Chained. A short note on slavery in Middle Age Europe


Yesterday, as I was driving home at a late evening hour, with the radio on for a moment I was listening to the beautiful Gladiator theme by Hans Zimmer. Somehow, by association my first thought was of the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza monument, or actually two twin monuments I photographed at Spain squares, one in Madrid and the other in Brussels (>>>).


JMA_Madrid_Don_Quixote_and_Sancho_Panza_at_Plaza_de_Espana

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza at the foot of the monument to Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra at Plaza de España in Madrid, Spain


Yes, an association that seems to be a bit far-fetched at the first sight. On the second thought however the link between the two pictures is not that impossible at all. I will not cite Sigmund Freud here, but indeed these two have something very special in common.

The Gladiator in the film, a fictional figure, was a Roman general, a Spaniard, who beaten by Roman soldiers and left to die somewhere in Spain fell into hands of slave traders of North Africa. The attempts to free him even in Rome failed. Quite a similar fate was shared by Miguel de Cervantes, the Spanish writer, who invented Don Quixote. In his early years Cervantes was serving in the Spanish navy infantry in the Mediterranean and as well – kidnapped during a Barbary pirate attack – was sold a slave in Algiers. He attempted to escape several times, but each time he failed. It took his family five years to scrap the ransom and free him out of the slaver’s fate. The ransom was to the vital extent funded by missionaries, who engaged in liberating Christian slaves kept in North Africa. All of these happened in the XVI century Europe, almost fourteen hundred years after the plot of the Gladiator took place.


Slavery was common in ancient Greece and later in the Roman empire, as well as in the early medieval ages in Western and Northern Europe. Vikings (>>>), who raided coastal regions of Europe were responsible for the increase of the slave trades in Northern Europe. Famous markets were Chester and Bristol in England. The procedure was cut in Western Europe already in the early Middle Ages.

Through ages later however, Tatars and Turks of the Ottoman Empire (that emerged after the fall of the Byzantine empire) took slaves raiding countries of the Eastern Europe. It was mostly the territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Union – that time the most important country in the region. Tatars and Turks took men, women and children. Young captive boys, called Janissaries, had been given special treatment in the Ottoman Empire. They were officially owned by the Empire and trained to serve in administrative and military positions.

People ownership was still spread in many European countries through Middle Ages till even XIX century in form of serfdom – peasants were owed by the feudals, nobility and Catholic Church. The system emerged in Western Europe and then spread to Central and Eastern Europe. It slowly disappeared in the same order as it emerged, beginning from the West already in the Renaissance time with Eastern Europe as the last. In the latter, the abolishment of serfdom began as the Napoleonic army marched in. It was the early XIX century.

Still, after the fall of the Roman Empire, piracy and slave trade were through long ages till late XVIII century common in the Mediterranean. The very centre of the Mediterranean slave trade was North Africa. North Africa pirates later on described as Barbary pirates or corsairs operating out of Sale, Rabat, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, traded in European slaves mostly with the Ottoman Empire. The slaves were not only soldiers like Miguel de Cervantes, who were in fact prisoners captured from the ships boarded by the pirates both navy and the merchant fleet but also simple citizens kidnapped from the coastal cities and villages of present Spain, France and Italy.

The North Africa slave trades began first on the Iberian Peninsula in times as the local European community struggled against Muslim invasions, but later with the rise of the Ottoman Empire spread further East coast. With widespreading of the reformation in Western Europe and suppression of English and Dutch pirates or privateers many of English and Dutch pirates joined the Barbary pirates, as well. Yet, their targets were at least officially the Catholic ships. To balance the story, one has to note that the Catholic Church although condemning slavery of kidnapped Christians, officially allowed enslaving non-Christian prisoners of war.

The kidnapping lasted till mid XVIII century. Basically everybody sailing through Mediterranean or living in coastal regions was at risk of becoming a slave no matter the social status or who they were. The rich could have of course counted on being freed by ransom paid by the families. The poor shared a terrible fate with thousands men chained permanently to one sit on galley ships for the rest of their lives. The national authorities of several countries sent of course military expeditions to free European slaves. Also Catholic orders engaged in collecting funds to ransom the Christian slaves of North Africa. Those freed out were however only a fraction of those, who were kidnapped. For many Southern Europeans the pirate raids were reason enough to leave their coastal towns and villages behind and move further inland.


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