In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Slavery in Medieval Europe

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Journals
  • The Transition from Slavery to Serfdom
  • Slavery and Law
  • Slavery across Religions
  • Slavery and Gender
  • Slavery, Race, and Methods of Categorization

Medieval Studies Slavery in Medieval Europe
Hannah Barker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 November 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0276


Common knowledge would have it that slavery did not exist in medieval Europe. However, there is a thriving body of scholarship which demonstrates that slavery was practiced widely in various forms in Europe during the Middle Ages, alongside captivity, serfdom, and other types of unfreedom. Where then did the common knowledge come from? In the first instance, it derives from the late-18th- and 19th-century abolitionist assumption that as Christianity spread through Europe during the Middle Ages, it must surely have driven out slavery. Among scholars, this common knowledge is sometimes reinforced by Marxist historical narratives, according to which slavery was the mode of production characteristic of the Roman period, while serfdom characterized the medieval period. Yet into the 14th and 15th centuries, medieval Europeans continued to own slaves, trade in slaves, and enslave each other as well as non-European others. They used slaves for agricultural and artisanal labor as well as domestic, sexual, reproductive, and military service. However, the composition of enslaved populations, their demographic and social significance in relation to free populations, the precise legal meaning of slave status, and the practices associated with slavery all varied significantly by region and era. Though Europe was not the only slave-holding region during the medieval period, scholarship about the history of slavery in medieval Byzantium, the Islamic world, Central Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Africa, and the Americas is substantial. Each of these regions merits a bibliography of its own. Moreover, though slavery was not the only form of unfreedom that existed in medieval Europe, captives, hostages, prisoners, and pledges have also been the subjects of much research and merit dedicated bibliographies, too. Finally, though the academic study of medieval slavery came into being in the 19th century alongside the abolitionist discourse that ignored its existence, this bibliography will highlight recent works, especially those produced within the last fifty years. Many older works remain useful as reference points and guides to the archival sources, but contemporary scholars have brought fresh analytical perspectives to bear on slavery studies, each contributing to the flourishing field that exists today.


Despite the recent proliferation of articles, edited collections, and monographs on slavery in medieval Europe, no textbooks, anthologies, or reference works are currently available in English. Under Journals, see Slavery and Abolition, which publishes a helpful annual bibliographical supplement. For those seeking to orient themselves to the field, there are several overviews that can serve as entry points. Painter 2010, Davis 1988, and Patterson 1982 are broad surveys of slavery, slaving, and race, with chapters that address the medieval period. Miller 2012 and Bodel and Scheidel 2017 offer critiques of Patterson’s framework for the study of slavery and suggest various alternatives. Fynn-Paul 2009, Phillips 1985, and Verlinden 1955–1977 are surveys by specialists in medieval European history who confine themselves to the study of slavery in medieval contexts.

  • Bodel, John, and Walter Scheidel, eds. On Human Bondage: After Slavery and Social Death. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017.

    The result of a 2012 conference on Patterson 1982, reevaluating its reception from a global and comparative perspective on the thirtieth anniversary of its publication. Chapters by Kyle Harper and Michael McCormick draw on evidence from medieval Europe.

  • Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

    Chapter 2 surveys the presence of slaves in medieval Europe in order to show continuity from ancient Greek and Roman slavery to slavery in the early modern Atlantic. First published in 1966 by Cornell University Press.

  • Fynn-Paul, Jeffrey. “Empire, Monotheism and Slavery in the Greater Mediterranean Region from Antiquity to the Early Modern Era.” Past and Present 205 (2009): 3–40.

    DOI: 10.1093/pastj/gtp036

    Fynn-Paul defines a slaving zone as an area where enslavement is considered permissible and a no-slaving zone as an area where enslavement is not considered permissible by a given society. He argues that empires acted as the first no-slaving zones, but that the spread of Christianity and Islam created large religion-based no-slaving zones that channeled medieval and early modern slaving activity to peripheral areas in Africa and Russia.

  • Miller, Joseph. The Problem of Slavery as History: A Global Approach. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.

    A historian’s challenge to Patterson’s sociological definition of slavery. Miller defines slaving as a historical strategy adopted by specific individuals in specific circumstances to advance specific goals. He identifies isolation and powerlessness as key characteristics of the experience of the enslaved. Finally, he emphasizes the importance of change, both as a cause and as a goal for slaving strategies.

  • Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010.

    A broad survey of the relationship between slavery and race, especially constructions of whiteness. Chapters 3 through 6 concern medieval slavery, the stereotypes associated with white slave women from the Caucasus, and the process through which Caucasian emerged in the 18th century as the generic term for white people.

  • Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

    A sociological approach to defining slavery through wide-ranging cross-cultural comparisons. Patterson’s definition has become a touchstone among scholars of slavery. It identifies violence, dishonor, and natal alienation (social death) as key components of slave status.

  • Phillips, William D. Slavery from Roman Times to the Early Transatlantic Trade. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

    As the title indicates, this is a survey of slavery in medieval Europe from the Roman period to the early modern period. Phillips is a specialist in Iberian history, and his survey has an Iberian focus and includes substantial comparison with slavery in the Islamic world.

  • Verlinden, Charles. L’Esclavage dans l’Europe médiévale. 2 vols. Ghent, Belgium: Rijksuniversiteit te Gent, 1955–1977.

    This work, the culmination of a lifetime of research by Verlinden, is still considered the definitive survey of slavery in medieval Europe. Volume 1 covers slavery in Iberia and France. Volume 2 covers slavery in Italy, the late medieval Italian colonies, the crusader states, and the Byzantine Empire. Volume 3, which would have addressed northern Europe, was never completed.

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