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

Godly creature or human ware? Christian slaves in Venice (14th - 16th centuries)

Responsible for the postdoc project: Dr. Juliane Schiel


The city of Venice plays a key role for the understanding of medieval slavery in Europe. By studying the history of Venice, one may see how Latin Europe, at the turn of the millenium, transformed from a relief zone for Muslim slave economies into a „perfect non-slaving zone“ (Jeffrey Fynn-Paul). Also, one may examine how the bubonic plague of the 8th century and the „Black Death“ of the 14th century affected the European slave trade, and how a male dominated farming slavery of the early middle ages was followed by a female household slavery some centuries later.

Moreover, the special status of Venice throughout the middle ages (first as Latin settlement under Byzantine sovereignty, then as a more or less autonomous sea power in constant contact with Latin, Slavic, Byzantine and Muslim rulers) illustrates the complexity of political, socio-economic and cultural dynamics of slavery and slave trade within the multi-religious mesh of the Mediterranean.

The present postdoctoral research project focuses on the special case of Christians enslaving Christians using the example of Venice in the late middle ages. The enslavement of heterodox and schismatic Christians – mainly young, unmarried women from the Russian or Greek Orthodoxy or from Southeast Europe – was a widespread practice beyond normative discourses on the rights and freedoms of baptised humans. Interestingly, the percentage of Christian slaves was particularly high in late medieval Venice, in a city whose doges, in the face of the Ottoman expansion, liked to present themselves as protecting power of Christianity.

This ambiguity between discourse and practice, between ideological claim and socio-economic actuality is at the centre of the ongoing research project. Using approaches of the new economic and social history, the project will zero in on small economic and social unities such as trade associations, households and families.

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