Slavery in medieval Europe

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Slavery in early medieval Europe had mostly died out in western Europe about the year 1000 AD, replaced by serfdom. It lingered longer in England and in peripheral areas linked to the Muslim world, where slavery continued to flourish. Church rules suppressed slavery of Christians. Most historians argue the transition was quite abrupt around 1000, but some see a gradual transition from about 300 to 1000.[1]

The major European languages, including English, used variations of the word "slave", in references to Slavic laborers of Byzantium.[2][3]

Early Middle Ages[edit]

Costumes of slaves or serfs, from the sixth to the twelfth centuries, collected by H. de Vielcastel, from original documents in the great libraries of Europe.

The chaos following the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire made the taking of slaves habitual throughout Europe in the early Middle Ages. Roman practices continued in many areas – the Welsh laws of Hywel the Good included provisions dealing with slaves – and Germanic laws provided for the enslavement of criminals, as when the Visigothic Code prescribed enslavement for those who could not pay the financial penalty for their crime[4] and as a punishment for certain other crimes.[5] Such criminals would become slaves to their victims, often with their property.

As these peoples Christianized, the church worked more actively to reduce the practice of holding coreligionists in bondage. St. Patrick, who himself was captured and enslaved at one time, protested an attack that enslaved newly baptized Christians in his letter to the soldiers of Coroticus. The restoration of order and growing power of the church slowly transmuted of the late Roman slave system of Diocletian into serfdom.

Another major factor was the rise of Bathilde, queen of the Franks, who had been enslaved before marrying Clovis II. When she became regent, her government outlawed slave-trading of Christians throughout the Merovingian empire, as well as purchasing and freeing existing slaves.[6]

About 10% of England's population entered in the Domesday Book (1086) were slaves,[7] despite chattel slavery of English Christians being nominally discontinued after the 1066 conquest. It is difficult to be certain about slave numbers, however, since the old Roman word for slave (servus) continued to be applied to people with a status that was later to be called "serf."[8]

Slave trade[edit]

Between the 6th and 10th centuries AD, members of pagan Slavonic peoples were taken prisoner by the Khazars, Kypchaks and other steppe peoples and taken to the slave markets in Crimea. In addition, during the wars between the pagan Slavonic states and Christian states of Europe, many prisoners of war from both sides were sold as slaves. After the Muslim conquests of North Africa and most of the Iberian peninsula, the Islamic world became a huge importer of slaves from Eastern Europe. The trade routes were established between slave trade centres in the pagan Slavonic countries (for example Prague and Wolin) and Arab metropoles in the Muslim-controlled regions of the Iberian peninsula (Al-Andalus). Slave trade between the Slavonic lands and the Orient was carried out by Vikings (see Rus' people), Iberian Jews (known as Radhanites) and others. Some Slavonic rulers participated in the slave trade indirectly. For example, the converted Christian ruler Mojmír I of the Great Moravian Empire taxed the slave caravans that passed through his lands, providing an important source of revenue, if indirectly. This trade came to an end in the 10th century after the Christianisation of Slavic countries.

The Catholic Church prohibited the export of Christian slaves to non-Christian lands, for example, the Council of Koblenz in 922, the Council of London in 1102, and the Council of Armagh in 1171.[9] William the Conqueror, too, banned export of English slaves. The medieval slave trade was mainly to the East: Byzantine Empire and the Muslim World were the destinations, pagan Central and Eastern Europe an important source.[10][11][12]

The Mongol invasions and conquests in the 13th century made the situation worse. The Mongols enslaved skilled individuals, women and children and marched them to Karakorum or Sarai, whence they were sold throughout Eurasia. Many of these slaves were shipped to the slave market in Novgorod.[13][14][15]

Genoese and Venetians merchants in Crimea were involved in the slave trade with the Golden Horde. Genoese managed the slave trade from the Crimea to Mamluk Egypt, but after Genoa lost the Eastern Mediterranean to Venice in the 13th century, Venice became the major conveyor of slaves between the Crimea and Mamluk Egypt.[16] Between 1414 and 1423, at least 10,000 eastern European slaves were sold in Venice.[17] In 1441, Haci I Giray declared independence from the Golden Horde and established the Crimean Khanate. For a long time, until the early 18th century, the khanate maintained a massive slave trade with the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East. In a process called the "harvesting of the steppe", they enslaved many Slavic peasants.[18]

Slavery in law[edit]

Secular law[edit]

Slavery was heavily regulated in Roman law, which was reorganized in the Byzantine Empire by Justinian I as the Corpus Iuris Civilis. Although the Corpus was lost to the West for centuries, it was rediscovered in the 11th and 12th centuries, and led to the foundation of law schools in Italy and France. According to the Corpus, the natural state of humanity is freedom, but the "law of nations" may supersede natural law and reduce certain people to slavery. The basic definition of slave in Romano-Byzantine law was:[19]

  • anyone whose mother was a slave
  • anyone who has been captured in battle
  • anyone who has sold himself to pay a debt

It was, however, possible to become a freedman or a full citizen; the Corpus, like Roman law, had extensive and complicated rules for manumission of slaves.

The slave trade in England was officially abolished in 1102.[20]

In Poland slavery was forbidden in the 15th century; it was replaced by the second enserfment. In Lithuania, slavery was formally abolished in 1588.[21]

Canon law[edit]

Medieval canon lawyers concluded that slavery was contrary to the spirit of Christianity, and by the 11th century when almost all of Europe had been Christianized, the laws of slavery in civil law codes were now antiquated and unenforceable.[citation needed] There were a number of areas where Christians lived with non-Christians, such as Al-Andalus and Sicily, the crusader states, and in the still-pagan areas of northeastern Europe; therefore, canon law permitted Christians to keep non-Christian slaves, as long as these slaves were treated humanely and were freed if they chose to convert to Christianity.[citation needed] In fact, there was an explicit legal justification for the enslavement of Muslims, found in the Decretum Gratiani and later expanded upon by the 14th century jurist Oldradus de Ponte: the Bible states that Hagar, the slave girl of Abraham, was beaten and cast out by Abraham's wife Sarah. A popular medieval legend held that Muslims were the descendents of Hagar, while Christians descended from the legitimate marriage of Abraham and Sarah. By extension it was therefore permitted for Christians to enslave Muslims.

The Decretum, like the Corpus, defined a slave as anyone whose mother was a slave. Otherwise, the canons were concerned with slavery only in ecclesiastical contexts: slaves were not permitted to marry or to be ordained as clergy.

Slavery in the Byzantine Empire[edit]

Slavery in the Crusader states[edit]

In the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, founded in 1099, at most 120,000 Franks ruled over 350,000 Muslims, Jews, and native Eastern Christians.[22] Following the initial invasion and conquest, sometimes accompanied by massacres or expulsions of Jews and Muslims, a peaceable co-existence between followers of the three religions prevailed.[23] The Crusader states inherited many slaves. To this may have been added some Muslims taken as captives of war. The Kingdom's largest city, Acre, had a large slave market; however, the vast majority of Muslims and Jews remained free. The laws of Jerusalem declared that former Muslim slaves, if genuine converts to Christianity, must be freed.[24] In 1120, the Council of Nablus forbade sexual relations between crusaders and their female slaves: if a man raped his own slave, he would be castrated, but if he raped someone else's slave, he would be castrated and exiled from the kingdom.

No Christian, whether Western or Eastern, was permitted by law to be sold into slavery, but this fate was as common for Muslim prisoners of war as it was for Christian prisoners taken by the Muslims.

The 13th-century Assizes of Jerusalem dealt more with fugitive slaves and the punishments ascribed to them, the prohibition of slaves testifying in court, and manumission of slaves, which could be accomplished, for example, through a will, or by conversion to Christianity. Conversion was apparently used as an excuse to escape slavery by Muslims who would then continue to practise Islam; crusader lords often refused to allow them to convert, and Pope Gregory IX, contrary to both the laws of Jerusalem and the canon laws that he himself was partially responsible for compiling, allowed for Muslim slaves to remain enslaved even if they had converted.

Slavery in Muslim Iberia[edit]

Main article: Arab slave trade

The medieval Iberian Peninsula was the scene of almost constant warfare among Muslims and Christians (though not always aligned by religion). Periodic raiding expeditions were sent from Al-Andalus to ravage the Christian Iberian kingdoms, bringing back booty and people. For example, in a raid on Lisbon in 1189 the Almohad caliph Yaqub al-Mansur took 3,000 female and child captives, and his governor of Córdoba took 3,000 Christian slaves in a subsequent attack upon Silves in 1191; an offensive by Alfonso VIII of Castile in 1182 brought him over two-thousand Muslim slaves, hitting back at the Almohads.[25]

Slavery in Moldavia and Wallachia[edit]

Main article: Slavery in Romania

Slavery (Romanian: sclavie) existed on the territory of present-day Romania from before the founding of the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia in 13th–14th century, until it was abolished in stages during the 1840s and 1850s. Most of the slaves were of Roma (Gypsy) ethnicity. Particularly in Moldavia there were also slaves of Tatar ethnicity, probably prisoners captured from the wars with the Nogai and Crimean Tatars.

The exact origins of slavery in the Danubian Principalities are not known. There is some debate over whether the Romani people came to Wallachia and Moldavia as free men or as slaves. In the Byzantine Empire, they were slaves of the state and it seems the situation was the same in Bulgaria and Serbia until their social organization was destroyed by the Ottoman conquest, which would suggest that they came as slaves who had a change of 'ownership'.

Historian Nicolae Iorga associated the Roma people's arrival with the 1241 Mongol invasion of Europe and considered their slavery as a vestige of that era, the Romanians taking the Roma from the Mongols as slaves and preserving their status. Other historians consider that they were enslaved while captured during the battles with the Tatars. The practice of enslaving prisoners may also have been taken from the Mongols. The ethnic identity of the "Tatar slaves" is unknown, they could have been captured Tatars of the Golden Horde, Cumans, or the slaves of Tatars and Cumans.[26]

While it is possible that some Romani people were slaves or auxiliary troops of the Mongols or Tatars, the bulk of them came from south of the Danube at the end of the 14th century, some time after the foundation of Wallachia. By then, the institution of slavery was already established in Moldavia and possibly in both principalities, but the arrival of the Roma made slavery a widespread practice. The Tatar slaves, smaller in numbers, were eventually merged into the Roma population.[27]

Slavery in the Ottoman Empire[edit]

Slavery was an important part of Ottoman society. The Byzantine-Ottoman wars and the Ottoman wars in Europe brought large numbers of Christian slaves into the Ottoman Empire.[28] In the middle of the 14th century, Murad I built his own personal slave army called the Kapıkulu. The new force was based on the sultan's right to a fifth of the war booty, which he interpreted to include captives taken in battle. The captive slaves were converted to Islam and trained in the sultan's personal service. In the devşirme (translated "blood tax" or "child collection"), young Christian boys from Anatolia and the Balkans were taken away from their homes and families, converted to Islam and enlisted into special soldier classes of the Ottoman army. These soldier classes were named Janissaries, the most famous branch of the Kapıkulu. The Janissaries eventually became a decisive factor in the Ottoman military conquests in Europe.[29] Most of the military commanders of the Ottoman forces, imperial administrators and de facto rulers of the Ottoman Empire, such as Pargalı İbrahim Pasha and Sokollu Mehmet Paşa, were recruited in this way.[30][31] By 1609 the Sultan's Kapıkulu forces increased to about 100,000.[32]

The concubines of the Ottoman Sultan consisted chiefly of purchased slaves. Because Islamic law forbade Muslims to enslave fellow Muslims, the Sultan's concubines were generally of Christian origin. The mother of a Sultan, though technically a slave, received the extremely powerful title of Valide Sultan, and at times became effective ruler of the Empire (see Sultanate of women). One notable example was Kösem Sultan, daughter of a Greek Christian priest, who dominated the Ottoman Empire during the early decades of the 17th century.[33] Another notable example was Roxelana, the favourite wife of Suleiman the Magnificent.

Slavery in Poland[edit]

Main article: Slavery in Poland

Slavery in Poland existed on the territory of Kingdom of Poland during the times of the Piast dynasty.[34]

Slavery in Russia[edit]

Main article: Slavery in Russia

In Kievan Rus and Russia, the slaves were usually classified as kholops. A kholop's master had unlimited power over his life: he could kill him, sell him, or use him as payment upon a debt. The master, however, was responsible before the law for his kholop's actions. A person could become a kholop as a result of capture, selling himself or herself, being sold for debts or committed crimes, or marriage to a kholop. Until the late 10th century, the kholops represented a majority among the servants who worked lordly lands.

By the sixteenth century, slavery in Russia consisted mostly of those who sold themselves into slavery owing to poverty.[35] They worked predominantly as household servants, among the richest families, and indeed generally produced less than they consumed.[36] Laws forbade the freeing of slaves in times of famine, to avoid feeding them, and slaves generally remained with the family a long time; the Domostroy, an advice book, speaks of the need to choose slaves of good character and to provide for them properly.[37] Slavery remained a major institution in Russia until 1723, when Peter the Great converted the household slaves into house serfs. Russian agricultural slaves were formally converted into serfs earlier in 1679.[35]

In 1382 the Golden Horde under Khan Tokhtamysh sacked Moscow, burning the city and carrying off thousands of inhabitants as slaves. For years the Khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan routinely made raids on Russian principalities for slaves and to plunder towns. Russian chronicles record about 40 raids of Kazan Khans on the Russian territories in the first half of the 16th century.[38] In 1521, the combined forces of Crimean Khan Mehmed I Giray and his Kazan allies attacked Moscow and captured thousands of slaves.[39] About 30 major Tatar raids were recorded into Muscovite territories between 1558 and 1596.[40] In 1571, the Crimean Tatars attacked and sacked Moscow, burning everything but the Kremlin and taking thousands of captives as slaves.[41] In Crimea, about 75% of the population consisted of slaves.[42]

Slavery in Scandinavia[edit]

Main article: Thrall

The laws from 12th and 13th centuries describe the legal status of two categories. According to the Norwegian Gulating code (in about 1160), domestic slaves could not, unlike foreign slaves, be sold out of the country. This and other laws defined slaves as their master's property at the same level as cattle. It also described a procedure for giving a slave their freedom. A freed slave did not have full legal status; for example, the punishment for killing a former slave was low. A former slave's son also had a lower status, but higher than that of his parents. The Norwegian law code from 1274, Landslov (Land's law), does not mention slaves, but former slaves. Thus it seems like slavery was abolished in Norway by this time. In Sweden, slavery was abolished in 1343.

Slavery in the British Isles[edit]

British Wales and Gaelic Ireland and Scotland were among the last areas of Christian Europe to give up their institution of slavery. Under Gaelic custom, prisoners of war were routinely taken as slaves. During the period that slavery was disappearing across most of western Europe, it was reaching its height in the British Isles: the Viking invasions and the subsequent warring between Scandinavians and the natives, the number of captives taken as slaves drastically increased. The Irish church was vehemently opposed to slavery and blamed the 1169 Norman invasion on divine punishment for the practice, along with local acceptance of polygyny and divorce.

Serfdom compared[edit]

The institution of serfdom in medieval Europe was separate and distinct from chattel slavery; serfs were tied to the land and obliged to work for their lord in a variety of capacities, including working the land, building or repairing structures, mining, or craft work. Serfdom meant security—they were never landless. They were not chattel property and could not be bought or sold except as part of the land they lived on, and usually could not leave or be removed from the land to which they were bound.[43]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Seymour Drescher and Stanley L. Engerman, eds. A Historical Guide to World Slavery (1998) pp 197–200
  2. ^ slave, Online Etymology Dictionary, retrieved 26 March 2009 
  3. ^ Merriam-Webster's, retrieved 18 August 2009 
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ [2], [3], & [4].
  6. ^ Paul Fouracre, Richard A. Gerberding (1996), Late Merovingian France: History and Hagiography, 640-720, Manchester University Press, ISBN 0-7190-4791-9, p. 97–99 & 111.
  7. ^ Domesday Book Slave
  8. ^ Perry Anderson, Passages from antiquity to feudalism (1996) p 141
  9. ^ Slavery, serfdom, and indenture through the Middle Ages
  10. ^ Historical survey > The international slave trade
  11. ^ Arabs and Slave Trade
  12. ^ Battuta's Trip: Anatolia (Turkey) 1330–1331
  13. ^ William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols
  14. ^ Life in 13th Century Novgorod -- Women and Class Structure
  15. ^ The Effects of the Mongol Empire on Russia
  16. ^ Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 Oxford University Press ISBN 0195067746
  17. ^ How To Reboot Reality — Chapter 2, Labor
  18. ^ Soldier Khan
  19. ^ The Law of Persons.
  20. ^ British History Freedom – Timeline – 12th Century
  21. ^ Welcome to Encyclopædia Britannica's Guide to History
  22. ^ Benjamin Z. Kedar, "The Subjected Muslims of the Frankish Levant", in The Crusades: The Essential Readings, ed. Thomas F. Madden, Blackwell, 2002, p. 244. Originally published in Muslims Under Latin Rule, 1100–1300, ed. James M. Powell, Princeton University Press, 1990. Kedar quotes his numbers from Joshua Prawer, Histoire du royaume latin de Jérusalem, tr. G. Nahon, Paris, 1969, vol. 1, pp. 498, 568-72.
  23. ^ Christopher Tyerman, God's War, A new History of the Crusades pp. 226–228. quote = "Just as non-muslim communities survived under Islam, so non-Christians lived unfree but largely unmolested in Frankish outremer. After the early massacres, displacements and expulsions of Muslims and Jews from conquered cities, coexistence, rather than integration or persecution prevailed ... At Acre, where the two faiths shared a converted mosque as well as a suburban shrine, Muslim visitors were treated fairly and efficiently. Mosques still operated openly in Tyre and elsewhere."
  24. ^ Christopher Tyerman, God's War, A new History of the Crusades, p. 230.
  25. ^ Ransoming Captives in Crusader Spain: The Order of Merced on the Christian-Islamic Frontier
  26. ^ Viorel Achim, The Roma in Romanian History, Central European University Press, Budapest, 2004, ISBN 963-9241-84-9
  27. ^ Ştefan Ştefănescu, Istoria medie a României, Vol. I, Editura Universităţii din Bucureşti, Bucharest, 1991 (Romanian)
  28. ^ Phillips, Jr., William D. (1985). Slavery from Roman Times to the Early Transatlantic Trade. Manchester: Manchester University Press. p. 37. ISBN 978-0-7190-1825-1. 
  29. ^ Janissary
  30. ^ Lewis. Race and Slavery in the Middle East
  31. ^ The Turks: History and Culture
  32. ^ In the Service of the State and Military Class
  33. ^ See generally Jay Winik (2007), The Great Upheaval.
  34. ^ Juliusz Bardach, Boguslaw Lesnodorski, and Michal Pietrzak, Historia panstwa i prawa polskiego (Warsaw: Paristwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1987, p. 40–41
  35. ^ a b Richard Hellie, Slavery in Russia, 1450–1725 (1984)
  36. ^ Carolyn Johnston Pouncey, The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible, p15 ISBN 0-8014-9689-6
  37. ^ Carolyn Johnston Pouncey, The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible, p33 ISBN 0-8014-9689-6
  38. ^ The Full Collection of the Russian Annals, vol.13, SPb, 1904
  39. ^ The Tatar Khanate of Crimea
  40. ^ Supply of Slaves
  41. ^ Moscow - Historical background
  42. ^ Historical survey > Slave societies
  43. ^ Seymour Drescher and Stanley L. Engerman, eds. A Historical Guide to World Slavery (1998) pp 197–200, 353-57

Further reading[edit]

  • Campbell, Gwyn et al. eds. Women and Slavery, Vol. 1: Africa, the Indian Ocean World, and the Medieval North Atlantic (2007)
  • Dockès, Pierre. Medieval Slavery and Liberation (1989)
  • Finkelman, Paul, and Joseph Miller, eds. Macmillan Encyclopedia of World Slavery (2 vol., 1999)
  • Frantzen, Allen J., and Douglas Moffat, eds. The Work of Work: Servitude, Slavery and Labor in Medieval England (1994)
  • Karras, Ruth Mazo. Slavery and Society in Medieval Scandinavia (Yale UP, 1988)
  • Phillips, William D. Slavery from Roman Times to the Early Transatlantic Trade (Manchester UP, 1985)
  • Wyatt David R. Slaves and warriors in medieval Britain and Ireland, 800-1200 (2009)