts in relation to the semantics (in the sense of systems of meanings) and to the lexical fields and lexicogrammar (in the sense of systems of wordings).

The identification and contextual analysis of linguistic markers that relate to women's legal capacity provide a contextualized understanding of the dependencies in which women existed in their daily lives and how semantic shifts may have influenced conceptual shifts in (the degree of) asymmetrical dependencies. By examining the language used to express the normative reality concerning women at the time reveals how meanings as linguistic expressions of reality were encoded and, hence, how the experience of that reality is constructed through the experiential meanings in the texts. It provides a way of understanding the interaction between the way customs (and customary law) create meanings in language and the way language creates realities in the normative construct of social experience.

The source used for this paper is the thirteenth century customary law text Le Très Ancien Coutumier de Normandie.

Serena Tolino, BCDSS, University of Bern
Naming Eunuchs in Islamicate Societies

During the pre-modern and the early modern period, eunuchs held a central position in the Courts of different Islamic dynasties, notwithstanding being castration unanimously prohibited in Islamic Law and even subject to the law of retaliation.

From a biological point of view, a man, when castrated, lost something which was considered to be fundamental for the contemporary understanding of masculinity. Still, eunuchs were considered for some aspects men: for example, they were assigned offices like army commanders, governors, caliphs' counselors. However, for other aspects they were not considered "completely" men. This allowed them to have access to the harem, playing one of their main roles in Islamic history, that of harem guardians. Moreover, having access to both the feminine and the masculine world, they had an important key to power.

From the perspective of Islamic Law eunuchs were slaves and property of their masters. However, sources also tell us that they hold a central position in court politics in many pre-modern Islamicate Courts. If we stick to a dichotomy slavery/freedom, we certainly fail to properly situate their relevance in the socio-political context. In order to problematize this dichotomy, a useful approach, as proposed for example by Hanß and Schiel (2014), has been semantics of slavery. Looking at how slaves were named in different sources, in different historical periods and in different regional contexts can allow us to obtain a more nuanced picture of how slavery (and other forms of coerced labor) worked in the pre-modern period.

This paper aims at contributing to this debate. After an introduction on eunuchs in Islamicate Courts, and an overview of the available research on that, the paper will provide a first mapping of the most relevant terms that were used in different typologies of sources to name eunuchs in the pre-modern period (in particular from the tenth to twelveth century), reflecting on the meaning but also for the reasons behind the choice of a given term in a given source.

12:20–1:00 pm
Lexical Fields I – Chair: Jeannine Bischoff

Pierangelo Buongiorno, University of Salento
Famulus vs. Servus

Ancient sources report that there is a significant number of testimonies (about 400 texts, for a period of time from the middle republic to the late antiquity) of the use of the word famulus to refer to a man in a relationship of dependence towards another man. According to the antiquarian tradition, the term famulus also leads to the notion of familia. Over time, the term famulus underwent various variations in use, being gradually replaced by the term servus.

It is certainly true that the lemma famulus does not complete the dictionary of Roman slavery, especially with regard to the archaic period of Roman history. A period in which numerous forms of semi-servile asymmetric dependence are documented, each with its own terminology reflecting an autonomous legal status.

But the etymological context famulus / familia is an excellent indicator of the contamination processes exercised by the servant-master model typical of Roman times on highly variable spheres at a cultural level.

The articulated semantic stratification of a word such as famulus, and the related notion of familia, undoubtedly shows quite clearly the not always linear evolution of the phenomenon of asymmetric dependencies in the Roman world.

Stefan Brink, BCDSS, University of Cambridge
What Can Language Tell Us of Social, Legal and Economic Dependencies in Early Scandinavia?

In our earliest laws (called the "provincial" laws), and, to some, however, lesser degree, in literary sources (such as Old Icelandic sagas and poetry), we gain knowledge of an interesting terminology of slavery (thralldom) and different kinds of dependencies and patronage. When analyzing these terms etymologically, semantically and contextually, we are able to identify different kinds of dependencies and patronage, in some cases these are obvious, in other cases the results are more evasive.

To give some examples: the most "obvious" designation of a slave, rather to be identified as a kind of chattel slave, was the term thrall, for a male slave. A thrall (þrall) occurs in societal contexts and has a legal standing in law rules which defines him as standing on the lowest rung in society. The female equivalent can be said to be the ambótt, who, however, sometimes is occurring in societal context which are less repressive, being a valued member in a family's household.

On the other end of the dependency spectrum there are indications that some warriors in a king's or chieftain's retinue, when entering into the hirð, had a change in his legal status, but especially often a huge elevation in social status. In principle, he gave up his personal freedom (by taking an oath), living under his lord's private jurisdiction and patronage. In such cases the concept of asymmetrical dependency becomes a useful tool, whereby the individual accepts – in principle – losing his legal capacity as a free man, by gaining social status, living close to the king/chieftain in the lord's hall, and getting economic (and, we also start to understand, sexual) benefits with this arrangement. In between these extremes, we find "slaves" or dependent "semi-unfree" individuals, such as the fostri (m.) and fostra (f.), who was dependents born and raised within a family, in many respects legally unfree and socially deprived, but in the laws higher valued than a thrall and an ambótt. In Scandinavia, with in principle no written sources pre-1100, such terminological and semantical analyses become very important in a reconstruction of the early, stratified society.

This Scandinavian situation can then be studied and compared with the slave terminology, and terms for other kind of dependents, found in especially the Anglo-Saxon King's laws in England, but also with similar terminology in Old Frisian and Old Germanic laws, such as the Pactus, Lex Salica, Lex Baiuvariorum, the Langobardic and Visigothic laws etc. There are many similarities, but some interesting differences and local variation.


1:00–2:00 pm


2:00–2:40 pm
Lexical Fields II – Chair: Stephan Conermann

Hossein Sheikh, independent
Slave or Servant? Terminology of Slavery and Related Terms in Middle Iranian Languages

Slavery has a long history. Many a linguistically distinct society has developed its own terminology pertaining to the institution of slavery. Our primary goal in this research is to study such technical vocabulary in the Middle Iranian languages. This family of languages, spoken from about the third century BCE to about 1000 CE (some even later) includes the following (from west to east): Middle Persian or Pahlavi, Parthian, Bactrian, Chorasmian, Sogdian, and Khotanese. Geographical map of our study is Iran and Central Asia; the time span stretches between 200 BCE – 1000 CE. We will also examine the relevance of our extracted terminology in the context of broader Near Eastern legal practices.

In this paper, we will first define and describe terms pertinent to slavery and dependency in the Middle Iranian languages. These languages have no single generic term for "slave", instead offer a variety of terms for diverse relations of dependence and unfree people, many of which were used also to describe free people. Despite the ambiguity imbedded in these words, they allow us to make inferences about various aspects of enslavement and freedom, about existing ambiguities in social and juridical distinctions, as well as about attitudes to menial work. Of interest is also the extent to which these terms are based on gender, age or type of slavery. Then, we review the word bandaka in the Old Persian and its semantic development for a better understanding of meaning and functions associated with it. The word bandak appears frequently in the Middle Iranian languages, derived from the Old Persian bandaka. In the Middle Iranian languages the word designating a slave or servant is the same, i.e. in Pahlavi, Bandag, in Sogdian, βntk.

Our main sources for this research are legal corpora (Law Books and contracts) in the Middle Iranian languages. Letters, inscriptions and other texts will also be used. We will begin with Pahlavi texts because in this language more resources are available for this theme than the others. Our approach consists of analyzing the available data in these languages from a legal and linguistic perspective.

Barbara Herceg Pakšić, University of Osijek, Croatia
Appropriateness of Expressions and Definitions in Context of Slavery and Connected Practice in Court Judgments: Do We Have Functional Notions?

International and national courts are facing necessity of slavery condemnation, mostly from criminal law and human rights law perspective. The central research question of this paper evolves around judicial reasoning on slavery and connected practices: do we have an approach adequate to nowadays society conditions? Emphasis is placed on (un)functionality of definitions in this area, the (un)certainty of assessment criteria and comparison of judgments.

European Court of Human Rights, as one of the most powerful human rights protection mechanism, has had the chance to decide on slavery cases, and therefore bring to life the European Convention ban from Art. 4, but slavery per se was not (yet) confirmed due to traditional definition guided by the Slavery Convention from the beginning of the twentieth century. On the other hand, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the High Court of Australia, when offered the chance to decide on slavery cases, have used it to set their own legal terminology and standards, extending the international concept of enslavement, providing assessing factors that would be indicative to slavery qualification as well as openly declared de iure slavery as inappropriate concept.

Social circumstances have influenced the slavery understanding, creating a need for a contemporary context, consideration of an unprecedented scope of exploitation relations, cases without previous similarities or known patterns, especially in recent social conditions and migrations. The paper will analyze and compare important judgments from mentioned courts in order to categorize the narratives, chosen language positions, lexical fields and semantics related to successful slavery condemnation.

Taking into account contemporary considerations on slavery and related practices we question the outcome analyzing key linguistic elements related to slavery notion. This will point to the stance of connecting slavery with nowadays legally impossible or unviable concept-ownership of human being. It will also question possibilities for more suitable legal notions, adjusted to the spirit of time, through behavior of perpetrator directed at possessing attributes by establishing control and exploitation of victim or the meaning of aspects of strong asymmetrical dependency in criminal law, which can open new possible discussion areas.


3:00–3:45 pm
Wrap-Up Day One


Friday, October 2, 2020

10:00–10:40 am
Narratives I – Chair: Marion Gymnich

Rachel Zelnick-Abramovitz, Tel Aviv University
The Slave Who Made It: Narratives of Manumitted Slaves in the Greek World

This paper examines some stories of slaves who "made it", that is, who were manumitted and then became rich and/or famous. The stories I treat are either interlaced in historical and geographical works as anecdotes or as illustrations of what is presented as historical facts, or are provided as details in biographies. By focusing on the story of Salmoxis (or Zalmoxis), as told by Herodotus (4.93–96) and other ancient Greek authors, and by comparing its components and language to other stories, I will address the following questions:

  • How were these slaves presented in the various stories? This will be done by examining the language used and – where possible – the narratological devices.
  • What were the historical or narratological purposes of these slave-stories? This question relates to the genre of each text.
  • What function did these stories have? Or, to put it differently: why slaves? Here I try to trace overt and hidden intentions of the authors in light of the scholarship on slave-stories.
  • What kind of (imagined or real) audience/readership were these stories addressing? This question relates to the aims and functions of such stories.
  •  What can these slave-stories teach us about slavery and the attitude of slave-owners in the time when they were "published"?
  • What significance can be attached to the figure of "The Clever/Cunning/Skilled Slave" in a slave-holding society?

Apart from the story of Salmoxis, I will also briefly discuss the stories of the courtesan Rhodopis, the fabulist Aesop, the philosopher Bion, and the satirist Menippus. The fictitious biography of Aesop, some slave figures from Attic Comedy, as well as stories of enslaved people in the Greek novels, will be used for comparison but not discussed in depth, as my concern is with texts that purport to present real or quasi-real slaves. Hence, to the historical or quasi-historical figures, I will also compare evidence of real slaves, as known to us from the Attic orations.

Christian Schwermann, BCDSS, University of Bochum
"The Art of Being a Minister" (chen shu 臣術): Narratives of Dependency in an Ancient Chinese Mirror for Princes

"The Art of Being a Minister" ("Chen shu" 臣術) is the title of the second chapter of Liu Xiang's 劉向 (79-– BCE) Shuo yuan 說苑 (Garden of Illustrative Examples), an ancient Chinese mirror for princes in 20 chapters. This work of early Chinese statist thought, which is written from the point of view of a high court official of the Former Han dynasty and which was submitted to the imperial throne in 17 BCE, covers central aspects of monarchic rule like the optimum performance of rulers and officials, guidelines for political action and personal conduct of decision-makers, basic political principles (especially the priority of rule by virtue over rule by law), recruitment of administrative personnel, the art of remonstrance, political circumspection, the art of persuasion (and the complementary virtue of heeding advice), diplomacy, tactics, and stratagems, the priority of the public good over private interest, military readiness and provision of defensive armament, observance of omens and portents, ritual and music as means of ordering and harmonizing society, and, finally, the maintenance of simplicity and frugality as a precondition for political ascendancy.

The individual chapters mostly consist of strings of short anecdotal narratives or exempla, which illustrate the principles of good monarchic rule presented in the introductions to the chapters. In this paper, I will analyze the narrative representation of the relationship between the ruler and his ministers in the second chapter of the Shuo yuan. Although this relationship is characterized by a strong asymmetrical dependency, which is shown by the mere fact that the key term chen 臣, here "minister", has the basic meaning of "servant" and that a minister, when communicating with his ruler, accordingsly puts himself in the role of a servant, it can be demonstrated that Liu Xiang, in his portrayal of the ideal official, also takes into account the maximum development of his agency by referring to exemplary precedents from older historical literature.


11:10–11:50 am
Narratives II – Chair: Elena Smolarz

Elke Brüggen, BCDSS, University of Bonn
Captured, Abducted, Sold: The Muslim Rennewart in the Middle High German Epic Poem Willehalm

Rennewart is an interesting character in an epic poem named after its protagonist Willehalm, count of Provence. The poem was written by the German author Wolfram von Eschenbach in the second decade of the thirteenth century; it is a piece of "rewriting", since it takes up an elder poem entitled "Aliscans" which belongs to the Old French genre of chanson de geste-writing.

The figure of Rennewart attracted much attention in research, but has mostly been perceived as a curiosity and a source of comedy. In my paper I shall put aside these dimensions in favor of studying a different one: the way in which the Middle High German text portrays the young Rennewart as someone forcibly removed from his ancestral background as well as his native culture and religion, separated from his relatives and transferred to a new alien environment, where he becomes the object of a forced process of inculturation which is only partially successful. To grasp the specifics of the textual representation in the Middle High German text, it will be compared with strategies that can be observed in an illuminating double portrait from the first half of the eighteenth century which recently has been treated by Rebecca von Mallinckrodt; it which shows a German prince-abbess and an African boy who presumably performed servant's tasks at her court.

Christiane Czygan, University of Bonn
From Slave to Sultana: Hurrem Sultan's Narration of Love (1534–1548

When Sultan Süleyman celebrated his marriage to his slave concubine in 1536, he shattered an Ottoman tradition that had existed for hundreds of years. The relationship between Sultan Süleyman and Hurrem Sultan or Roxelane, a former slave, irritated contemporary diplomats, and it has continued to be a matter of controversy, inspiring numerous cultural productions. The tantalizing conundrum of her power was referred to as witchcraft, even by nineteenth century historians such as Josepf Hammer v. Purgstall.

Only in recent decades has the figure of this powerful female and former slave been more positively discussed. Very little is known about Hurrem's abduction and how she was brought to the imperial harem. According to the only known narration about the acquaintance between Hurrem and the young Sultan, she used her dramatic skills to attract the sultan's attention. When she gave birth to her son in 1521, tradition would have demanded her separation from the sultan. However, returning from a campaign and having lost three children in the wake of the pestilence, the sultan broke with tradition and returned to Hurrem. She gave birth to five more children and was the closest person to the sultan when his mother died in 1534. The official marriage took place some months later, but its celebration was postponed due to an urgent campaign to 1536. Up until her death in 1558, Hurrem remained Sultan Süleyman's most important and consistent partner. The couple underwent long periods of separation during which Hurrem wrote letters to the sultan. Even after she became queen, she frequently referred to her slavery status, perhaps as a way of expressing affection and faithfulness.

In the following paper I will analyze these references in order to shed light on certain patterns. In particular, I will suggest that these references decreased over time as she consolidated her power in the fifteen-forties and became an endower of a number of philanthropic institutions. By contrast, Sultan Süleyman expressed his feelings for Hurrem in poetry which evoked his own power and metaphorically associated her with the Ottoman lands.


12:20–1:20 pm
Narratives III – Chair: Jutta Wimmler

Ruth Ennis, University of Leipzig
Narrating "White Slavery", 1862–1880

As conceptions of race began to inform and be informed by eighteenth century debates on slavery, the term "white slavery" was quickly taken up in the nineteenth century by varying actors to describe and draw attention to diverse issues. This included, for example, historians referring to seventeenth barbarian coast piracy, or socialists highlighting the working conditions of child laborers in British factories or men servicing the railroads of France. The 1860s and 1870s marked a moment when the language of white slavery came to be used to speak about young naïve white European women.

These emerging discourses and narratives recycled popular knowledge and imagery of transatlantic slavery so as to narrate the experiences of young girls and their vulnerability as they transitioned from childhood to adulthood within the modern world. While Moléri's 1862 novel La Traite des Blanches deals with rather broad threats to young girls in terms of violence and poverty, in the 1870s the language of white slavery came to specifically speak about the entrapment of young naïve migrants in brothel prostitution.

On the one hand this paper examines how French language narratives on white slavery were transferred and transformed in(to) other European contexts through the process of translation, while on the other it maps out the contours of these narratives by exploring the tensions between non-fiction and literary works. In order to do so, an intersectionality approach is combined with feminist narratology to reflect on race-class-gender and spatial constructs, as well as the identity markers and positions of the authors, narrators and the intended audience. The constructs of race, class, gender and space are specifically examined due to the reoccurring pattern throughout the sources examined which narrate the perils faced by young European girls in the context of modernity, migration, urbanization and technological advancement. This paper thus examines the roles being demarcated and the problems being framed in the context of changing socio-economic cultural conditions of Europe, all the while giving sustenance to the argument that, in its broad discursive use, the concept of slavery came to denote all that was seen as evil in the nineteenth century.

Ulrike Schmieder, University of Hannover
Different Narratives of the Case of the Brothers Jaham and Its Aftershocks: Slavery, Emancipation and Legacies in Martinique

Charles and Octave Jaham were two particularly cruel enslavers, torturers and murderers on the French plantation island Martinique. In Court they were acquitted in 1845 as most enslavers who were sued for sévices, mistreatment of enslaved. They made a surely unintended contribution to the emancipation of the enslaved in 1848 as abolitionists, especially the famous Victor Schœlcher, took their behavior and the juridical impunity to prove that slavery cannot be reformed, but only abolished. The name Jaham became a symbol for the evils of slavery and obviously a burden for their descendants. At least one of those, Roger de Jaham, launched a declaration in 1998 (on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of abolition) which included certain recognition of the harm his ancestors had done to the enslaved Africans although it was not a clear excuse or promise of reparation.

The presentation will analyze the historical sources and reference to the case since 1998, the year in which the generation decade long silence about of the slavery past had been broken. The paper will look at the vocabulary used and the narratives told from different perspectives about the events, the acting persons and their motives, and the short and long term consequences. With which discourse legal slavery was defended or attacked by whom? Which image of enslavers and enslaved was produced through the narratives? Is the language of colonizers and enslavers and paternalist abolitionists still present? Could the activists of the descendants of the enslaved change the discourse about enslavement and resistance, perpetrators, victims and rebels? Do after-slavery asymmetrical dependencies play a role in the debate about the legacies of slavery in racism and racialized social inequality?

Pia Wiegmink, University of Regensburg
Travelling Beyond the Slave Narrative: Mobility and Antislavery Critique in Antebellum African American Women's Life Writing

This paper examines the cultural function of antebellum African American women's life writing within the context of American literatures of slavery. More precisely, I will discuss the genre of the slave narrative vis-à-vis other forms of life writing (such as travel and epistolary writing) and explore the relationship between tropes of (transatlantic) mobility and antislavery critique in African American women's life writing. Considered in the context of slavery, autobiographies by former slaves, such as Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) or Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), are often employed as a means of providing supposedly authentic first-hand information on slavery and thus aim at correcting the image of slavery as a benevolent institution in the United States. But while the slave narrative is considered the most prominent genre of African American autobiographical writing in the nineteenth century, little attention has thus far been paid to other forms of antebellum African American life writing.

In methodological terms, this paper engages with the genre conventions of the slave narrative. Discourses of travel – such as forced migration of the middle passage, the denial of freedom of movement as an enslaved subject, and the escape North and/or to Canada – loom large in the genre. My examination of autobiographical accounts of various forms of travel aims at complementing these conventional tropes of mobility in the genre of the slave narrative and inquires how they have impacted other forms of African American life writing. In this sense, by analyzing the travel accounts of Nancy Prince and Eliza Potter and the letters of Sarah Parker Remond, my paper will also move beyond the slave narrative. In contrast to the forced migration of enslaved women, I am interested in examining whether African American women succeed in transgressing and transforming the narrative confines of African American life writing brought forth by the slave narrative.



1:20–2:20 pm


2:20–3:30 pm
Wrap-Up and Final Discussion  


Download program


Our approach to the semantics of the many dif-ferent (predominantly pre-modern) languages represented in the BCDSS is interested in focus-ing on the word, i.e., the lexical dimension, as well as on pragmatics. The meaning often turns out to be dependent on the contexts in which a word is used. In addition to the linguistic context, the gen-re/text type and wider cultural contexts may also turn out to be relevant. We aim at identifying in-ventories of linguistic items (and their usage) that are pertinent to the topic at a particular time and in a specific historical (con)text.

Detailed analyses of key terms that are associated with the conceptualization of strong asymmetrical dependencies promise to provide new insights in-to the self-concept and knowledge of pre-modern societies. The majority of these key terms have as yet not been studied from a semantic or terminological perspective. Contributions may adopt a synchronic approach focusing on a single text or small set of texts; or analyze diachronic semantic changes. Both approaches are welcome and valued and shall be based on the assumption that the meaning of a word can only be identified by taking its usage into consideration.

Lexical Fields

Our understanding of lexical fields is based on an onomasiological approach – which linguistic items are used to refer to a concept? Which words are used to express a concept? This means that the concept is a semantic unit which is not directly accessible but may be manifested in different ways on the linguistic level. We are interested in single concepts such as wisdom or fear, but also in more complex semantic units like strong asymmetrical dependencies. We consider concepts to be abstract units that are expressed in a particular language — without, however, necessarily expecting or postulating precise correspondences between a concept and an individual word or other linguistic structure.

Lexical fields encompass the set of linguistic items in one language that can be linked to a particular concept (e.g., ‘wisdom’) and the related conceptual network based on semantic relations. In comparative studies which seek to examine different cultural contexts, the concept of lexical fields promises to be enormously useful, since it is a tool that helps us to reveal differences in terms of usage associated with otherwise similar concepts.

Generally, in each language (or diachronic stage), key terms emerge. The usage of these key terms should be analyzed in terms of its relations to linguistic items that can be shown to be syntagmatically and paradigmatically linked to the key term (synonymity and antonymity).


Finally, we will focus on the analysis of narratives of slavery and other forms of strong asymmetrical dependencies. This, first of all, means the definition of a relevant set of narrative texts. A narrative text is always a form of cultural self-perception and self-reflection. We define culture as the interaction of material, social and mental phenomena.

Studying the mental dimension of the culture of a society with the help of the methods supplied by literary studies, thus, means trying to reconstruct the system of values, norms, ideologies and collective concepts that is typical of a society, since this system (or at least segments thereof) manifests itself in condensed form in narratives.

We are especially interested in the relations between narrative texts and the discourses and the knowledge of a society, seeking to trace how texts draw upon the sociocultural knowledge of the time they were produced in and how they incorporate this knowledge in media- and genre-specific ways, thus fulfilling diverse cultural functions. A transcultural narratological analysis of literary strategies may provide insights into mental ways of making sense of reality and world-making.

In other words, narratives of slavery and other forms of strong asymmetrical dependencies draw upon elements which are part of the imagination, experience and knowledge of a culture, even if these elements of the cultural archive are taken out of their original contexts and thus may be fundamentally changed in the process of narration. 


The main organizers of the conference are Jeannine Bischoff, Stephan Conermann and Marion Gymnich.

If you have any questions, please contact us via: dependency[at]

The conference will be held as an online conference via Zoom on October 1–2, 2020.

The proceedings of the conference will be published in our Book Series Beyond Slavery and Freedom: Asymmetrical Dependencies in Pre-Modern Societies (published by de Gruyter).


Document Actions