In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Slavery and the Slave Trade, 1350–1650

  • Introduction
  • General Works
  • Essay Compilations

Renaissance and Reformation Slavery and the Slave Trade, 1350–1650
Jeffrey Fynn-Paul
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0515


Slavery and similar forms of unfreedom were normative everywhere in the world during these centuries, including Africa, South Asia, East Asia, Indigenous American societies from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, and much of Mediterranean and eastern Europe. In most of Asia and Africa, society was stratified into more diffuse “spectrums of unfreedom,” a system that created various levels of dependency, some of which were analogous to Western and Islamic notions of slavery. In the Christian and Islamic worlds, the opposition of “slave” and “free” was often more stark, though in the Islamic world slaves might have higher-status roles than was common in Christendom. In the Christian world, the status of “serfdom” likewise blurred the line between freedom and extreme dependency, especially in the East, where serfdom grew stronger during this period. The only part of the world that did not ostensibly tolerate institutionalized slavery during the centuries under question were those parts of western Europe that developed a “free soil” principle by the later Middle Ages. In that territory, slavery, serfdom, and labor obligations were crowded out by wage labor, and slavery was positively proscribed by the sixteenth century, with some exceptions. The (trans-)Atlantic slave trade remained small-scale during these centuries, picking up only at the very end of our period, while the trans-Saharan trade was already ancient by 1350, and orders of magnitude more extensive. North African and Egyptian merchants acted as middlemen for sub-Saharan African slaves, selling them to the Ottomans and other Middle Easterners in increasing numbers throughout our period. Before 1453, Black Sea markets selling Caucasian and Asiatic “pagans” provided the major source of slaves for Italian middlemen, who passed them on to Italian, Levantine, and Egyptian buyers. With the Balkans, the Black Sea region remained a significant source of high-value slaves for the Ottomans. After 1440, Iberians sailed directly to West African slave markets. After 1500, Mediterranean piracy and shipborne raiding became a major source of slaves. In this bibliography we will confine ourselves to slave trades in which European and peri-Mediterranean lands served a locus of supply, demand, and/or resale. Most historians of slavery now prefer to look at “types of unfreedom,” in which formal notions of slavery did not always play a part. We will focus on systems that saw people treated as sellable property and/or as captives; we will say relatively little about serfdom (in which people owed services based on their bond to a parcel of land), and we will ignore the fact that the rights of wives, children, and servants might be indistinguishable from those of chattel slaves in many of the societies we address. Even thus limited, ours remains a complex topic on three major axes: conceptually, geographically, and historiographically. Conceptually, we run against usual questions such as “What is a slave?” and “When should serfs be counted as slaves?,” but also “When should captives be counted as slaves?” and “How do religion, ethnicity, and gender interplay in Mediterranean slavery and unfreedom?” Geographically, we run into the fact that there were many different “slave trades” going on in our part of the world during the three centuries under scrutiny. Like other commodities, slave populations can be categorized as “flows” and “stocks.” As noted, one principal flow ran from the Black Sea (where mostly “pagan” slaves from the Eurasian interior were sold) to the Levant and Italy; other flows included several distinct trans-Saharan routes; trans-Mediterranean routes both northward and southward; and Atlantic flows that might involve the Canaries and other Atlantic islands, parts of West Africa from Gambia to Angola, and later the New World. For these Atlantic flows, southwestern Iberia often served as a terminus or trans-shipment point. Only the trans-Saharan trade remained relatively steady (gradually increasing), the rest waxed and waned significantly during these three centuries. Most of the time, slave stocks were not auto-reproducing and required inflows to maintain populations. Most slave stocks in Europe were found in and around a few southern trade hubs such as Livorno, Malta, Seville, and Lisbon. A few slave stocks were largely auto-reproducing, as on Romanian monasteries. Historiographically, we are faced with a persistent division between historians trained as medievalists and those trained as early modernists. These often tell stories focused on different groups of slaves and unfree people. For example, early modernists tend to focus on piracy, capture, and galley slavery (and male slaves), while late medievalists focus on domestic slavery (and female slaves). Despite some attempts at synthesis, literatures on captives, slaves, and serfs remain distinct. Though there have been increased efforts to write about “Mediterranean” slavery as a whole in recent years (see section on General Works), many works remain limited to a single topic (e.g., ransoming, galley slavery), and/or to a single country or region. All of this makes gaining a lay of the land relatively challenging.

General Works

No essays or books give a systematic overview of our subject. What follows are those that provide the best available “zoomed-out” picture of various slave flows in the peri-Mediterranean region during these centuries. Many of these have been reprinted in the essay collections detailed in the next section. As already noted, there remains a persistent division between late medieval and early modern treatments. There are also geographical divisions, with most works focusing either on Europe or on parts of the Islamic world.

  • Bono, Salvatore. Schiavi: Una storia mediterranea (XVI-XIX secolo). Bologna, Italy: Società Editrice il Mulino, 2016.

    Considered by many to be the most comprehensive overview of Mediterranean slavery after 1500. Covers some Ottoman material, though the focus is on Italy and North Africa. Contains a good deal of information on slavery in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though much information is after our time frame. Bono cites many statistics (albeit these are often quoted casually in the course of narrativization), and his work is notable for its concern for geographical flows. Contains a particularly useful bibliography.

  • Davis, Robert C. “The Geography of Slaving in the Early Modern Mediterranean, 1500–1800.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 37.1 (2007): 57–74.

    DOI: 10.1215/10829636-2006-010

    A very good overview for the period after 1500 with an emphasis on captive-taking. Argues that Mediterranean slaving crescendoed after 1500 with the rise of Turkish naval power. Focuses on ransoming, galley slavery, Ottoman ascendancy, Livorno and Malta as slave-trading hubs, and the shift in slave flows after Lepanto. Reprinted in Damian Alan Pargas and Felicia Roşu, eds., Critical Readings on Global Slavery, Volume 3 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2017).

  • Fancy, Hussein. “Captivity, Ransom, and Manumission, 500–1420.” In The Cambridge World History of Slavery. Vol. 2, AD 500–AD 1420. Edited by David Eltis, et al., 53–75. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021.

    Ends at 1400 and is thus a little early for the present purposes. But it provides good historical background to the (often institutionalized) captive-taking and ransoming that would become more prominent in later centuries.

  • Fiume, Giovanna. Schiavitù mediterranee: Corsari, rinnegati e santi di età moderna. Milan: Bruno Mondarini, 2009.

    With a focus on the Italian experience of slavery in the early modern period, this work emphasizes religious experience and conversion.

  • Fynn-Paul, Jeff. “The Greater Mediterranean Slave Trade.” In The Cambridge World History of Slavery. Vol. 2, AD 500–AD 1420. Edited by David Eltis, et al., 27–52. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021.

    Overview of the period before 1500, with less emphasis on captivity. Provides an outline of major slave flows in the greater Mediterranean from Late Antiquity through the Renaissance. Also provides an overview of the major theories about medieval slavery, with suggestions for further reading.

  • Gordon, Murray. Slavery in the Arab World. New York: New Amsterdam Press, 1987.

    Dated and moralistic, but nonetheless one of the few books that provides an overview of slavery in the Islamic World from its origins to the present, with a chapter on the period 1500–1800, one covering the medieval period, and a general discussion of the role of slaves in the Islamic world that might serve as a useful introduction for those used to Western paradigms of slavery.

  • Hershenzon, Daniel. “Towards a Connected History of Bondage in the Mediterranean: Recent Trends in the Field.” History Compass 15.8 (2017): e12391.

    DOI: 10.1111/hic3.12391

    A good overview of the question of captive-taking and ransoming from both Christian and Muslim shores of the western Mediterranean for the period after 1500, with a focus on sources and trends in scholarship.

  • Hershenzon, Daniel. The Captive Sea: Slavery, Communication, and Commerce in Early Modern Spain and the Mediterranean. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018.

    With chapters arranged by topic, such as “Social Life,” “Negotiating Ransom,” and “Countering Violence,” this aims to provide context for the lives of slaves, slave-takers, and slave merchants, rather than to provide an overview of stocks and flows. Deals mostly with relations between Spain and Western North Africa in the seventeenth century, and much is therefore at the end or after our period.

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

    Despite its age, still the best introduction to the majority of slave trades that are germane to our topic. Contains chapters on Islamic slavery to 1500, slavery in late medieval Europe (this has been reprinted in Damian Alan Pargas and Felicia Roşu, eds., Critical Readings on Global Slavery, Volume 2 [Leiden: Brill, 2017]), and slavery in sub-Saharan Africa to 1650. It also has chapters on early Atlantic slavery, including connections between Africa, the Atlantic islands, and Iberia.

  • Richardson, David. “Involuntary Migration in the Early Modern World, 1500–1800.” In The Cambridge World History of Slavery. Vol. 3, AD 1420–AD 1804. Edited by David Eltis, et al., 563–593. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    Focuses on Mediterranean slave flows after 1500. Crucially, it takes a stab at the all-important question of quantification.

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