Hannah Barker’s book is a unique contribution to the study of medieval slavery. It combines the study of both Latin and Arabic sources to present the eastern Mediterranean as a space of shared social norms and commercial practices. These norms and practices facilitated the enslavement and export of slaves from the Black Sea region to Italy and the Near East. The study focuses on the Italian trading powers of Genoa and Venice as well as on the Mamluk sultanate, which controlled Egypt and the Levantine coast. Working with a wide array of sources, the first half of the book presents a “common culture of slavery” in this diverse region. The second half of the book analyzes the regional slave trading system in the context of state involvement and the crusade movement.
The first chapter lays the groundwork for the ensuing argument. It defines slavery in this historic context from a predominantly legal perspective. Barker argues that religious difference was the most important element of the normative framework of slavery in late medieval Mediterranean societies. The chapter also includes a discussion of the Latin and Arabic terminology of slavery, which is an excellent starting point for any student of the corresponding primary sources. The second chapter introduces differences of language and race as secondary justifications for the enslavement of people in the eastern Mediterranean. This likewise includes a discussion of ethnic terminology and renaming practices, which should be immensely helpful for scholars working with slavery-related Arabic primary texts.
After analysing the factors which decided who was and who was not enslaved in this common Mediterranean culture of slavery, Barker moves on to discuss demography and commerce in chapters 3 and 4. She argues that rates of slave ownership, the functions of slaves in society, and market practices developed along similar lines in the societies under investigation. Much of her argument in these chapters is based on Genoese and Venetian archival sources, from which she draws an impressive amount of statistical data presented in several graphs throughout the book. In contrast to the rest of the book, chapter 3 goes beyond the commercial aspects of slavery to discuss the role of slaves in the societies under investigation. It analyzes slave labor and discusses the sexual exploitation of slaves in its legal and cultural context.
The second half of the book addresses the regional slave trading system and the individuals and state actors that acted within it. Chapter 5 focuses on the role of Genoese and Venetian colonies in the Black Sea region, foremost among them Caffa and Tana. Barker sets out the social, political, and economic conditions which influenced both practices of enslavement and the export of slaves from this region to Italian and Mamluk markets. Chapter 6 investigates the individual merchants who participated in the slave trade. Barker argues that Black Sea slaves were a high-value, low-volume commodity traded by non-specialised merchants who were constrained by the regulation of state actors. The theme of state involvement is further pursued in chapter 7, which focuses on the ideological debates surrounding the late medieval crusade movement. Since Mamluk military power relied on a continuous supply of slave recruits from the Black Sea region, Christian proponents of the crusades sought to impose an embargo on the slave trade to Mamluk lands, which was facilitated by Genoese shipping. This embargo policy was rendered ineffective by conflicting commercial and political interests of Christian actors. Barker concludes by emphasizing that slavery lay at the heart of Mediterranean society, politics, and religion.
The book’s paramount contribution to the study of slavery lies in its combination of two disparate bodies of sources. While most historians focus on either the Latin or the Arabic perspective of social and economic phenomena, Barker presents a culture of slavery which spans the eastern Mediterranean. She does this mainly by focusing on the similarities between Genoese, Venetian, and Mamluk societies regarding commercial, legal, and social aspects of slavery. Unfortunately, this approach suffers from the unequal quality and quantity of sources across the societies under investigation. Crucially, there is no Mamluk equivalent to the Genoese and Venetian archival collections which provide extensive demographic and commercial information. To sustain the Mamluk side of her argument, Barker draws on literary sources and a rather scattered selection of Mamluk contracts of sale. Despite this limitation, Barker succeeds in presenting a cohesive picture from a diverse collection of primary material.
The book’s main argument is the existence of a common culture of slavery in the late medieval Mediterranean. While it would certainly be possible to complicate this argument by drawing further evidence from a Greek, Turkic, Berber, or Iberian cultural context, the similarities between the Italian and Arabic-speaking societies under investigation are striking. Barker does not neglect to point out differences, such as the legal status of children born to slave mothers and the use of eunuchs in Mamluk households. Her argument is strongest where Genoese, Venetian, and Mamluk cultural spheres overlap, in the realm of commerce. The shared space of a regional trading system offered many opportunities and incentives for cooperation and imitation. The societies at the receiving end of the slave trade were influenced by similar changes in the quantity and ethnicity of imported slaves as well as by commercial and legal conventions which formed in an inter-cultural environment. It is more difficult to argue for a common culture of slavery beyond the realm of commerce, however. Barker demonstrates that there was parallel cultural development in late medieval Mediterranean societies, which resulted in shared cultural elements. This constituted a common culture of slavery, though it may have been more pronounced in its commercial dimension than in its social and legal dimensions.
Overall, Hannah Barker’s book is an innovative and well-written study of the slave trade and of slavery in the late medieval eastern Mediterranean. It demonstrates a mastery of a wide range of primary sources and extracts an impressive amount of relevant demographic and commercial data from them. While it is for the most part a work of economic history, it follows its sources to social and political history and remains accessible for both specialist and non-specialist readers.