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How slavery thrived in Renaissance Europe

“Wicked, an abomination, and against all humanity.” These words, uttered in 1416, shine a light on a dark truth: that slavery thrived in Renaissance Europe. Hannah Skoda tells the stories of people living in bondage in a period when ideals of liberty and the nobility of human nature didn’t apply to all...

A painting of Lisbon depicts conspicuous displays of Portuguese imperial wealth and power – including enslaved African people
Published: May 26, 2022 at 9:59 am
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“I gave and sold myself, of my own free will, as a slave to Elias, son of Blasius of Rastus, for four and a half gold coins, valid until my death, so that the said Elias can do with me as he pleases.”

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This record of an exchange – noted on a slip of parchment as having taken place in Dubrovnik in 1281 – is a typical sale contract, reminding us that slavery was a common phenomenon across the Mediterranean and southern Europe in the late medieval period. It makes the horrors of slavery very clear, yet it is also striking to see the “I” of the enslaved person. Despite becoming “property”, their voice resonates across the centuries.

We rightly celebrate the achievements of the Renaissance, but in the late medieval period the Mediterranean was effectively a slaving zone, with enslaved people transported between all of its coasts and sold in its cities, both Muslim and Christian. Those slaves who worked in the households of even prominent humanists tend to get written out of accounts of the Renaissance.


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Here, however, I will tell some of the stories of slaves sold in southern Europe. From Dubrovnik in modern-day Croatia around the coast of Italy, the south of France and the coast of Spain up to Porto in Portugal, the archives are full of notarial (legal) contracts about slave sales.

In 1367, a woman named Christine was sold in Marseille; the purchaser told that he could “have her, hold her, give her, sell her, exchange her, and do all that he pleases with her”.

The Italian city of Genoa played a key role in the story of slavery in this period. Genoese merchants took control of the Black Sea port of Caffa (modern-day Feodosia, eastern Crimea) in the late 13th century, and they used it as a slaving hub. They were soon joined by merchants from many other cities.

In Barcelona, 20 per cent of households had slaves. And in Genoa, it’s thought that female slaves may have made up as much as 10 per cent of their age group

Enslaved people from a range of regions – Russians, Tatars, Bulgarians, Turks, Greeks, Albanians – were sold via Black Sea ports then transported to southern Europe. From 1415, Portuguese expeditions to the west coast of Africa brought more African slaves to be traded. And this story needs to be accompanied by the criss-crossing trade of slaves between north Africa and Europe across the period. In Barcelona, 20 per cent of households had slaves. And in Genoa, it’s thought that female slaves may have made up as much as 10 per cent of their age group. This was not an insignificant phenomenon, in other words.

Certain features stand out: the majority of slaves (though by no means all) in this period were female and young, at least at the point of purchase. And the majority – again, by no means all – of enslaved people, in cities as diverse as Venice, Perpignan and Barcelona, were put to domestic work.

Humanism and human trafficking

This was a period in Italy in which ideas of liberty, the nobility of human nature, and the importance of the common good were discussed in inspirational terms by Renaissance humanists. But these were also societies reliant on human trafficking and slavery.

The hypocrisy is striking, and did not entirely escape contemporaries. The city of Dubrovnik banned slave trading in 1416 as “disgraceful, wicked, an abomination, and against all humanity”. It did not ban slave-owning, however, and traders found loopholes. Alfonso X, king of Castile from 1252–84, passed a code of law known as the Siete Partidas, which expressed disgust at the practice of slave trading. Yet this was also a region in which slaving practices were embedded in social structures.

Most important, though, are the experiences of the enslaved people themselves. We have thousands of contracts of slave sales, as well as documentation from litigation either when owners and traders quibbled, or when enslaved people attempted to challenge their circumstances.

These slaves dealt with their situations with courage and acuity, and it’s vital that we listen to their voices, rather than the disingenuous attempts by those who made their money from them to grapple with their consciences.

Here are four of their stories…


1

Dabraça de Bosna: the slave who sold her sister

We begin with the story of an enslaved woman from Dubrovnik, known in the Middle Ages as Ragusa. At that time, the city had a high proportion of slaves, some of whom were traded abroad – particularly via Venice, since Dubrovnik was part of the Venetian empire – and some of whom served in Ragusan households.

A slave named Dabraça de Bosna appears in the records in 1282. We can guess that she had been captured in a raid on the hinterlands around Dubrovnik, because her name gives a clue to her origins. And in 1282, de Bosna was able to buy her freedom. Such contracts are not unusual. Through a process known as manumission, many slaves did become free – though the records rarely tell us what happened to them subsequently.

Enslaved people in the period had two routes to freedom. The first was if a master or mistress chose to set free a slave; some owners did so as an act of Christian charity – though more cynical observers pointed out that elderly slaves were hardly worth the upkeep anyway. Some owners also freed slaves in their wills, again in a bid to earn spiritual credit.

The second route was for enslaved people to save up their meagre earnings and buy their freedom. Although slaves were themselves considered in law to be property, a principle of Roman law known as the peculium allowed for them to be paid a pittance that they could save as their own money. Many used such funds to purchase themselves.

The fact that there were potential routes to freedom does not undermine the sheer horror of slavery, but it does show us the ways in which enslaved people tried to manage their own situations.

De Bosna, however, had not saved up enough to purchase her own freedom, so instead sold her sister. At that point, according to the manumission document, de Bosna became free to “wander through the four corners of the Earth, wherever it should please her, free and liberated for ever”. In return, her sister was given to the master to “serve her owner in all ways according to his wishes”, a particularly ominous phrase.

But there was a catch: the sister was sold for only four years, after which she was free to go. One wonders about the two siblings’ relationship: was this a case of betrayal, or a powerful emotive bond driving these sisters to support one another even in these terrible circumstances? Either way, de Bosna’s management of her own fate is striking.

2

Theodora and Maria: young mothers who fought back

Family bonds are evident in so many of these stories. Enslaved people were brutally taken from their homes and severed from their local communities. Yet they still found ways to maintain a sense of family.

The domestic slavery of women often included a sexual element, and many enslaved women became pregnant by their masters. In medieval Roman law, canon law (the law of the church) and civic statutes, the offspring of slaves were supposed to inherit the unfree status of their mothers. Thus a Marseillais noble named Pascal de Galdis was able to buy a pregnant slave and her four-year-old son, in 1465, and then sell the child three years later.

Some enslaved women found ways to contest this cruelty. One was Theodora, who lived in Crete and had two sons – Dimitrios and Andronicos – by her owner, Pietro Porco. In 1345, Porco decided that he wanted to sell the boys; he claimed this was his legal right, because they had inherited the enslaved status of their mother.

However, the magistrates of Crete – which at the time was a Venetian colony known as the kingdom of Candia – forbade the sale, noting that “[the children] are and will remain forever free”.

Another woman living in Crete, a free sex-worker named Maria, was told that she would have to give up her child because the father was a slave. But Maria managed to use the law to her advantage, taking the case to court to argue that the child should inherit her free status. She won her case.

This legal and social ambivalence, and stories of mothers standing up for their children, can be found in various Italian cities. But they are tempered by the heart-rending tales of children who were separated from their mothers at a young age. In 1377, for instance, a woman from Marseille sold her slave – but kept the enslaved woman’s one-year-old son for herself.

3

Grlica, Stojana and Tvrdislava: “heretics” who won their freedom

These are stories of slaves who knew how to use the law. Extraordinarily, they were able to litigate, and the complexity of legal and cultural attitudes occasionally worked in their favour. Sometimes, enslaved people were able to exploit the hypocrisies at the heart of Christian society.

A trio of teenage girls – Grlica, Stojana and Tvrdislava – who were enslaved in Bosnia in 1393 provide one such extraordinary story. According to the slave trader, the three teenagers were patarenes – members of a heretical sect in Bosnia. This was an important distinction, because the canon law of the Catholic church grappled with the ethics of enslaving other Christians.

Many slaves converted to Christianity during the late Middle Ages, presenting the church authorities with a problem... enslaving Christians was wrong. So canon law alighted on a compromise, decreeing that the moment of conversion was crucial

Many slaves converted to Christianity during the late Middle Ages, presenting the church authorities with a problem. They did not want enslaved people to become free by converting, because they worried that owners might then be discouraged from allowing their slaves to convert.

But the church had also decided that enslaving Christians was wrong. So canon law alighted on a compromise, decreeing that the moment of conversion was crucial. If a slave had converted before they were enslaved, the enslavement was invalidated. If, however, they converted after they’d been enslaved, there was apparently no problem.

So how did all this apply to Grlica, Stojana and Tvrdislava? These three girls found the remarkable strength to state publicly that they had converted to Christianity before being enslaved. Extraordinarily, they won their case, and the trader was forced to release them – much to his fury.

4

Antoine Simon: the slave who escaped to victory

Some of these stories are, on the face of it, uplifting – but enslaved people worked so hard to contest their situations precisely because slavery was so horrific. This point is made most powerfully by the stories of slaves who attempted to escape. Enslaved people who tried to flee were usually captured and punished; this process generated documentation, so we know something of their stories.

One such case is that of Antoine Simon, a black slave who worked in Barcelona in the 1440s. Escaping from his owner, a prominent trader named Pons Ferrer, Antoine crossed the Pyrenees – a journey that must have been terrifying. Somehow he knew to aim for the town of Pamiers, in the south of France, where slavery was against the law. There Simon found employment with one Pierre Toc, who worked for the region’s count.

Ferrer was furious, and pursued Simon to Pamiers. Upon arrival, he took legal action against both Simon and Toc, accusing the former of theft: since Simon was Ferrer’s property, Simon had, in effect, robbed himself from Ferrer. Both men were summoned before the court, where Simon argued that his freedom was sacrosanct according to the law of his new home. Toc reiterated that argument, and stressed his right to employ Simon as a free man.

What clinched the outcome, however, was the determination of the town’s officials to stress their own independence: it was part of their civic identity to defend the liberty of Pamier’s inhabitants. Simon lived the rest of his life a free man.


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Most enslaved people, of course, never managed to escape, and draconian punishments were imposed on those who tried. But Simon’s story is testament to the possibility, and to his understanding of how he might secure his freedom.

His story is also testament to Pamier’s determination to protect its inhabitants’ freedom. Many urban centres adopted similar policies: notably, Toulouse welcomed a number of fugitives from slavery, and some other towns where slavery remained common nevertheless expressed anxiety about the morality of the practice.

However, in many respects the groundwork was laid in this period for the development of the transatlantic slave trade in subsequent centuries. The religious justifications were in place, and the economic advantages and legal frameworks for rendering humans as property were set out, even if slavery in the late medieval period was not yet fully racialised.

Despite this, enslaved people like Simon remained irreducibly human: courageous, canny and determined – ironically, the very qualities articulated by the Renaissance humanists we continue to celebrate today.

Hannah Skoda is Fellow and Tutor in Medieval History at St John's College, Oxford. She works on the social and cultural history of the later Middle Ages, and has authored Medieval Violence (OUP, 2012) and co-edited two volumes on Legalism (OUP, 2012 and 2017)

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This article was first published in the May 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

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