Although largely hidden from history, slaves were a significant but largely unrecognised class in Medieval Italy.
In the late 1360s, Francesco Petrarch was living in Venice where he could see the unloading of cargo from Venetian merchant galleys and commented (with unfortunate racism):
‘Whereas huge shipments of grain used to arrive by ship annually in this city, now they arrive laden with slaves, sold by their wretched families to alleviate their hunger. An unusually large and countless crowd of slaves of both sexes has afflicted this city with deformed Scythian faces, just like when a muddy current destroys the brilliance of a clear one.’
Most people associate slavery with the ancient world, or with the African slave trade of the modern era. However, between those two periods slavery did not disappear from Europe but persisted and even flourished right around the Mediterranean.
The chaos brought about by the Barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire did not entirely disrupt the Roman way of life and in many parts of the former empire Roman law and practices continued, including the keeping of slaves. The laws of the invading Germanic tribes allowed for slavery as a form of punishment, while in England, at the time of the Norman Conquest, 10% of the population was counted as slaves, though it is not possible to distinguish between domestic slaves and those tied to the land as serfs.
Even in the early Middle Ages in Christian Europe, stories of slaves being owned, traded, given as gifts and bought to be freed can be found. Most likely these slaves were prisoners of war, sold by their families to pay off debts, or captured in raids on non-Christian settlements. Records show that the Venetians were supplying Italy with Muslim slaves as early as the eighth century. Although the Church did nothing to abolish slavery, they passed laws to ensure slaves were well-treated and to prohibit the enslaving of Christians.
A flourishing slave trade continued amongst the non-Christian Slavonic people as well as the Muslim world and as the Venetian and Genoese traders secured footholds in the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea ports they took an active role in this lucrative trade. The slaves they traded came mostly from Eastern Europe and Central Asia and were acquired from slave markets or by raiding the unprotected coastlines of the Black Sea and the disintegrating Byzantine Empire. While Western Christians were nominally protected, Christians of the Eastern Rite were still considered fair game and slaves also came from the Greek islands which were under the control of the Venetians and Genoese.
While most of these slaves were sold into the Muslim world where they were in high demand, thousands were brought back to Italy for the domestic market. Little is recorded about slavery in Medieval Italy and historians have had to piece together its history and prevalence from scant documents. However, while Italians like Petrarch may have felt overwhelmed by the influx of foreign slaves, slave labour never played the significant role in the Italian economy that it did in Ancient Rome or the Americas. The numbers of slaves in Italy were never high. While the proportion of slaves in Palermo in Sicily is estimated to have been as high as 12% of the population, in Genoa it was never more than 2–5%. In Florence there were about 1000 slaves at the end of the fourteenth century, and numbers in the low hundreds in other Tuscan cities.
At the same time, however, the slave trade was lucrative, both to the city states which exacted custom duties on the trade, and the merchants who could expect profits of up to 150% despite the risks of transporting the slaves by sea, such as shipwreck, disease and rebellion. Christian merchants were obliged by canon law not to purchase Christian slaves, but unscrupulous traders might obfuscate the slaves’ origins to avoid such strictures.
The slaves sold in Italy were Russians, Circassians, Tartars, Abkhazi, Mingrelli, Geti, Vlachs, Turkish, and others from the Balkan, Caucasus, and Central Asian regions. Genoese traders sold Greek Orthodox Christians until the late fourteenth century, when the Genoese government finally banned the practice. So prevalent were the slaves from Central Asia that Tartar became the generic term for slave. Sub-Saharan Africans were only a small proportion of the slave population until the fifteenth century when the eastern ports were closed to Italian merchants and were much more numerous in Sicily, with its close ties to the Muslim world, than in northern Italy.
Slaves commanded a high price, but despite the cost, people from all levels of society owned slaves including nobles, priests, notaries, master craftsmen, spice merchants, sailors, and textile workers. By far the majority of slaves were women and the high prices paid for them indicate that they were largely forced to undergo sexual servitude. Records show they were often sold off by their masters’ widows. The Church seemed to turn a blind eye to such concubinage and its social acceptability is shown by the fact that over time the children of slave women could inherit their fathers’ social status. However, not all such children were accepted by their fathers and most were unacknowledged and even abandoned.
Though it was not common, slaves could be freed by the outright granting of manumission, usually late in life, or as a condition of their master’s will. However, even after they were freed, they might still be obliged to remain in the family’s service for a set term in a form of reciprocal patronage. Eventually the slaves and their descendants were absorbed into Italian society, but it is hard to tell how successfully they were assimilated. As Petrarch’s comments show, medieval Italians were as prone to racism as at any other time. It can be imagined that the lighter skinned slaves were more easily accepted than the darker skinned, but this is a subject on which the records are silent.
With the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century, the ports of the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea were closed to Venetian and Genoese merchants. They had to turn to Africa and the Balkans, though slaves from such sources may well have become scarce. While the slave trade in the Eastern Mediterranean was closing out European merchants, the demand for labour in the New World shifted the focus of the slave trade on to the Atlantic and the infamous mass trade in African slaves.
The growing scarcity of slaves in Italy and the consequent rise in prices made it easier to employ cheap free labour or indentured workers than to buy slaves, causing a decline in domestic slavery. By 1427 there were only 400 slaves in Florence and they would soon almost disappear from Tuscany. However, slaves continued to be traded in Genoa and the South. Over the next two hundred years, while domestic slavery waned, state ownership of galley slaves took its place. At the same time, Venetians and Genoese merchants found themselves losing their pre-eminence in the trade to their Spanish and Portuguese rivals.
Domestic Slavery in Renaissance Italy by Sally McKee published in Slavery and Abolition Vol. 29, No. 3, September 2008, pp. 305–326
© Pauline Montagna 2015