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Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies URPP Asia and Europe (2006–2017)

Transcultural Perspectives on Late Medieval and Early Modern Slavery in the Mediterranean

International Conference, September 12-15, 2012


History Department, University of Zurich, in cooperation with the Free Universtiy of Berlin, the URPP Asia and Europe and the Swiss Asia Society


Slavery has rarely been associated with the European Middle Ages in the academic and public spheres. In fact, slavery in late medieval and early modern Mediterranean has remained a topic prone to stereotyped ideas and polemical debates up to our days, and still counts among the fields of research insufficiently studied by scholars of Western and Eastern European, Byzantine and Islamic history alike.

In Western historiography it is usually held that “Islam” strongly relied on a slave economy, whereas “Latin Christendom” developed a new economic and social system based on serfdom, and banned slavery from its lands. Late medieval and early modern slavery is here mostly seen as a marginal phenomenon compared to the “classic” slave holding societies of antiquity, pre-modern Islam and the European colonial empires overseas. Scholars of Islamic studies, in reverse, claim that more work still has to be done on the topic of intercultural slave trade in the Mediterranean, whereas studies done by scholars of East European and Byzantine history are rarely read by their colleagues in allied disciplines. Moreover, while Medievalists generally tend to ignore the phenomenon of slavery, Early Modernists focus on the Atlantic slave trade in contact with the “New World”, instead of studying ongoing slavery practices within the “Old World”.

Yet, in the 14th century, slavery staged an extraordinary and rarely considered comeback in the regions south of the Alps and around the Mediterranean Sea, although assuming different shapes on the Italian and Hispanic peninsula, in the Ottoman Empire, in Northern Africa and in the Balkans. Male and female slaves again became an important economic and social factor in Spain, Italy, and the Balkans, although the trading and holding of (especially baptized) people had been marginalised in Latin Europe since the turn of the millennium. Up to the 18th century, the human trafficking of Southern Europe interlinked the areas of the Northern Mediterranean governed by Christians with the regions South and East of the sea with a mainly Muslim background. It also promoted regular contacts with Russia, the Black Sea, and Mongolia. Hence, at a time when “Europe” was more and more interpreted as a cultural unit facing the “Ottoman threat” in the East and the discoveries and conquests in the West, the slave trading Mediterranean formed its own space of references and of socioeconomic interconnectivities (cf. F. Braudel).

Only recently, detailed case studies have alluded to the divergent practices of slavery in the different regions of the late medieval and early modern Mediterranean. However, the results of these studies have scarcely been compared and related to each other until now. This conference is devoted to slave trade, bondage and manumission practices in the Mediterranean world during the late medieval and early modern period, aiming to confront case studies from various geographic and disciplinary perspectives with general theories, to challenge hitherto received ideas, and to reveal new perspectives for international and interdisciplinary research concerning slavery. By investigating Muslim and Christian spheres in the Mediterranean slave markets, “cultures” are hereby understood as non-holistic concepts, pointing to multi-layered discourses and complex social practices.

The conference deals with four aspects of Mediterranean slavery:

Normative discourses and social practices: What were the normative frameworks for forced labour in the different regions around the Mediterranean? How did social practices of holding slaves develop within these norms, and to what extent were norms and laws on slavery and manumission conditioned by these practices? What strategies of justification, denial or legalisation of practices of slavery do we encounter?

Economic and military entanglements: Was slave trade mainly a side effect of warfare or was it, in reverse, rather a driving force for military interaction in itself? What were the socio-economic motivations for abduction and enslavement? In what ways did slaves meet the economic and social needs of consuming households? How does slave labour fit in the overall framework of bondage in its different forms?

Society, family, and gender: What status did slaves have in the different Mediterranean areas? How were slaves – female and male – socially and personally integrated in family, kinship and clan structures, and in everyday life in towns and countryside? What were the place and the function of male and female slaves within society? And what were their rights and their scope of action?

Cultural interconnectivities: Did the norms and practices of Christian slavery differ fundamentally from the Muslim ones, or are mutual influences or rather one-sided transfers ascertainable? Was the revival of slavery in Southern Europe a consequence of cultural contact and exchange with the Muslim world? Did norms and practices of enslavement and slave holding migrate and pass cultural frontiers? Or do we have to examine these ostensible cultural borders as fluid? What role did religion play in the evaluation of local and foreign forms of slavery, and to what extent did discourses on slavery help to construct cultural borders?

Conference Venue

Rämistrasse 69, 8001 Zürich, SOC-1-106

Weiterführende Informationen

Report in the “Asia & Europe Bulletin” 2/2013

Conference Program

Please download the conference program: