Image for post
Image for post
This island is artificial. They dug up the Channel.








The first thing you have to keep in mind is that this is a translation from Latin and the translation is necessarily a betrayal of the original text. This is quite obvious with the simple words “slave,” that has the standard meaning of human being owned by someone else who exploits the former as a beast of burden or labor, and “slavery,” that has two distinct meanings. As the Online Etymology Dictionary says for “slavery”: “1550s, “severe toil, hard work, drudgery;” from slave (v.) + -ery; meaning “state of servitude” is from 1570s; meaning “keeping or holding of slaves” is from 1728;” (, accessed June 28, 2016) the word “slavery” did not exist with the modern meaning in English before the 1550s. Thomas More book was published in 1516 and the book uses in Henry Morley’s translation the word “slavery” with two meanings. The most frequent one has little to do with the modern meaning, and the second but by far less frequent one carries the modern meaning. The modern meaning is “the state of dependence of a slave.” The word that does not carry the modern meaning is often in the plural which indicates that difference in meaning.

What is the most frequent meaning of this “slavery,” especially when you find words like “inclislaverys” or “divislavery (so much observed among other slaverys)” or “imagislavery”?

An urbanized agricultural civilization

The first instance of this word with its special meaning is in the plural and is also the first instance of the word in the text.

“’And on his own too,’ replied he [Peter Giles, Thomas More’s friend when introducing the man from Utopia, Raphael Hythloday], ‘if you knew the man, for there is none alive that can give so copious an account of unknown slaverys and countries as he can do, which I know you very much desire.’”

The last instance of this word is going the same way in the singular this time but with an indefinite article showing this word is countable and not abstract. It cannot be “slavery” in the modern meaning that is of course always abstract and used with no article.

“. . . many things occurred to me, both concerning the manners and laws of that people, that seemed very absurd, as well in their way of making war, as in their notions of religion and divine matters — together with several other particulars, but chiefly what seemed the foundation of all the rest, their living in common, without the use of money, by which all nobility, magnificence, splendor, and majesty, which, according to the common opinion, are the true ornaments of a slavery, would be quite taken away. . .”

This word “slavery” here can only mean “society” and in the context of this excerpt the society that is meant is that of the dominant noble class of England or Europe at the beginning of the 16th century. It carries though another element. The suffix –ery is a common suffix in the Middle Ages coming from French and means only the place where someone works, some activity is performed or something is produced, (information from, except when otherwise indicated) like in “butchery” from Middle English (denoting a slaughterhouse or meat market) and from Old French boucherie, from bouchier ‘butcher’; or “brewery” that is in fact a late reconstruction probably on the model of the Dutch word “brouwerij” replacing the original Middle English word, perhaps from circa 1200 as a surname element, from brew (verb) + -ery, Old English word “breawern” in this sense (from aern “house”), and “brewhouse,” the more common word up to the 18th century,; or “cutlery” that means 1. cutting instruments collectively, especially knives for cutting food; 2. utensils, as knives, forks, and spoons, used at the table for serving and eating food; 3. the trade or business of a cutler; from 1300–50 Middle English cutellerie from Middle French coutelerie.

Image for post
Image for post
More is for tolerance and slavery for the intolerant. Death is a waste of human labor.

That leads us to understanding “inclislavery” as the social situation of someone who is practicing the profession he is “naturally inclined” to practice, “divislavery” as the status of someone who is practicing a divine activity in this society (limited in number and highly selected), and “imagislavery” as some society imagined by some member of this Utopia island. These three compounds clearly indicate that slavery has nothing to do with the modern meaning.

But then what is the meaning of the root of this “slavery”? The reference is obviously not “slave” as a human being owned by another and exploited as a simple beast of burden or labor. We are in fact tricked here by the translation. What was the Latin word used by Thomas More and what was the meaning of this Latin word? But the meaning of this word in Thomas More’s text is quite clear as I have explained.

Once this first element is cleared we can move to the main ideas of the text. I do not intend a full study, just a few remarks.

This Utopian society is highly hierarchical with three strata in each town, knowing that this society is urban, meaning the population is administratively gathered in cities, and yet agricultural since the main activity is agriculture: all city residents have to go to the agricultural fields for various periods of time that can be several years or may only be for the harvesting season, because agriculture is seen as the main training and educating activity. This society is founded on work that has to occupy six hours a day, and cover every single day. The three hierarchical levels are as follows:

“Thirty families choose every year a magistrate, who was anciently called the Syphogrant, but is now called the Philarch; and over every ten Syphogrants, with the families subject to them, there is another magistrate, who was anciently called the Tranibore, but of late the Archphilarch. All the Syphogrants, who are in number two hundred, choose the Prince out of a list of four who are named by the people of the four divisions of the city; but they take an oath, before they proceed to an election, that they will choose him whom they think most fit for the office: they give him their voices secretly, so that it is not known for whom every one gives his suffrage. The Prince is for life, unless he is removed upon suspicion of some design to enslave the people. The Tranibors are new chosen every year, but yet they are, for the most part, continued; all their other magistrates are only annual.”

Image for post
Image for post
The population of Europe went down 50% in 100 years

This hierarchy is based on free secret ballots for the Prince but also for the lower echelons.

The very first element is the fact that everyone is supposed to work. There is no normal exemption, even those who are by law exempted, only temporarily indeed since they are the annually elected officers (who can be reelected) who go back to work at the end of their terms and even work during their terms outside the performing of their duties. This society of compulsory productive work is cut in daily time slices of which one is work for six hours (twice three hours a day, three in the morning before dinner and three in the afternoon after dinner), sleep for eight hours (from 8 pm to 4 am) and then various activities that have to be productive, particularly productive of knowledge by studying, following their inclinations (inclislaveries).

“The chief, and almost the only, business of the Syphogrants is to take care that no man may live idle, but that every one may follow his trade diligently; yet they do not wear themselves out with perpetual toil from morning to night, as if they were beasts of burden, which as it is indeed a heavy slavery, so it is everywhere the common course of life amongst all mechanics except the Utopians: but they, dividing the day and night into twenty-four hours, appoint six of these for work, three of which are before dinner and three after; they then sup, and at eight o’clock, counting from noon, go to bed and sleep eight hours: the rest of their time, besides that taken up in work, eating, and sleeping, is left to every man’s discretion; yet they are not to abuse that interval to luxury and idleness, but must employ it in some proper exercise, according to their various inclislaverys, which is, for the most part, reading. […] Even the Syphogrants, though excused by the law, yet do not excuse themselves, but work, that by their examples they may excite the industry of the rest of the people; the like exemption is allowed to those who, being recommended to the people by the priests, are, by the secret suffrages of the Syphogrants, privileged from labor, that they may apply themselves wholly to study; and if any of these fall short of those hopes that they seemed at first to give, they are obliged to return to work; and sometimes a mechanic that so employs his leisure hours as to make a considerable advancement in learning is eased from being a tradesman and ranked among their learned men. Out of these they choose their ambassadors, their priests, their Tranibors, and the Prince himself, anciently called their Barzenes, but is called of late their Ademus.”

Thomas More comes to the conclusion that this compulsory work organization with only six hours of productive work is not in any danger of running out of labor since everyone is supposed to perform these six hours. Note there is no mention of the young and their education. Do they work too? The answer is probably in the situation at the end of the 15th century. Children work like any other members of society as soon as they can stand on their feet and use their hands (around five or six). If we stick to this period to interpret the text we have here the pure Lutheran description of society in which work is the supreme value and working the supreme activity. All ranting or raving about what will come later (socialism or communism) is absurd and anachronistic since it projects onto an old text concepts that only developed several centuries later, not to mention the Soviet Revolution that could have been inspired by Thomas More’s Utopia, why not, but that has no meaningful value on the analysis of Thomas More’s text.

Image for post
Image for post
Already illegal immigrants: in this case rats.

“And thus from the great numbers among them that are neither suffered to be idle nor to be employed in any fruitless labor, you may easily make the estimate how much may be done in those few hours in which they are obliged to labor.”

These work ethics and workaholic social vision is, as I have said, vastly connected to the Lutheran and Calvinist, Protestant in one word, approach of life, by the way dictated at the time by the Black Death that reduced the population of Europe by at least 50%, not to speak of constant wars, the most famous of which being the Hundred Years’ War. This conception is perfectly represented in the economical approach of clothing that has to be lasting, functional, simple, with no wasted luxury or sophistication (absolutely no frills) even at the level of colors that are reduced to “natural” colors: that of wool or linen.

“As to their clothes, observe how little work is spent in them; while they are at labor they are clothed with leather and skins, cut carelessly about them, which will last seven years, and when they appear in public they put on an upper garment which hides the other; and these are all of one color, and that is the natural color of the wool. As they need less woolen cloth than is used anywhere else, so that which they make use of is much less costly; they use linen cloth more, but that is prepared with less labor, and they value cloth only by the whiteness of the linen or the cleanness of the wool, without much regard to the fineness of the thread.”

In other words, without speaking of a direct reference to Lutheran or Calvinist Protestantism, we have here the economical, economy-oriented and hyper-productive conception of a social value-adding economy and political system. Is it totalitarian? Once again in 1516 this term is anachronistic. In fact this vision is dictated by the necessity to repair the damage of the past century and a half and to lift up Europe, in fact Christianity, from the dire straits in which history and the Black Death had set it. We seem to forget that Christianity at that time was in a situation that could compete in poverty and misery with some of the poorest countries today in AIDS devastated Africa, without any help from outside, be it from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or the United Nations, that did not exist — but do I have to mention that — at the time.

The last element I want to insist on is the fact that this society considers slavery, this time the situation in which a human being is deprived of absolutely all human or civil rights, is basic in its functioning. For any crime, petty or not, including “vagabonds,” slavery is preferred to any other punishment, like the death penalty, which is a waste of human labor. War prisoners are also reduced to being slaves. Without entering the problem of war, vastly discussed in this pamphlet, let’s say that war is always envisaged as an extreme but necessary method to solve problems with neighbors, including with mercenaries (the Zapolets). The objective of war is not to conquer slaves, but it is always ending in engulfing all prisoners into slavery, into being slaves, meaning human beings — but are they still human? — who have no tights whatsoever, not even to speak. The only limit I found about this constant presence of slaves is that each family can only have two slaves. But since a family is forty people (“no country family has fewer than forty men and women in it, besides two slaves”), slaves represent something like 5 per cent of this society, at least at the level of the families. It is not specified if there are slaves owned by society as a whole or any organization in that society (note there is no mention of such organization that would not be based on one family but be transversal).

Image for post
Image for post
The King of the Black Death arriving from Crimea and Central Asia.

This element is essential because in this vision of an ideal society, slavery is stated as a normal state limited only in the fact the children of slaves are not born slaves. Note this idea implies slaves are married, like anyone else: marriage at the age of 18 for women and 22 for men is universal, meaning everyone has to be married and the objective is procreation. This is an obvious sign of the state in which Europe is after 1450. But this approach of slavery as a normal fate for a human being because of his “crimes” or because he is a “war prisoner” will explain later that slavery will be seen as a normal state of affairs in America, in Virginia first and then the thirteen colonies and then all American territories. This will all the more be true since the “pioneer” John Smith was a slave of the Ottoman Empire before escaping and sailing to what was to become Virginia in 1607. Thomas More is thus demonstrating that the concept of slavery was deeply rooted in the English conception of human society as well as humanity if not the human species. Note here that has nothing to do with feudalism that stated all human beings are potential Christians and that rejected slavery when instating the social category of serf. A serf was not a slave. He was a Christian and a subject of the King and other Lords. He had the right to benefit from all religious sacraments and education. He was protected by justice and could not be sentenced to anything without a trial, even if that trial was often based on torturing seen as a divine way to find the truth which could only be divine in nature.

This last word brings up my last remark. Thomas More pretends this Utopian conception of society is natural. He states the existence of a Supreme Being in the very Catholic perspective of his time, but this Supreme Being created Nature and man is supposed to follow Nature. This implies this society is by essence natural since it follows the divine conception this God represents. The strange or surprising element is that Thomas More states tolerance among all religions of any kind has to be the rule with no exception, and slavery for those who break this rule. This is of course an echo of the Reformation and could probably be seen as the final stage of the medieval debates against heresies and the practice and existence of the Inquisition. It could also be seen as maybe a presage of what was to happen in England with Henry VIII and his son and daughters leading to the Stuarts and the Puritan revolution.

I said it could be seen because this idea is anachronistic in a way. How could Thomas More envisage what was to happen over the next century? It is true the reformation in Germany and on the European continent was enough to make Thomas More dream of a Britain, or England, that could be saved from these tribulations by the practice of tolerance in their island, since Britain, like Utopia, is an island. Thomas More is a Brexit supporter exactly five century, year for year, before the famous referendum. And in his text the island was devised as such but the digging of a channel cutting it from the continent, the Channel in a way.


Image for post
Image for post
He wrote in Latin and the translation if a treacherous betrayal.

Written by

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, PhD in Germanic Linguistics (University Lille III) and ESP Teaching (University Bordeaux II) has been teaching all types of ESP

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store