Thursday, 25 September 2014


We're home now.  I miss Dubrovnik already!  What a wonderful time we've had - in every way.  The material I've been looking at will now go on to the back-burner for a while, as I prepare for a term's teaching and return to my main project on misbehaving students in the fifteenth century.

St Vlah (St Blaise), patron saing of Dubrovnik, holding the city in his hands

Tuesday, 23 September 2014


The starting point for my interest in slavery arose from trying to think about notions of property and ownership from the perspective of legal anthropology.  In this sense, it has been really fascinating to look at the ways in which people thought about slavery from a secular legal perspective, from a canon (Church) law perspective,  in a moral sense and in an economic sense.  These different frames of reference often overlapped, but they often contradicted and undermined one another.  For instance, various historians (eg. Susan Mosher Stuard) have shown how the apparent decline of slavery in the first half of the fourteenth century was explained by contemporaries in moral terms which provided a useful gloss over their actually much more hard-nosed economic motivations (the Italian market had made slaves too expensive).   Secular law in Dubrovnik banned the export of slaves in 1416 in what looks like a fairly clear statement of legal disapproval of the concept - and yet, there are many cases of slavery after this date, and increasingly draconian punishments for slaves who escaped. Canon law forbade the enslavement of fellow Christians, but it is clear that many of those enslaved were Christians even before their capture.

These clashes and contradictions explain some of the details in the records.  Two slave girls sold in 1398 (Diversa Cancellarie 33, fol 129r) were specifically described as Patarene, a heretical sect - a rather useful way of skirting around the moral problems of enslaving children with clear religious views.  In 1380, a slave trader was sued by three girls who claimed that he had sold them as Paterenes when they were, in fact, Christians - the heretical label was so useful as to be deliberately misappropriated (Diversa Cancellarie 31, fol 81r).  The timing was crucial in this case - the girls needed to demonstrate that they were Christian before they became enslaved.  And this tells us that the Christian men and women of Dubrovnik (and plenty of other European towns) had found a way to interpret canon law literally and rigidly: the law said one could not enslave a Christian, it did not say that someone could not continue to be a slave once converted.  It seems to me a classic example of rigid legalism providing a means of absolute moral obfuscation.

Incidentally, there were converts, and there clearly were owners who chose not to exploit the disjunctions between moral, legal and religious universes in this way.   In 1439, we find a case of a slave converting and joining, with the permission of his master, a monastery as a (sort of!) free man (Diversa Notariae 23, fol. 83v)

Monday, 22 September 2014


Sadly, we soon have to leave.  I guess I'd better remind myself that we're lucky to be able to...  In the Middle Ages, the council of Dubrovnik controlled movement both in and out of the city very tightly indeed (and not just that of slaves). Immigration to the city needed to be restricted quite simply because the amount of fresh drinking water was limited.  And controlling movement out of the city was a good way of keeping tabs on the population.   In a sense then, the great motivation for slavery wasn't just cheap labour - it was demographic control.  If you want to control the movement of your labourers, what better way than to enslave them?

But slaves did attempt to flee.  I've spent the day looking at criminal records, and there are a really high number of attempted escapes.  I've also finally forked out the money to take some pictures in the archives, so here is an image of a document from 1470 (Lamenta de criminalia) telling of the flight of a slave called  Mighachgna (fol 153v) who was also accused of stealing from her masters.

How were such slaves apprehended?  City republics like Dubrovik have such a romantic ring to them. Driven by the idea of the common good, the citizens apparently put the interests of the community before the interests of individuals: the motto of the city written above the Rector's Palace is Obliti privatorum publica curate (put public concerns before private ones).

image credit:

And it was by such a community effort that runaway slaves were to be caught..   The 'common good' and civic togetherness begins to look rather less appealing: this was liberty, wealth and prosperity for the privileged who were 'in', and it was reinforced by collective action against those who were 'out'.

Here's a typical public announcement about a runaway slave on 10th September 1429 (it's the fourth item from the top):

Diversa Cancellariae 46, fol 33r

Citizens are forbidden from giving the runaway Stephanus 'auxilium, consilium vel favorem, nec eum mittere ad alienas partes per terram', or from giving him refuge in their own homes.  And any citizen who disobeyed, was to be heavily punished.  

This is the flip-side then of democratic looking city republics.   Strict and cruel policing, undertaken in the name of the public interest and the common good.

Friday, 19 September 2014


One of the most exciting things about archival trips is that you don't know exactly what you'll find. Often there are wonderful surprises which take your research off in surprising directions.  I have been hunting out examples of slavery, but in doing so, came across a large number of cases of adoption - it's a really fascinating topic, as it tells you so much about family structures, inheritance practices, emotional ties and so on.

keen to adopt a kitten....

There's certainly a connection to slavery.  The majority of slaves in medieval Dubrovnik were female, and it's perhaps not surprising that some became pregnant by their masters.  I've found a few adoption cases which suggest that these masters were often keen to adopt their illegitimate offspring (who were technically slaves if the father chose not to act), sometimes because their marriage had not produced any other children, sometimes out of a sense of conscience: the latter is suggested in a contract of July 1397, which obligated the other sons and daughters of the father (described as legitimos natales - born in wedlock) to treat the adopted son as a true brother (Diversa Cancellariae 33, fol 85v).

But this was not the only reason to adopt a child.  Several widows adopted children. Sometimes they were motivated by a need for companionship and a carer - in one case a boy was adopted on condition that he feed and clothe his adoptive mother during her lifetime.  Sometimes, the motivation was inheritance-related: a widow with only a daughter, keen to keep the inheritance within the family, adopted a boy on condition that he marry her daughter (I'm unclear how this is not incestuous - Diversa Cancellariae  33, fol. 130v, 1398)

But some adoptions were still more cynical.  There are several which read pretty much like slavery contracts - the adopted child is obligated to serve his new father and mother in all their wishes, and if he fails to do so, he forfeits his right to be called their child (and to inherit their property) (eg. Diversa Cancellarie 31, fol. 124v, 25th October 1394).

But it's not all bleak, cynical and self-serving.  On 28th January 1392, one Budo Basetich signed a contract entrusting his daughter Marina to be adopted by Millasius Obroevich  (Diversa Cancellarie 31, fol. 4v).  The adoptive father pledged to bring up the girl morally, to clothe and feed her, and in due course to find an appropriate husband for her and to pay her dowry.  I can't think of a cynical motivation for this (though I don't know why the birth father placed her for adoption -  although there is no record of a payment, perhaps poverty was a factor) - having a girl in the fourteenth century was a financial liability.  Is it too soppy to think that Millasius may have quite simply wanted a child to love?

Thursday, 18 September 2014


The Rector's Palace, Dubrovnik
Most of my research since I started my DPhil has been on violence and misbehaviour.  With topics such as these, and now slavery, it's inevitable, I guess, that some of the material will be quite upsetting.   As historians, we're always taught the importance of objectivity - we're not supposed to pass moral judgement on what we study, we're supposed to be able to rein in our emotional reactions. But I think that it's actually really important to maintain a little bit of judgementalism, and to allow ourselves to feel in response to the stuff we study.  It's all to easy for our emotions to become numbed, and to forget the sheer human impact and trauma of many historical events.

Anyway, what I found today was thoroughly distressing.  Two young girls named Juiça and Dragna, aged 10 and 11, sold into slavery by their own fathers (Diversa Cancellariae, 33, fol 129r, 1398).  The poverty of a parent who will sell their child is unimaginable really.   Both are described as coming from Bosnia, both were apparently 'Patarenes', a heretical Bosnian sect.  Why would the contract bother to mention their heresy?   Because enslaving fellow Christians was against canon law - so these children had to be defined as 'other', as un-Christian and un-saved.  The contracts state that the new owners have the right to sell the girls on should they wish.  The contracts stipulate that 'eius mandatis hobedire et facere quocumque michi possibilia comisseriit faciendam,' and 'ac de me omne aliud sui velle faceret' (I must obey all his demands, and do whatever he tells me to the best of my ability... and that he may do with me whatever he pleases').  You'll notice the first person here.  The contracts begin 'Ego Juiça', 'Ego Dragna' - 'I Juiça', 'I Dragna'.  These girls are apparently agreeing to, and certifying their own loss of liberty.  The clauses state that they have done this of their own free will, in full knowledge and understanding, un-threatened by the use of force.  It would require an outstandingly blinkered vision to believe that this is true.  And it's an extreme example of the hypocrisy of these contracts: the moral, the religious and the legal have parted ways, but contemporaries did their best to blind themselves to this fact.  Even on their own terms, the contracts are self-denying - written 'on behalf' of the children in order to demonstrate their consent, they fail to mention that under-age persons did not have the legal right to make a contract anyway.

Everything is abhorrent here.  Slavery.  Child labour (and potentially worse).  And the moral obfuscation of pretending the children are complicit in their own tragedy.  And yes, I'm judgemental.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

SLAVERY 15: Travel

I've worked my way through to the 1390s now, and the world seems to be opening up in the documents.

Here are a few rather intriguing examples (the whole thing was made more intriguing today by a big splattered blood stain over a couple of the folios - mysterious and disgusting!):

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In 1399, a patrician from Dubrovnik commissioned a slave trader to travel to Damietta in North Africa to buy him a black slave.  The vast majority of slaves before this point were from the hinterlands around Dubrovnik.   By the 1390s, it had become a status-symbol to have a slave who was visibly different - and to 'place an order' for such a person.  The world was opening up - slaves were being brought from further away - and what they represented in terms of status for the owner was beginning to shift.  Distasteful it may be, but this seems to have been about fashions. (Diversa Cancellariae 33, fol 142r)

In 1398, a bishop hired a priest for a one-off payment to work exclusively for him for a period of several years.  The priest was to accompany the bishop on a pilgrimage to Santiago da Compostella in Spain - such a long way, that provisions were made in the contract for what would happen to the payment should the priest give up halfway, should he die, should the bishop die etc.(Diversa Cancellariae 33, fol 28v)

In 1397, one Victor Bathar from Flanders was captured by the Turks, and then offered protection by a patrician from Dubrovnik - the protection was offered on the strict condition that Victor was never, ever, to leave Dubrovnik - he was a captive. (Diversa Cancellariae 33, fol 82r)

Tuesday, 16 September 2014


One of my favourite things about cities like Dubrovnik and Venice is the lines of washing hanging high above the narrow streets or perilously waving in the breeze above the canals.   It's a nice reminder that these tourist-saturated cities still have domestic lives, and that despite the extreme special-ness of these places, they are still enveloped in the everyday.

The vast majority of slaves in the documents I have looked at are described as 'ancillae'.  These are slave girls.   I'm certainly not the first person to notice that much late  medieval slavery was domestic and female - these were girls bought to get on with the everyday chores which form the bedrock of even the most magnificent city.

Equally it's quite surprising that, although there are examples of slaves used in shipping and more heavy labour, areas which we might expect to have been quite heavily dependent upon slave labour seem to have been contracted in a much more conventional manner.  The magnificent walls of the city, for example, do not seem to have been constructed by slaves, but by paid labourers.  There are contracts with stone-masons (Diversa Notariae 33, fols. 185-6), with surveyors (Diversa Notariae 35, fol 93), and so on.

This isn't to say that there weren't male slaves, but it is nevertheless striking that slavery was largely a female phenomenon (at least in the first part of the period).  I've been looking also at the kinds of contracts whereby people effectively sold themselves (or, often their children) for a set number of years.  Some of these contracts see in practice to be like apprenticeships, with the purchaser of the labour committing himself not just to feed and clothe the  person, but to educate them in a particular trade or skill (eg. goldsmithery or apothecary).  These aren't exactly apprenticeships - they're described still as the sale of labour for however many years - but one can see the appeal for  those struggling with poverty.   And they are all for boys.  There are similar contracts for girls - but, although in most ways absolutely identical in wording, surprise surprise, the contracts for girls involve nothing but domestic chores and doing the will of the 'owner' and whatever he should ask.