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From Slavs to Slaves

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

Can Europeans, and European women in particular, become objects of trade? The idea seems laughable, since the term ‘slave trade’ almost always brings Africans to mind. Yet there was a time not so long ago when Europe exported slaves on a large scale. Between 1500 and 1650, Eastern Europe exported 1.5 million slaves to North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia (Fisher, 1972; Kolodziejczyk, 2006). Western Europe exported a little over a million between 1530 and 1780 (Davis, 2004).

These slaves were taken during hit-and-run raids by either Crimean Tatar horsemen or North African corsairs. A raiding party would typically descend on an isolated village and carry away its inhabitants—or rather those who were commercially useful, particularly young women and young boys.

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

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 dip into their gold reserves to buy foreign luxury goods from the Middle East, generally clothing, upholstery, tapestries, carpets, and other precious fabrics (Skirda, 2010, pp. 56-57). By the 8th century, these reserves had been almost completely exhausted. Gold was giving way to silver, and even that medium of exchange was being debased. Western Europe had largely reverted to an economy of autarky, its shrunken towns and cities no longer major centers of trade. Most people produced everything they needed within their local village or manor.

Would Western Europe have eventually returned on its own to an international trading economy? Perhaps, although revival of trade would have become more difficult once the elites had become accustomed to autarky. As things turned out, they found the means to buy foreign luxury goods almost at the same time their gold reserves ran out. The 8th century brought the rapid expansion of a new civilization, Islam, into the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain. Its Arab elite was darker-skinned than the Greco-Roman or Visigothic elites it displaced. It was also more polygynous. A new market had come into being, a market for wives and concubines. European women were especially sought after, not because they were exotic but because their fair skin and fine facial features corresponded to notions of beauty that were indigenous to Arab culture.

And so began the commodification of European women. Initially, this trade involved prisoners of war captured during the Islamic wars of expansion. Soon, however, a peaceful trading relationship developed. It was officially prohibited by Christian emperors and popes alike, but “in reality, people closed their eyes and everything was tolerated in exchange for good gold dinars” (Skirda, 2010, p. 75).

The women came from a belt of territory stretching from the Elbe in the West to the Volga in the East. This territory was inhabited by Slavic tribes—the ancestors of today’s Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Byelorussians, Ukrainians, and Russians. They were typically prisoners of war who had been taken during fighting either between Germans and Slavs or among different Slavic tribes:

Only the adolescent boys and girls—the Slavonici—were spared, enslaved, and immediately sold to the merchants accompanying the armies. The Barbarian-ruled West, abandoned by major international trade and bereft of gold, was able to get gold by trading in slaves, who were almost exclusively Slavs. These objects of servile trade and commerce would be integrated into harems and used as military slaves or eunuchs. Adults and children were eliminated for obvious reasons. They did not correspond to the Muslim demand for young virgin girls and beardless boys and it was out of the question to gather children and raise them. The traders had neither the time nor the willingness and more importantly it would not have been cost-effective. Later, they would spare the lives of more captives, by selecting them according to their capacities for productive work and by using them to the limit of their strength at laborious physical tasks (Skirda, 2010, pp. 85-86).

The captives were taken overland by various routes: through Germany and France to Muslim Spain; through Venice and by ship to the Middle East; or down the Dniepr, the Don, or the Volga to the Middle East via the Black Sea or the Caspian. How many were traded? It’s difficult to say, but Skirda (2010, p. 6) advances a figure between several tens of thousands and several hundreds of thousands for the period extending from the 8th to 12th centuries.

It was this trade, more than any other, that revived the old trading networks not only between Europe and the Middle East, but also within Europe itself. The balance of foreign exchange also shifted in Europe’s favor, thus giving the elites of France, Germany, and Italy the means to buy not only foreign goods but also local products, thereby stimulating a long economic recovery that would take Europe out of the Dark Ages. As Skirda notes ironically:

The Italians who […] were the “great initiators of Europe” […] became the promoters of trading companies, creators of credit, restorers of currency. The only major oversight [of historians]: all of that was accomplished through the trade in Slavs. It is easier to understand why almost all historians and commentators have silently observed this phenomenon. It is difficult for them to acknowledge that the economic renaissance of the West of the 10th and 11th centuries was achieved through human trafficking! (Skirda, 2010, p. 112)