The following is an excerpt from a fifteenth-century civil lawsuit filed by an enslaved woman named Soffia, against her former owner, the nobleman Johan de Bonastre, before the royal court of the Governor of the Kingdom of Valencia.  Soffia protested that she was being denied recognition of her de jure freed status, that she was legally entitled to freed status as a consequence of having given birth to her owner’s child.  According to the law code of the kingdom of Valencia, if an enslaved woman gave birth to her owner’s child, she automatically secured freed status and her child was free-born.  Recognition of an enslaved mother’s claim to freed status (or her child’s claim to free-born status), however, hinged on the owner’s willingness to acknowledge the child publicly as his biological son or daughter.  When slave owners proved recalcitrant, enslaved mothers (technically) had recourse to the court of the governor, to whom a resourceful few appealed for justice. It bears emphasis, moreover, that in this particular case, Soffia – in addition to demanding her freedom – was also demanding payment of the salary she had earned when her owner, following her child’s birth, contracted her services out to a third party.  It would seem, in other words, that Soffia no longer lived in this nobleman’s household.  While in some cases enslaved mothers filed their demandes de libertat in conjunction with their de jure free-born children, in most cases, the child him/herself is but briefly mentioned.  In Soffia’s claim, for example, we are not even told her daughter’s name.  Hence, we can only speculate about her fate.   

Translated from the Catalan by Debra Blumenthal. From the Arxiu del Regne de València: Gobernacíon 2291: M. 4: 9v; ARV Gobernación 2293: M. 21: 30r-31v (26 September 1458 – 7 April 1459). This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Concerning the honorable mossen Johan de Bonastre, nobleman, against na Soffia

In the year of our lord 1458, on the 26th day of the month of September, in the presence of the most noble mossen Jaume Romeu, a nobleman, councilor of his sacred majesty, the most high lord king, lieutenant of the respectable don Joan Roiç de Corella, count of Cocentayna, councilor and chamberlain of his sacred majesty and the governor of the kingdom of Valencia … appears …  en Gracia d’Artes, a notary, in the name of the aforementioned, who presents in writing that which follows:

In the presence of you, the most noble mossen Jaume Romeu, nobleman, lieutenant governor of the kingdom of Valencia, appeared personally Garcia d’Artes, a notary, procurator[1] for Soffia, a poor and miserable person, the former slave of the honorable mossen Johan de Bonastre … who makes, asserts, and presents the following claim and articles:

[i] And, first of all, it is stated and asserted … that in days past, the said honorable mossen Johan de Bonastre purchased the said Soffia for a certain price as his slave, whom he held for a certain period of time in his household and whom was considered, held, and publicly reputed to be his slave.  This is true and public knowledge.

[ii] Likewise, it is stated and asserted that, the said Soffia being in the household and service of the said mossen Bonastre as his slave, the said mossen Johan de Bonastre carnally used her multiple times.  And this is true and public knowledge.

[iii] Likewise, it is stated that the said mossen Bonastre, using the said Soffia in the way indicated, resulted in her becoming pregnant with the said mossen Bonastre’s child and she gave birth to a daughter.  And this is true.

[iv] Likewise, it is said that it is public knowledge within mossen Johan de Bonastre’s household and among those knowing him that the said Soffia gave birth to the said mossen Johan de Bonastre’s child.  The said mossen de Bonastre has said and acknowledged this to several of his friends and so the said Soffia’s daughter is regarded as his daughter.  And this is true and public knowledge.

[v] Likewise, it is said that with many people knowing these things, [these things] came to the notice of the second wife whom the said mossen Johan de Bonastre recently married.  And the said mossen Johan de Bonastre, wishing to demonstrate his respect for her [his new wife’s] honor, removed the said Sofia from his household, relocating her outside his household for several days while he decided what to do with her.  And this is true and public knowledge.

[vi] Likewise, it is stated that, with the said Soffia now being outside the household of the said mossen Johan de Bonastre, [the said Johan de Bonastre] spoke with the honorable mossen Vidal de Blanes and others, saying that he wished to release the said Soffia from his dominion, since he could no longer keep her in his household nor could he resell her because she had given birth to his child.  Since if he freed her she might go to ruin,[2] [he felt] it would be better if she were able to take a husband and be good.  And thus, he decided to put this plan into execution. And this is true and public knowledge.

[vii] Likewise, it is said that acting on this plan and putting this pious and good and well-intentioned decision into execution, the said mossen Bonastre put the said Soffia into a contract of service with Anthoni Pugol for a term of six years and in exchange for a payment of [a salary of] 30 lliures, even though, according to justice, he could not do this. And this is true and public knowledge.  

[viii] Likewise, it is stated, as above, that a document recording the said contract of service was drawn up by the discreet en Johan del Mas, the notary and procurator of the said mossen Bonastre, in the year 1452.  And this is true.

[ix] Likewise, it is stated and asserted that as the said [salary of] 30 lliures was not payable until the end of the said six-year term, the drawing up of a contract of debt was necessary, in which the said mossen Bonastre stated that the said salary ought to go towards securing a husband for the said Sofia.[3] Because he intended to manage the said Soffia’s marriage and wished to ensure that she did not use the said quantity of money for any other purposes but marriage, he (mossen Bonastre) had the contract of debt name him as the beneficiary.  And this is true.

[x] Likewise, it is stated, as above, that in the present year, the final year in her term of service, the said en Anthoni Pugol has said that if the said Sofia takes a husband, that he is willing to pay her her salary even though the term of service has not been completed in full.  And he [Anthoni Pugol] said this to the said mossen Bonastre, who said that it was agreeable to him that a good husband be found to whom the said amount could be given in dowry. And this is true and public knowledge. 

[xi] Likewise, it is said that, with the said mossen Johan Bonastre’s approval, several marriage partners have been considered for the said Soffia, [however] nearing conclusion, the said mossen Johan found them all unsatisfactory, saying that one was poor and creating delays such that some notable persons, friends of the said mossen Johan de Bonastre, intervened to whom he insisted and replied when he spoke with them that he was completely content to see the said Soffia take a husband but wanted him to be a good farmer, rich and young, to ensure that she would not live in misery or go to ruin.[4] And this is true and public knowledge.

[xii] Likewise it is said, as above, that since the said mossen Bonastre had a daughter by the said Soffia, while being his slave, according to the law and reason the said Soffia attained freed status and was free immediately after giving birth and, in consequence, he [mossen Bonastre] could neither put her up for sale nor place her in any contract of service with the said Pugol.  And this is true and public knowledge.

[xiii] Likewise, it is said, as above, that not only has the said Soffia attained freed status by giving birth [to her owner’s child] but also, according to justice, the said salary is and should likewise pertain to the said Soffia, having been earned by her as a free person, and also in accordance with the contract and [mossen Bonastre’s expressed] will, the said salary was for the said Soffia and should serve her interests.  And this is true and public knowledge.

[xiv] Likewise, it is said, as above, that, according to law and justice, the said 30 lliures which today are deposited in your, the said noble lieutenant governor’s, power, are the property of the said Soffia and ought to be delivered to her as her own property which she can use in accordance with her own desires. And this is true.

Consequently … the said Sofia is free and attained freed status immediately upon giving birth to the said daughter of the said mossen Johan de Bonastre and the said 30 lliures earned by her subsequent to the said birth, while in the service of the said en Anthoni Pugol, is her property and pertains to her as her property with which she can do whatever she likes.  And, therefore, the said Gracia d’Artes, in the aforementioned name, requests and demands that you, the said noble lieutenant governor issue a pronouncement declaring the same as this proceeds from justice … respectfully imploring your office that you condemn the opposing party in paying all court costs.  To which claim and each of its articles it is also requested that there be made a response.

[On 3 April 1459, the defendant, mossen Johan de Bonastre, appeared before the court of the governor to respond formally to Soffia’s claims.  While Johan de Bonastre acknowledged having purchased Soffia as his slave on the date and in the place specified, he denied all the subsequent articles, in which Soffia claimed that he had had sex with her and had impregnated her with his child. In response to every article, he responded: “He denied the said article and the things contained in them.”

With respect to Soffia’s account of the events leading up to her removal from his household, Johan de Bonastre asserted the following:]

“Likewise … concerning the fifth [article] … he said that he denied the article and the things that are contained and articulated in it.  It is however true that it was due to his wife’s being upset, believing that the said Soffia had given birth to the said respondent’s child, that he decided to remove Soffia from his household.  He entrusted her into the custody of the discreet en Johan del Mas, a notary, who held her in his custody for a period of time.”

[It bears emphasis that though Johan de Bonastre acknowledged that (ostensibly also in deference to his wife) he subsequently placed Soffia into a contract of service with the said en Anthoni Pugol, for a six-year term of service, Johan denied Soffia’s contention that she had been placed in this contract of service as a “freed” person.  Indeed, Johan de Bonastre repudiated all subsequent articles in which Soffia affirmed that she was entitled to collect the salary paid by en Anthoni Pugol for her services, repeatedly responding, under oath, that “he denies the said article and the things contained in it”.  To the end, Johan de Bonastre steadfastly denied Soffia’s contention that she had given birth to his daughter and, in response to article 12, insisted that Soffia’s child “is not his daughter.”  

On 7 April 1459 Soffia appeared an additional and, perhaps, final time before the court of the governor.  At that time she filed the following request for a continuance:]

The said na Soffia, due to her poverty and misery, and due to her being a woman residing in someone else’s household as a salaried worker, has not been able to solicit the assistance of the notary appointed to receive the testimony of witnesses for the present court dispute by the time that she was directed to …. [However] inasmuch as law and justice determines that, particularly in a case concerning a person’s freedom, allowances ought to be made … for this reason the said na Soffia requests … that you authorize and concede to the said Soffia at least 20 additional days in which she can produce and introduce all and any testimony of witnesses in support of her claim … and that the opposing party be informed [of this] … and that the scribe be prepared to receive this testimony as justice dictates.”

[Unfortunately, the trial transcript ends here.  We do not know the outcome of Soffia’s claim.  Perhaps it was withdrawn, perhaps the remainder of the case was recorded elsewhere and the scribe simply neglected to direct the reader to it.  We do not know what happened or whether the governor ever issued a ruling.]

[1] legal representative/advocate

[2] i.e., become a prostitute

[3] i.e., ought to go towards payment of Sofia’s dowry

[4] i.e., become a prostitute

Discussion Questions

  1. What do records like these suggest about the impact the law had on the lives of the enslaved?  To what extent did the law limit or temper the power of slave owners? 
  2. What might have prompted the codification of a law automatically granting freed status to enslaved women who gave birth to their owner’s child?   What might it suggest about contemporary attitudes towards enslaved women and their children?
  3. How does this court record illuminate the particularities of the experiences of enslaved women in the late medieval Mediterranean world?  
  4. What can we deduce from court records about the dynamics of relations within a slave-holding household? 

Related Primary Sources


Agency, Children, Law, Life After Manumission, Manumission, Men, Sexual Slavery, Women