How prolific was the medieval slave trade in the Italian city states like Venice and Genoa

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The work of Debra Blumenthal at UCSB is good for understanding medieval slavery. So, too, is Michael McCormick’s enormous but awesome tome, The Origins of the European Economy. Essentially, his argument there is that the early Medieval European economy (c. 500 to 1000) was powered, as far as trade goes, by the sale of Slavic peoples to slave markets in North Africa and the Middle Wast. Human chattel was one of the few goods Europe had that was worth trading for in considerable numbers. As for your questions about numbers, questions like that are more or less impossible to answer for the Middle Ages. It is hard enough to know populations of a place, let alone bulk of goods sold. Perhaps someone has looked at notarial registers for somewhere like Genoa regarding this, but it would be painstaking work, so I am not sure if anyone has done it.


Can answer for Genoa: slave traffic was substantial. Following the loss of much of their possessions in the Mediterranean, the Genoese quite successfully converted to shipbuilding, trading and finance, with Spain being the major focus/customer. This included a significant slave trade, that reached a peak in the beginning of the XVI century, as Spain needed slave labour for its newly founded colonies in the Americas African slaves also were present in genoese society, as demonstrated also by a number of paintings of genoese artists. Slave trading was institutional, there records of persons freeing slaves but these are purely individual actions The Church had a very complex approach to slavery, which is probably worth a separate topic


1. Based on Venetian market records the numbers for slaves traded in Venice was at the beginning of the 15th century an average of 1000 slaves per year (primarily greeks). But these are only the slaves traded in Venice itself. Genoan slave trader were equally (or even more) prolific, and a large number of slaves were traded elsewhere.Given the historical supply-routes and the number of slaves in Italy, Turkey, Egypt and the Arabian peninsula my low estimate would be that over the centuries at least a million slaves passed through Venetian and Genoan hands. 2. How horrific was it? It depends on what you view as horrific. Was rape a thing? Yes. Extensively so (but then sexual subservience was the norm for all women, slave or wife). Especially for slaves in Italy which were primarily women. Were they being systematicly worked to death under inhumane conditions? Generally no. While sentencing “unruly slaves” to the wargalleys was a thing under the ottoman empire the ottoman empire didn’t really “eat slaves” like places such as the silver mines of Cerro Rico (“Rich Mountain”, but also nicknamed “The Mountain that eats men”) or the Congo or just your average Roman province with a quarry or mine. 3. The Ottoman empire was during its lifespan one of the primary purchasers of slaves. From 15th to 19th century a total of about 3 million people were sold into slavery in the Ottoman empire (where slaves could be found at every level of society and profession). In Europe slaves were low in numbers and served primarily three purposes. Sex slaves (while not explicitly described as such the number of illegitimate children and how those slaves were treated in contracts indicate that it was common), prestige slaves (owning an exotic manservant was a …”thing”) and a small number of state slaves (primarily galley slaves). In Sicily, for much of history, slaves were used to some extent as farm labourers, and Sicily also had the most extensive slave population in Italy. While in most of italy the number of slaves in your average city numbered no more than a few percent, in Sicily as much as 10% of the population of any given town could be slaves..


There was a major slave trading operation in the South Eastern Italian city of Bari during the Middle Ages. The city was occupied briefly by the Muslims and became an emirate in the 800s, before being conquered by Franco-Lombards Slaves from all over the Mediterranean were sold at the ports of Bari to both European and Islamic powers. Interestingly many Slavic slaves from the Balkans were also sold off to Muslim lands, where some served as Mamlulk soldiers.


Check out the Children’s Crusade in 1212.