Slaves were often sent as gifts to Muslim rulers. At the start of the tenth century, for example, an embassy from Tuscany to Baghdad brought the Abbāsid Caliph al-Muktafī a selection of high-value gifts, including swords, shields, hunting dogs and birds of prey. Among the other presents offered as a token of friendship were twenty Slavic eunuchs and twenty particularly beautiful Slavic girls. The flower of youth from one part of the world was exported to indulge those in another.21
The engagement with long-distance trade was so extensive that when Ibrāhīm ibn Yaqūb passed through Mainz, he was astonished by what he found in the markets: ‘it is extraordinary’, he wrote, ‘that one should be able to find, in such far western regions, aromatics and spices that only grow in the Far East, like pepper, ginger, cloves, nard and galingale. These plants are all imported from India, where they grow in abundance.’ That was not all that surprised him: so too did the fact that silver dirhams were in use as currency, including coins minted in Samarkand.22
In fact, the impact and influence of coins from the Muslim world had been felt much further away – and would continue to be so for some time to come. Around 800, King Offa of Mercia in England, constructor of the famous dyke to protect his lands against the incursions of the Welsh, was copying the design of Islamic gold coins for his own currency. He issued coins with the legend ‘Offa rex’ (King Offa) on one side and an imperfect copy of Arabic text on the other, even though this would have meant little to those handling coins in his kingdom.23 A large hoard found in Cuerdale in Lancashire and today held in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford also contains many Abbāsid coins minted in the ninth century. That the currency had reached the backwaters that were the British Isles is an indication of just how far the markets of the Islamic world had sprawled.
It was the sale of slaves that paid for the imports that began to flood into Europe in the ninth century. The silks, spices and drugs that become increasingly visible in the sources as highly desirable luxury objects or as medical necessities were funded by large-scale human trafficking.24 And it was not only the Viking Rus’ who profited from the almost insatiable demand for slaves: merchants in Verdun made immense profits selling eunuchs, usually to Muslim buyers in Spain; Jewish traders who dealt with long-range commerce were also heavily involved in the sale of ‘young girls and boys’ as well as eunuchs, as Arabic sources from this period suggest.25
Other sources likewise note the role played by Jewish merchants in bringing ‘slaves [and] boys and girls’ from Europe, and carrying out operations to castrate young men on arrival – presumably as a form of gruesome certification procedure.26 The slave trade promised good returns, which was one reason why it was not only European slaves that were brought east: Muslim entrepreneurs reportedly also got in on the act, raiding Slavic lands from eastern Iran – although enslaved captives pointedly ‘had their manhood left intact, their bodies unspoiled’.27
Such captives were also turned into eunuchs and were highly valued. If you took Slavic twins, wrote one Arabic author in this period, and castrated one, he would certainly become more skilful and ‘more lively in intelligence and conversation’ than his brother – who would remain ignorant, foolish and exhibit the innate simple-mindedness of the Slavs. Castration was thought to purify and improve the Slavic mind.28 Better still, it worked, wrote the same author, though not for ‘the blacks’, whose ‘natural aptitudes’ were negatively affected by the operation.29 So great was the scale of traffic of Slavic slaves that it impacted the Arabic language: the word for eunuch (iqlabī) comes from the ethnic label referring to the Slavs (aqālibī).
Muslim traders were highly active in the Mediterranean. Men, women and children were brought from all over northern Europe to Marseilles where there was a busy market for buying and selling slaves – often passing through subsidiary markets such as Rouen, where Irish and Flemish slaves were sold to third parties.30 Rome was another key slave-trading centre – though some found this repugnant. In 776, Pope Hadrian I decried the sale of humans like livestock, condemning the sale of men and women to ‘the unspeakable race of Saracens’. Some, he claimed, had boarded ships bound for the east voluntarily, ‘having no other hope of staying alive’ because of recent famine and crushing poverty. Nevertheless, ‘we have never sunk to such a disgraceful act’ of selling fellow Christians, he wrote, ‘and God forbid that we should’.31 So widespread was slavery in the Mediterranean and the Arabic world that even today regular greetings reference human trafficking. All over Italy, when they meet, people say to each other, ‘schiavo’, from a Venetian dialect. ‘Ciao’, as it is more commonly spelt, does not mean ‘hello’; it means ‘I am your slave’.32
There were others who viewed the bonding of Christians into captivity and their sale to Muslim masters as indefensible. One such was Rimbert, bishop of Bremen, who used to tour the markets in Hedeby (on the borders of modern Germany and Denmark) in the late ninth century ransoming those who professed their Christian faith (but not those who did not).33 This sensibility was not shared by all. Among those with no compunction about human trafficking were the inhabitants of an unpromising lagoon located at the northern point of the Adriatic. The wealth it accumulated from slave trading and human suffering was to lay the basis for its transformation into one of the crown jewels of the medieval Mediterranean: Venice.
The Venetians proved to be singularly successful when it came to business. A dazzling city rose up from the marshes, adorned with glorious churches and beautiful palazzi, built on the lucrative proceeds of prolific trading with the east. While it stands today as a glorious vision of the past, the spark for Venice’s growth came from its willingness to sell future generations into captivity. Merchants became involved in the slave trade as early as the second half of the eighth century, at the very dawn of the new settlement of Venice, though it took time for the benefits and the profits to flow through in volume. That they eventually did so is indicated by a series of treaties drawn up a century later, in which the Venetians agreed to be bound by restrictions on the sale of slaves, including returning slaves to other towns in Italy who had been brought to Venice illegally for sale. These negotiations were in part a reaction to the growing success of the city, an attempt to clip Venetian wings by those threatened by its affluence.34
In the short term, the restrictions were circumvented by raiding parties that captured non-Christians from Bohemia and Dalmatia and sold them on at a profit.35 In the longer term, however, normal business was resumed. Treatises from the late ninth century suggest that Venice simply paid lip-service to local rulers who were concerned that it was not just slaves that were being sold but also freemen. The Venetians were accused of willingly selling the subjects of neighbouring lands, whether Christians or not.36
19 D. Abulafia, ‘Asia, Africa and the Trade of Medieval Europe’, in M. Postan, E. Miller and C. Postan (eds), Cambridge Economic History of Europe: Trade and Industry in the Middle Ages (2nd edn, Cambridge, 1987), p. 417. Also see D. Mishin, ‘The Saqaliba Slaves in the Aghlabid State’, in M. Sebök (ed.), Annual of Medieval Studies at CEU 1996/1997 (Budapest, 1998), pp. 236–44.
20Ibrāhīm ibn Yaqūb, tr. Lunde and Stone, in Land of Darkness, pp. 164–5. For Prague’s role as a slave centre, D. Třeštík, ‘“Eine große Stadt der Slawen namens Prag”: Staaten und Sklaven in Mitteleuropa im 10. Jahrhundert’, in P. Sommer (ed.), Boleslav II: der tschechische Staat um das Jahr 1000 (Prague 2001), pp. 93–138.
21Ibn al-Zubayr, Book of Gifts and Rarities, pp. 91–2. See A. Christys, ‘The Queen of the Franks Offers Gifts to the Caliph Al-Muktafi’, in W. Davies and P. Fouracre (eds), The Languages of Gift in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 140–71.
22Ibrāhīm ibn Ya‘qūb, pp. 162–3.
23R. Naismith, ‘“Islamic Coins from Early Medieval England’, Numismatic Chronicle 165 (2005), 193–222; idem, ‘The Coinage of Offa Revisited’, British Numismatic Journal 80 (2010), 76–106.
24M. McCormick, ‘New Light on the “Dark Ages”: How the Slave Trade Fuelled the Carolingian Economy’, Past & Present 177 (2002), 17–54; also J. Henning, ‘Slavery or Freedom? The Causes of Early Medieval Europe’s Economic Advancement’, Early Medieval Europe 12.3 (2003), 269–77.
25Ibn Khurradādhbih, ‘Book of Roads and Kingdoms’, p. 111.
26Ibn awqal, Kītāb ūrat al-ard, tr. Lunde and Stone, ‘Book of the Configuration of the Earth’, in Land of Darkness, p. 173.
27Ibid. Also Al-Muqaddasī, Land of Darkness, p. 170.
28al-Jāiẓ, Kitāb al-ayawān, cited in C. Verlinden, L’Esclavage dans l’Europe mediévale, 2 vols (Bruges, 1955–77), 1, p. 213.
30Verlinden, Esclavage, 2, pp. 218–30, 731–2; W. Phillips, Slavery from Roman Times to the Early Transatlantic Trade (Manchester, 1985), p. 62.
31H. Loyn and R. Percival (eds), The Reign of Charlemagne: Documents on Carolingian Government and Administration (London, 1975), p. 129.
32In Germany, it used to be common to do the same, with ‘Servus’ a regular greeting.
33Adam of Bremen, Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, tr. T. Reuter, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen (New York, 2002), I.39–41.
34Pactum Hlotharii I, in McCormick, ‘Carolingian Economy’, 47.
35G. Luzzato, An Economic History of Italy from the Fall of the Roman Empire to the Sixteenth Century, tr. P. Jones (London, 1961), pp. 35, 51–3; Phillips, Slavery, p. 63.
36McCormick, ‘Carolingian Economy’, 48–9.