Jessica Cronshagen is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of History. She studied history and sociology at the University of Osnabrück and completed her doctorate at the University of Oldenburg in 2010. In her doctoral thesis, she studied the regimen of rich peasant families in northwestern Germany during the early modern era. Afterwards, she began her habilitation project. Her research interests include religious history and mission history. 


Dr. Jessica Cronshagen

Department of Early Modern History

Freedom as a privilege

Slaves had hardly any rights in the early modern period. Historian Jessica Cronshagen explains the models used at that time to justify this deprivation of freedom.

Ms Cronshagen, what does freedom mean from a historical perspective?

The definition of freedom is constantly changing; in different times, people associate different meanings with it. In the early modern period, there was not yet an abstract concept of freedom. Moreover, it was not as emotionally charged as it is today.

You are particularly concerned with the period from the 15th to the 18th century. What did freedom stand for in this period?

In the early modern period, this depended entirely on your background and status. For many Europeans, freedom primarily meant having privileges, such as being able to travel or being represented in the city council. In serfdom, it depended on the situation. There were clear rules about what people were allowed to do and when. The situation was particularly precarious for African people who were enslaved and abducted during this period. They were denied any rights – a big difference from the circumstances in Europe.

In your habilitation project, you take a look at the work of missionaries in Surinam. How did these people justify slavery and the associated lack of freedom?

They constantly constructed new patterns of justification, such as the "civilisation narrative". It was assumed that African people could not handle freedom and were not capable of living on their own. The missionaries also thought that they did not need to intervene in worldly affairs because true freedom was only attainable in the afterlife. Besides, it was assumed that the economy would not work without slavery. From the late 18th century onwards, biological racism emerged with the claim that people of African descent were born for slavery.

What about freedom today?

Lack of freedom still exists: from human trafficking to forced prostitution to precarious, slave-like working conditions. Nowadays, however, there is a broad awareness that all of this is wrong, an attitude not very common in the 18th century.

Interview: Lara Schäfer

(Changed: 25 Apr 2022)