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!):

View Larger Map
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.

Sunday, 14 September 2014


After two days of the most torrential rain I have ever seen (the steep flights of steps down into the city became gushing torrents), the sun came out today.  We took the opportunity to go to the beach at Mlini, a beautiful little village a bus-ride away.  There we found a tiny fifteenth-century chapel nestling by the beach, dedicated to St Rocco, the patron saint of plague victims.

The plague struck the population of the region horrifically during the first outbreak in 1348-9, and continued to kill huge numbers and prevent demographic recovery into the early fifteenth century. Slavery was very widespread in Dubrovnik in the thirteenth century (and most of the evidence I have looked at so far dates from this period).  It then seems to have petered out in the fourteenth century (or at least recedes from the records - hence my long 'wasted' hours in the archives recently), becoming prominent again in the late fourteenth and into the fifteenth centuries.  Most historians agree that these demographic shifts help to explain the fluctuating numbers of slaves.  In the early fourteenth century, the population was booming - labour was so cheap that there was little need for slavery, and, in any case, the overseas demand for slaves made them prohibitively expensive.  But as the population dwindled, labour became scarce, and slaves from further and further afield became a useful way to sustain the wealth and prosperity of the powerful city of Dubrovnik.

In western European historiography, there's a prevailing narrative that the Black Death, by making labour scarce, improved the lot of the surviving labourers - they could demand better working conditions, better pay and so on.  Of course it's not so simple as this, and I have always found the description of 'better living standards' a bizarre way to describe the lives of people who would have lost most members of their families.   And students have often very perceptively pointed out in our tutorials on the subject that, whilst the lot of wealthier peasants may have improved (they could afford to take advantage of the new opportunities), the poorest lacked the resources to purchase land, or better their working conditions - those at the bottom of the social heap largely remained exactly where they were (or sank into even more abject poverty).

The experience of slaves in the fifteenth century provides another useful reminder that not everyone could profit from the new opportunities brought about by mass mortality..  For many, to the grief and trauma of mass death and bereavement, was added the tragedy of enslavement.  Shortage of labour meant, quite simply, that the demand for slaves rose.  Whilst we would hope that a labour shortage would increase the bargaining power of the labourers, if those labourers had nothing to start with, their position was catastrophic.

Another example, I guess, of how events often blithely labelled as 'equalising' can widen the gap between rich and poor.

Saturday, 13 September 2014


The wretched internet connection has been down for the past couple of days... so to the challenges below, I can now add technology.

This is slightly frivolous and probably too honest  – but appropriate since I’ve spent many hours now going through volumes which turned out to be completely irrelevant.

Challenges in the archives:

1/ staying inside – when the sky is blue and the sea is warm (though actually right now it's pouring with rain).

2/ the handwriting – I’ve never found reading medieval script easy, and this will always be a particular challenge for me.  Most of the notarial hands I’m reading at the moment are pretty neat and tidy though.

3/ the gaps.  There are so many things I’d love to know! – what happened to slaves once they were freed? What were conditions like once they were with their new owners? What work exactly did they do? How old were they? What were their lives like before being enslaved? Despite the richness of these archives, there is so much we can never know, or only speculate about.  Yesterday, I found an account of a young girl who was adopted - truly fascinating, but why was she adopted? what happened to her later? how did she feel about it? how did her adoptive father treat her? did she ever see her birth parents again? was she adopted because of the poverty of her parents? We will never know.

4/ the names – it’s difficult at the best of times to trace a given name through the documents, but harder still when the same person can be known by several names: eg. A slave called Obratus of Bosnia, also known as Radosclavus (Diversa Cancellarie, II, fol 102r)

5/ the quantity – there is so much fascinating material!  And I’ve just wasted six hours on completely irrelevant volumes. Ouch!

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

SLAVERY 11 - the archives

The archives in Dubrovnik are housed in the Sponza Palace.  Most the building seems to have been completed by 1312. The ground floor was used as a customs-house, the first floor was for social occasions, and the second floor was the mint and dates from 1520 according to an inscription.  The famous Renaissance arcade in front was probably also added in 1520, whereas the elaborate windows of the first floor date from the fifteenth century and are recognisably Venetian in style. Caravans to the Balkan interior gathered in front of the building.  The elegant architecture bears visual witness to the interconnectedness of Dubrovnik with much wider trade networks across the Adriatic.

Inside the archives...

The archival collection itself began to be systematically put together from a very early date.  From the thirteenth century, notarial practices became so sophisticated that it was possible to file the documents very carefully.  The keeping of the archives was re-codified as a state activity in the 18th century, at which point they reclassified the collection into 14 series.  In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, much of the material was taken away to Vienna, returning to Dubrovnik in 1920 where it was re-inventoried and in 1952 relocated to the Sponza palace.  The importance of these archives for a sense of political identity was key.

This tells us something beyond how to access the documents we want: it testifies to the symbolic importance of such archives, and the ways in which documents can are not only shaped by the history of a place, but become part of the history of a place.The parchment (or paper) doesn't just communicate what happened - in many ways, it is what happened.

In the documents that I've looked at there is a real sense that these matter as documents, not simply for what they tell us.  The contract of a sale of a slave doesn't just communicate the sale - it stands as a symbol for perpetuity of that person's status.  Even so, there was anxiety that documents might be challenged, and for that reason, particularly after manumissions of slaves, we find a clause stating that any subsequent document which might be produced cannot invalidate the one in hand.  Documents were referred back to in order to respond to challenges and prove ownership, they were registered in different places (loose contracts were officially registered in the notarial register - eg. a sale of 1339 as a loose leaf, then copied carefully into the Debita Notariae 2 fol. 270r), they were lost and then found.

So in the archives,we find not only the record of history, but we are handling history - touching the material things which embodied relationships of such importance.