Slave trade and history.

A new awareness of the consequences of slave robbery in Spain and Italy – and Britain – about which we currently know much less than about the slave activities of the same period in Africa. The large-scale depopulation of coastal areas from Malaga to Venice, the impoverishment caused by the abduction of many breadwinners, the millions that the already poor inhabitants of villages and cities paid to get their own people back – all this is only now beginning to be understood by contemporary historians.

What was the slave trade like in the Middle Ages?

Anna Hag Studied at Ryerson University, answered the question in its answer to the following question: What are the most disturbing facts about the Middle Ages that most people do not know?

Loosely translated:

Can Europeans, and European women in particular, become objects of trade? The idea seems laughable, since the term “slave trade” almost always refers to Africans. Yet not so long ago there was a time when Europe exported white slaves to Africa on a large scale.

These slaves were taken during raids of Crimean Tatar horsemen or North African privateers. A gang of robbers usually moved into an isolated village and took the inhabitants with them – or rather those who were commercially useful, especially young women and boys.

There was a time when Europeans were complicit in this trade and it yielded most of their foreign exchange. This was during the Dark Ages and the early Middle Ages, more specifically the 8th to the 12th centuries.

The Slave Market, painting (ca. 1884) by Jean-Léon Gérôme


The slave trade was a godsend for the elites of France, Germany and Italy. With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, they had to draw on their gold reserves to buy foreign luxury goods from the Middle East, mostly clothing, upholstery, carpets and other precious fabrics (Skirda, 2010, pp. 56-57).


By the 8th century, these reserves were almost completely exhausted. Gold gave way to silver, and even that medium of exchange was discovered. Western Europe had largely returned to an economy of autarky, the shrunken cities were no longer important trading centers. Most people produced everything they needed in their own village or mansion.

Would Western Europe eventually have returned to an international trading economy on its own? Perhaps, although a resurgence of trade would have become more difficult once the elites had become accustomed to autarky. As it turned out, they found the means to buy foreign luxury goods almost at the same time that their gold reserves were running out.


The 8th century brought the rapid expansion of a new civilization, Islam, to the Middle East, North Africa and Spain. The Arab elite was darker in skin than the Greco-Roman or Visigothic elites she replaced. She was also polygynous. A new market had emerged, a market for wives and concubines. European women were particularly sought after, not because they were exotic, but because their fair skin and fine facial features corresponded to concepts of beauty peculiar to Arab culture. Initially, this trade involved prisoners of war captured during the Islamic expansionary wars. Soon, however, a peaceful trade relationship developed.

It was officially banned by Christian emperors and popes, but in reality they closed their eyes and everything was tolerated in exchange for good golden dinars. Needless to say, this trade would have been impossible without the active cooperation of local elites. They were the main beneficiaries.


Jews played an extremely important role in the development of medieval European society. In addition to the involvement of the population in the slave trade, the significant advances in agricultural techniques and the resulting agricultural surplus led to the emergence of cities and a larger urban population. This, in turn, paved the way for the opening of international trade routes and the creation of wealth on a scale not seen since the heyday of the Roman Empire. Jewish merchants occupy a critical segment of this international trade, facilitated by the distant networks of friends and family ties inherent in the wide geographical distribution of Jews in the Diaspora. The earliest Jewish trade routes stretched from the Atlantic coasts of France to the Pacific coasts of China. Jewish merchants mainly transported goods that were traded in small quantities and were in high demand, such as spices, perfumes, jewelry and silk.

Under Islam, Jews were allowed to practice their faith and live according to the laws and writings of their community. For most of the 10th and 11th centuries, a period known as the “Golden Age,” the Jewish community flourished in Islamic Spain. Jews reached unprecedented heights in philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, and linguistics. Under Muslim rulers, Jews held prominent government and military positions. But, and it should be noted, Jews were part of European society long before the Muslims conquered Spain. Long before the 10th century, Jews ruled the Khazar Khaganat which was annexed by Russia later in the 9th century. Khazars were Jews. Their correspondence with Spanish Jews in Hebrew is still preserved in archives. All correspondence was, of course, written in Hebrew.

The ancient Bible was written in Hebrew. In the first millennium, the Bible was translated from Hebrew to Latin and into Greek, which influenced the formation and development of the Latin language and later the development of all Slavic languages. Jews were the only people in Europe who were fully literate in medieval history and therefore they were responsible for the chronicles throughout Europe and the Middle East. They translated Bibles into European and Greek languages. Hebrew speakers held all the key positions in the Middle Ages. All Christian monks and other Christian clergy studied Hebrew in seminaries, many of them Jews who had converted to Christianity.

The Jewish financial success was mainly due to the enmity between Christianity and Islam. Since Islamic states in the Middle East and Christian kingdoms in Europe often prohibited each other’s merchants from entering their territory, the Jewish merchants and traders acted as neutral intermediaries and translators, keeping open the lines of communication and trade between the lands of the ancient Roman Empire and the Far East. The question is how did one communicate during the medieval trade?

Hebrew was a lingua franca

Hebrew was an international language in the Middle Ages. Here are two linguistic examples that show the impact of Hebrew during the Middle Ages:

  • Hebrew root of Russia. The word [Russian/Ros] is the Greek form of the Hebrew word [ראש] and means the head, the leader, the ruler. Kievan Rus practiced Judaism before Christianity was adopted. Russian as the name of the country appeared in chronicles only after Kiev was conquered by Ruriks in the 9th century. When Rurikis conquered Kiev in the 9th century, Novgorod was still practicing paganism. However, Kiev had been Jewish for centuries before Ruriks defeated the Khazarian Kaganat and conquered Kiev, the city practiced Judaism. Kiev was a Jewish city because the Khazars, owners of Kiev, were Jews.
  • Etymology of the word slave. It comes from the Hebrew word [צלב – tzlav] which means “the cross” and refers to the Christian cross and Christianity. In Arabic, the cross is pronounced [slab], as in Hebrew. From that root came two Latin words: slave and celebration. 1400 years ago, the terms “Christianity”, “Christians” as a definition of people who believed in Jesus were not yet widely distributed in Europe. So when African and Arab pirates captured European people in the coastal areas of Italy or Spain, they identified them by the presence of the cross on the chest [tzlav or slab]. But at the same time, for the word glorification in English, we have the Latin synonym celebration that has the same Semitic root [Heb:- tzlav] or [Arab: – bib] with slave meaning the cross as a symbol of Christianity. Later, that word was rendered in all slavic languages as the Glory – [Rus. – Slava].

Map of Cologne, Hartmann Skull, Liber Chronicarum, Cologne, A. Koberger, 1493.


There were 3 groups of European slave traders:

  • Vikings. The northern route, via the Baltic Sea, was run by Viking traders. Although the Vikings are perhaps best known for amassing wealth through plunder and conquest, they were also skilled and successful merchants. The Vikings developed several trading centers in Scandinavia and beyond during the Viking Age, as well as a series of long-distance trade routes. The economy and slave trade network of the Vikings also effectively helped rebuild the European economy after the fall of the Roman Empire.
  • Radanites. Jewish medieval merchants were known as “Radanites.” Radanites were the ones who controlled the western overland route from the eastern territories to Muslim Spain via Germany and France. In Western Europe, most medieval Jews resided in Spain. The term “Radanites” is derived from the name of the Muslim-Christian border along the Rhône River (in Latin Rodanus) because of the intensive slave trade that took place there. Another origin of the term “Radanite” was a Persian word for those who “knew the way.” This statement was related to the leading role of Jewish merchants in trade after the fall of the Roman Empire.
  • Khazars. The various eastern routes, via the Dnieper, the Don and the Volga, were run by Viking or Khazar traders. Khazars were also Jewish. The capital of Khazaria, Itil, was an important Jewish trading center. Jewish merchants played an important role in international trade after the fall of the Roman Empire. For two centuries they made Hebrew the only language of world trade.

All three trading groups cooperated with each other, especially the Radanites and the Khazars (Turks who converted to Judaism).

From the 7th century to the mid-10th century, the Radanites controlled trade that included Western Europe, Africa, and China. It was a period when Hebrew was the only language of world trade. Slavery, the foundation of the Roman economy, was important in the Arab Empire in which the Jews became the most important merchants, trading with the infidels.


Poland. Commonwealth. Russia

In the 11th century, Jews in Poland, in the service of Boleslav the Great, minted his coins and wrote on them the name of the Polish monarch in Hebrew letters. In addition to such highly regarded artisans, business Jews engaged in profitable slave trade.

The Catholic Church

The Catholic Church fought against slavery and this struggle is documented in the tractate “Infelix Aurum” of the first patron saint of Poland, and since 997 AD the first bishop of Gdansk, Adalbert or Wojciech. In the fight against the slave trade, the family of St. Adalbert lost the Czech throne in Prague to their opponents supported by Jewish slave traders. One of the 18 sculptures on the bronze door from 1170 in front of Gniezno Cathedral depicted the scene of a Polish bishop’s redemption of chained Christian slaves from Jewish traders in the presence of the son of King Boleslaus the Great, the second formally crowned king of Poland, Mieszko II (990-1034).”

As described in the book “Sulejman the Great”, the constant Tatar raids and counterattacks by Cossacks and Polish magnates were always present in Polish-Ottoman relations in the XVI century. Reading the description, it is almost boring: the year the Tatars raided villages, they stocked up on cavalry and recaptured some of the prisoners; the same year, Tatars raided Oczakow, killing Tatars and recapturing slaves. The following year, another Tatar raid hit so-and-so areas… And so it went on for hundreds of years… The Tatar raids on Poland and Russia continued until the 18th when Catherine the Great annexed Crimea and ended slavery.

One of these kidnapped girls was Hürrem Sultan…

Photo: Hürrem Sultan in the popular Turkish TV series.

Hürrem Sultan, the wife of Suleiman the Great was a Russian girl, daughter of an Orthodox priest, kidnapped and sold into slavery from her small town in the Kingdom of Poland. She became the wife of the Ottoman Emperor. Her original name was Alexandra Lisovska. Raised as a Christian Orthodox, she was forced to convert to Islam to join the harem, the royal household in which hundreds of women were kept in the sultan’s service. She was kidnapped by Crimean Tatars. The typical activity of the Crimean Tatars until the 18th century was kidnapping people to sell them to slavery.

200 years later, another remarkable woman came to power, the Russian Empress Catherine the Great, who freed thousands of enslaved Russians from the Tatar yok by annexing the Crimean peninsula. She put an end to that humiliating slave trade for good.

Paintings by Johann Baptist von Lampi der Ältere. Catherine II. Despite her Lutheran origins, after her conversion to Orthodox Christianity, she became the most ardent defender of Russian wherever she stepped up.


In the 11th century, the most important slave market was in Arab Spain, then the most civilized country in Europe.

France and Italy

The white slaves were castrated in Verdun, Venice and Lyon and sold to Spain by slave traders. This slave trade also included girls and little boys who were well indoctrinated to later be used by Arab rulers as bodyguards, slave soldiers, and bureaucrats.

Only the adolescent boys and girls were spared, enslaved and immediately sold to the merchants who accompanied the armies. The Barbarian could get gold by trading slaves. These objects of slavish trade and commerce were incorporated into harems and used as military slaves or eunuchs. Adults and children were eliminated for obvious reasons. They did not meet the Muslim demand for young virgin girls and beardless boys and it was out of the question to collect and raise children. The traders had neither the time nor the willingness and more importantly, it would not have been profitable. Later, they would spare the lives of more prisoners, selecting them based on their productive labor abilities and using them to the limit for heavy physical tasks (Skirda, 2010, pp. 85-86).

The prisoners were transported by land via various routes: via Germany and France to Muslim Spain; via Venice and by ship to the Middle East; or across the Dnieper, the Don or the Volga to the Middle East via the Black Sea or the Caspian Sea. How many were traded? That’s hard to say, but Skirda (2010, p. 6) comes up with figures between tens of thousands and several hundred thousand for the period from the 8th to the 12th century.

It was more than any other trade that revived the old trade networks, not only between Europe and the Middle East, but also within Europe itself. The foreign exchange balance also shifted in Europe’s favor, giving the elites of France, Germany, and Italy the means to buy not only foreign goods, but also local products. As Skirda ironically notes:

“The Italians who were the ‘great initiators of Europe’ became the promoters of trading enterprises, creators of credit, repairers of currency. It is easier to understand why almost all historians and commentators have observed this phenomenon in silence. It is difficult for them to recognize that the economic renaissance of the West of the 10th and 11th centuries was brought about by human trafficking! “ (Skirda, 2010, p. 112)

Islamic Spain was the main market for slaves (eunuchs, girls and young boys). Slavery, the foundation of the Roman economy, was important in the Arab Empire. Some slaves were sold as far away as China, which also bought fur, beaver skins, silk and weapons. China exported cinnamon, spices, musk and camphor to Europe.

Western Europe exported more than a million slaves between 1530 and 1780 (Davis, 2004). Between 1500 and 1650, Eastern Europe exported 1.5 million slaves to Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (Fisher, 1972; Kolodziejczyk, 2006).


Slavery already existed in England in the 11th century – the Domesday book mentions how many slaves there were in each village. The Normans and Vikings had their ‘thralls’. In the 11th century, Bristol shipped English slaves to the Viking city of Dublin – the then Bishop of Worcester, Saint Wulfstan, preached against trade.


Viking enslaved people were called “thralls” in Old Norwegian . As many as 10% of Scandinavia’s population were slaves, according to the Norwegian researchers. Most of the thralls were local Scandinavian people. They may have been kidnapped or captured during Viking raids and forced into slavery. Or they may also have simply fallen into debt and had to fulfill their obligations by entering into lifelong slavery. The throne was inherited by the bloodline of the mother: if the mother was a slave, the child was a slave, even though the father was a free man; If the mother was a free woman, the child was a free man, even though the father was a slave. Scandinavia abolished serfdom in the 14th century.

Some slaves were imported to Scandinavia from the Islamic world. In Viking raids, slaves and prisoners were usually of great importance, both for monetary and labor value. In addition to buying and selling, “thralls” could also be used to pay off debts, and were often used as human sacrifices in religious ceremonies. The price of a slave depended on his abilities, age, health, and appearance. Many pagan and Christian slaves were sold by the Vikings to the Caliphate because of the high demand.

The Vikings called themselves Russian and they were the founders of Kievan Rus’. The Arab traveler ibn Fadlan described these Vikings as follows:

I have seen the Russian when they came on their trade trips and set up camp at the Itil. I’ve never seen more perfect specimens, the size of date palms, blonde and ruddy; They wear neither tunics nor caftans, but the men wear a robe that covers one side of the body and releases a hand. Each man has an axe, a sword and a knife, and always keeps them with him. The swords are wide and grooved, of Frankish kind.


In Northwest Europe in the Viking Age, Dublin was the center of the slave trade,


Guðríður Símonardóttir was an Icelandic woman who was one of 242 people kidnapped in the Westman Islands in Iceland during a robbery by Barbary pirates. These raids became known as the Turkish kidnappings and Guðríður became known as Tyrkja-Gudda. After being kept as a slave and concubine for almost ten years, she was one of the few prisoners ransomed by the Danish king. She returned to Iceland and married the young reverend Hallgrímur Pétursson. The story of “Gudda The Turk”.

Estimated exchange rates at the beginning of the 11th century in Iceland were:

8 ounces of silver = 1 ounce of gold;

8 ounces of silver = 4 dairy cows;

8 ounces of silver = 24 sheep;

12 ounces of silver = 1 adult male slave.

The Barbary Corsairs raided Northern Europe for slaves on many occasions.

Painting Giulio Rosati, Inspection of New Arrivals, 1858-1917, Circassian Beauties. In French, “la traite des Blanches”. The English translation, “white slave trade”, the term is often used today as a synonym for international prostitution.

Photo: Group of white slaves in Germany. 1942. Slavery may never go away. Nazi Germany reinstalled white slavery from the Bay of Biscay to the Bering Sea in 1941.


Surprisingly, but in addition to the barbaric traditions of slavery and human sacrifice, medieval Europe had democracy, elections and a society without borders from London to Moscow, something we can only dream of. The European Union was also established. You can see that the Dark Ages were not so dark and for some countries it was Golden Middle Ages.

  1. Open borders society. All Europeans were mobile and moved from one place to another without a visa. 1000 years ago, there were no borders between countries in Europe. Visas, border guards, passports did not exist in Europe and the concept of ethnicity or nationality did not exist. Europeans were divided only by religion, language and loyalty to the king, not by ethnic groups. People moved freely in Europe, from Dublin to Moscow. In the Middle Ages, Europeans had much more freedom of movement than modern Europeans. The Varangians (proto-Russians) are a good example of the mobility and travel of peoples from one end of the continent to the other, which means that Celts, Germans, Goths, English, Latinos, Huns and God knows who else roamed throughout Europe and moved freely and without visas throughout the territory, giving the idea that a certain area in Europe belonged to a certain ethnic group, becomes meaningless.
  2. Democracy. Russia had a democracy during the Middle Ages. Veche was a Russian democratic parliamentary form of state government (legislature) in the Novgorod Republic from 862 to 1478. Rus has known democratic forms of government, also from the period before Kievan Rus. The Novgorod Parliament had legislative power, the Parliament could dismiss unwanted monarchs and appoint new ones, the Parliament managed the finances, declared war and made peace, claimed treaties with foreigners, led the court on political and official crimes, etc. In 862, Novgorod veche signed a contract with Rurik.
  3. Elections. France had democratic elections in the 11th century. The election by a voting body facilitated the peaceful transfer of power, even though such decisions also took into account the privileges of birth and rank, as well as the demands of the church. Under canon law, medievalists were guaranteed certain human rights, including welfare rights, voting rights for certain classes, and religious freedom.


The European Union existed in the Middle Ages for 400 years in the form of the Hanseatic League, and was controlled by the German city of Hansa. The Hanseatic League was a forerunner of the modern European Union. The idea of the EU is very old and was always managed by Germany. The Hanseatic League was a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns in Northern Europe. It was a powerful economic and defensive alliance that left behind a great cultural and architectural heritage. The cities that participated in the alliance assembled their own armies, with each guild having to provide levies as needed. The Hanseatic cities came to each other’s aid and merchant ships often had to be used to transport soldiers and their weapons. The alliance, which emerged from some northern German cities in the late 1100s, included 170 cities and controlled maritime trade across the Baltic Sea along the coasts of northern Europe, from London to Moscow, for three centuries. Novgorod in particular was an important Russian trading partner of the Hansa in the Middle Ages.

Exploratory trade adventures, raids, tourism, and piracy occurred early throughout the Baltic Sea region; the sailors of Gotland ascended the rivers to Novgorod. Lübeck became a base for merchants from Saxony and Westphalia who traded eastwards and northwards. This area was a source of wood, wax, amber, resin and fur, along with rye and wheat brought to the port markets on barges from the hinterland.

Main trade routes of the Hanseatic League

Alliance between Visby and Novgorod

Long before the Hanseatic League was founded, the Scandinavian city of Visby functioned as the most important trading center in the Baltic Sea since the 10th century. In 1080 AD, merchants of Visby established a Scandinavian trading post Gutagard-Gotenhof in the Russian city of Novgorod. International trade in the Baltic Sea region before the Hanseatic League was led by the Scandinavians, who established important trading centers in Birka, Haithabu and Schleswig in the 9th century.

Later, merchants from the Holy Roman Empire also stayed in Novgorod. In 1220, the Germans established their own trading post “Kontor” Peterhof, not far from Novgorod. In 1229, German merchants were granted certain privileges that made their position in Russia safer.

Painting: Georg Giese from Danzig, 34-year-old German Hanseatic merchant at the Steelyard, painted in London by Hans Holbein.


Barbary states, term used for the North African states of Tripolitania, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. From the 16th century, Tripolitania, Tunisia and Algeria were autonomous provinces of the Turkish Empire. Morocco continued its own independent development. The pirate Barbarossa and his brothers led the Turkish conquest to prevent the region from falling into the hands of Spain. A final attempt by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to expel the Turks failed in 1541. The piracy that the Muslims of North Africa subsequently practiced began as part of the wars against Spain. In the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Turkish grip on the area became weaker, the raids took on a less military and more commercial character. The loot, ransom and slaves that resulted from the attacks on Mediterranean cities and ships and from occasional trips to the Atlantic became the main source of income for the local Muslim rulers.

All the major European naval forces attempted to destroy the pirates, and the British and French fleets repeatedly bombed the pirate strongholds. But in general, the countries that traded in the Mediterranean found it more convenient to pay estimates than to take on the expensive task of eradicating piracy. By the end of the 18th century, the power of the pirate states diminished. The United States and the European powers took advantage of this decrease to carry out more attacks. American opposition resulted in the Tripolitan War. After the Napoleonic Wars, European opinion was clearly in favour of the destruction of pirates. In 1816, Lord Exmouth put an end to the naval power of the dey of Algiers with an Anglo-Dutch fleet. An ultimatum from the European Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle (1819) forced the bey of Tunis to give up piracy.

The fate of European slaves in Africa

Many slaves converted to Islam. That means they were only “freed from the oar, but not from the service of their patron.” Christian girls who were included in the pasha’s harem often became “Turks” to stay with their children, who were raised as Muslims.

Christian men sought easier work after converting to Islam, usually as overseers of other slaves, and some gained real power and sometimes their freedom. Between 1580 and 1680, there were typically about 15,000 of these “apostates” in Barbary, including about half of the captains, or re’is, and even some of the pashas. Most had probably never been slaves, but had come to Africa in search of opportunities, and along with their former lives had cast off Christianity.

The Legacy of Slavery

Slaves in the Barbary states could be black, brown or white, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish or Muslim. In the 1600s, one’s race or religion was not automatically destined for slavery. Pastors in churches from Sicily to Boston spoke of the similar fate of black slaves on American plantations and white slaves in privateer galleys; early abolitionists used slavery in Barbary as a way to address the universal degradation of slavery in all its forms.

This may require us to rethink our belief that race was fundamental to premodern ideas about slavery. It also requires a new awareness of the consequences of slave robbery in Spain and Italy – and Britain – about which we currently know much less than about the slave activities of the same period in Africa. The large-scale depopulation of coastal areas from Malaga to Venice, the impoverishment caused by the abduction of many breadwinners, the millions that the already poor inhabitants of villages and cities paid to get their own people back – all this is only now beginning to be understood by contemporary historians.

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Conspiracy and the coming witch hunt. 

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