Slavery in medieval Europe
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 Early Middle Ages
- 2 Slave trade
- 3 Slavery in law
- 4 Slavery in the Byzantine Empire
- 5 Slavery in the Crusader states
- 6 Slavery in Muslim Iberia
- 7 Slavery in Moldavia and Wallachia
- 8 Slavery in the Ottoman Empire
- 9 Slavery in Poland
- 10 Slavery in Russia
- 11 Slavery in Scandinavia
- 12 Slavery in the British Isles
- 13 Serfdom compared
- 14 Serfdom v. Slavery
- 15 See also
- 16 References
- 17 Further reading
Early Middle Ages
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 and as a punishment for certain other crimes. 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.
About 10% of England's population entered in the Domesday Book (1086) were slaves, 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."
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. 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.
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.
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. Between 1414 and 1423, at least 10,000 eastern European slaves were sold in Venice. 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.
Slavery in law
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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:
- 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.
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. 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. 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
Slavery in the Crusader states
In the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, founded in 1099, at most 120,000 Franks ruled over 350,000 Muslims, Jews, and native Eastern Christians. 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. 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. 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
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.
Slavery in Moldavia and Wallachia
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.
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.
Slavery in the Ottoman Empire
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. 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. 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. By 1609 the Sultan's Kapıkulu forces increased to about 100,000.
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. Another notable example was Roxelana, the favourite wife of Suleiman the Magnificent.
Slavery in Poland
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. They worked predominantly as household servants, among the richest families, and indeed generally produced less than they consumed. 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. 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.
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. In 1521, the combined forces of Crimean Khan Mehmed I Giray and his Kazan allies attacked Moscow and captured thousands of slaves. About 30 major Tatar raids were recorded into Muscovite territories between 1558 and 1596. In 1571, the Crimean Tatars attacked and sacked Moscow, burning everything but the Kremlin and taking thousands of captives as slaves. In Crimea, about 75% of the population consisted of slaves.
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
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.
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.
Serfdom v. Slavery
How serfdom evolved from slavery: Historians who study the divide between slavery and serfdom encounter several issues of historiography and methodology. Some historians believe that slavery transitioned into serfdom (a belief that has only been around for the last 200 years), though there is disagreement amongst them regarding how rapid this transition was. Pierre Bonnassie, a Medieval historian, thought that the chattel slavery of the ancient world ceased to exist in the Europe of the tenth century and was followed by feudal serfdom. Jean-Pierre Devroey thinks that the shift from slavery to serfdom was gradual as well in some parts of the continent. Other areas, though, did not have what he calls “western-style serfdom” after the end of slavery, such as the rural areas of the Byzantine Empire, Iceland, and Scandinavia. Complicating this issue is that regions in Europe often had both serfs and slaves simultaneously.
Generally speaking, how slaves differed from serfs: The underpinnings of slavery and serfdom are debated as well. Of particular interest to historians is the role of serfdom and slavery within the state, and the implications that held for both serf and slave. Some think that slavery was the exclusion of people from the public sphere and its institutions, whereas serfdom was a complex form of dependency that usually lacked a codified basis in the legal system. Wendy Davies argues that serfs, like slaves, also became excluded from the public judicial system and that judicial matters were attended to in the private courts of their respective lords. Despite the scholarly disagreement, it is possible to piece together a picture a general concept of slavery and serfdom. Slaves typically owned no property, and were in fact the property of their masters. Slaves worked full-time for their masters and operated under a negative incentive structure; in other words, failure to work resulted in physical punishment. Serfs owned plots of their own land, which was essentially a form of “payment” that the lord offered in exchange for the serf’s service. Serfs worked part-time for the masters and part-time for themselves and had opportunities to accumulate personal wealth that often did not exist for the slave. Slaves were generally imported from foreign countries or continents, brought to Europe via the slave trade. Serfs were typically indigenous Europeans and were not subject to the same involuntary movements as slaves. Serfs worked in family units, whereas the concept of family was generally murkier for slaves. At any given moment, a slave’s family could be torn apart via trade, and master’s often used this threat to coerce compliant behavior from the slave.
The end of serfdom: The end of serfdom is also debated, with Georges Duby pointing to the year 1105 as a rough end point for “serfdom in the strict sense of the term”. Other historians dispute this assertion, citing discussions and the mention of serfdom as an institution during later dates (such as in 13th century England, or in Central Europe, where the rise of serfdom coincided with its decline in Western Europe). There are several approaches to get a time span for the transition, and lexicography is one such method. There is supposedly a clear shift in diction when referencing those who were either slaves or serfs at approximately 1000 C.E., though there is not a consensus on how significant this shift is, or if it even exists. In addition, numismatists shed light on the decline of serfdom. There is a widespread theory that currency’s introduction hastened serfdom’s decline because it was preferable to pay for labor rather than depend on feudal obligations. Some historians argue that landlords began selling serfs their land – and hence, their freedom – during periods of economic inflation across Europe. Other historians argue that the end of slavery came from the royalty, who gave serfs freedom through edicts and legislation in an attempt to broaden their tax base.
About places with no serfdom: The reason for the lack of serfdom in some parts of medieval Europe raises several questions. Devroey thinks it is because slavery was not born out of economic structures in these areas, rather it was a societal practice. Heinrich Fichtenau points out that in Central Europe, there was not a labor market strong enough for slavery to become a necessity.
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