Deep Dive | The Tenth-Century Slavic Slave Trade

If you’re an author, or an editor, or really just a person who uses the internet, you understand how researching one thing often leads to hours spent traveling down pathways you’ve never expected, until your mind is full of details about things you’d never imagined you’d ever need to know.

Writing my Bloodlands trilogy, starting with Seraphina’s Lament, has really been an exercise in diving down rabbit holes. While my books are set in a secondary world, they are very much based on real-world history. The things I research are often used as jumping off points for details that make their way in my books. That being said, I am not Russian, nor Ukrainian, nor is anyone in any of the many generations mapped out on the DNA tests both of my parents have done. I did not take classes in college that covered much of this history, or this area of the world. I am not a Russian Studies major. My knowledge going into this was (and still is) rudimentary at best. The subject matter, however, caught my attention. It’s turned from research for my writing, into personal interest.

I have spent more time in the past three years reading books about Russian, Slav, and (now, due to expanding the world in An Elegy for Hope, Afghan) history than I ever imagined possible. I’ve learned a lot of really cool things that rev my engine and really broaden my understanding of the world I live in. I asked the internet if anyone would be interested in me writing some articles about the things I’ve researched, and how I’ve fit them into my secondary world and the story I’m telling, and a lot more people said they would be interested in some of the stuff I’ve learned than I expected.

Therefore, today I would like to talk a bit about the tenth-century Slavic slave trade, specifically to the Middle East, and how I used it for some world building in the Bloodlands.

One of the first things I introduce in Seraphina’s Lament, is the fact that Seraphina is pale, exotic, and a slave. And there’s a pretty good historical reason for why I made her that way. A few chapters later it’s revealed that her twin brother is an escaped slave. Kabir, another character, has some “pale slave” in him, which basically means that somewhere back in his family someone had a baby with a slave and produced a line of children with skin that is just a bit too light to be socially acceptable.

Slavery is something that has distinct connotations, often involving Africa, and ships, horrible raids, the trafficking of bodies, and tragic, terrible abuses that still dramatically impact individuals today. Slavery is, and always will be a horrible blot on history, a crime that shows just how cruel humans are willing to be to people who are deemed “other.”

However, the slavery I called upon for development of the slavery in The Bloodlands (which I elaborate on a bit with An Elegy for Hope, where I will discuss, for example, the slave raids that acquired these “pale slaves” and brought them into the Sunset Lands in the first place, and the economy that supported such a thing) wasn’t the African slave trade, but rather the Slavic slave trade around the tenth century.

In fact, back in the tenth century, the Slavic slave trade was doing quite well.

I want to start out by saying that for much of history, slavery wasn’t really something that was questioned. In the Roman Empire, for example, it can be argued that the enslavement of people served as one of the bedrocks of their economic system. When the empire fell, and serfdom rose up in Europe, followed by feudal systems, slavery sort of slipped away, but it didn’t disappear completely. There are records of feuding individuals taking slaves, and plenty of Europeans acted as funnels for the slave trade, moving people from one location to another and making a living off of it, as I will touch on below. Furthermore, while slavery did die down for a while, after the Black Plague, there was another surge of it in Europe, as there was a dramatic need for hard labor, and a shortage of people who were able, or willing, to do so. In the 1400’s, Crimea, a uniquely positioned peninsula, had one of the largest slave markets in the region. (more here)

The term Ṣaqāliba, is used in medieval Arabic to refer to Slavs, or people from Central and Eastern Europe who were slaves. In the Arab world, Saqaliba served in numerous ways, as servants, laborers, soldiers, concubines and the like. The blonde haired, blued eyed men and women were especially prized for their unique features.

Slavs were often captured by European Christians and funneled through Europe through various ports and cities. This was not frowned upon, as one would assume it would be, due to the fact that the Slavs were not considered either Christian, or Muslim. Therefore, they were not protected by the doctrine of either religion. Muslim law for example, at the time, forbade enslaving preexisting Muslims, but had no qualms with non-Muslims. And Christians had a very similar outlook regarding their own religion. While some Slavs were Christian, many still adhered to tribal religion, and were largely seen as still being pagan, thus religious protections did not apply to them. (More here)

Furthermore, tribal warfare, and constantly changing boundaries due to an unsettled people in this region made exploitation and the capture and sale of individuals easy. As slave traders would, throughout history, always find an easy way to fill their coffers with internal strife amongst a group. (I should note, slaves were not strictly only taken from Slavic regions. There are also historical notes about slaves favored from the north and northwestern European regions.) (More here) There are some historical cues from archeological digs, and records of entire tribes disappearing from regions of Poland, Ukraine, and other areas. While many factors do play into this, it’s almost impossible to not extrapolate that the slave trade probably did play a certain role.

Slavs captured by Christians were often sent to Muslim lands like Spain and Egypt through central Europe, and France. Prague was another city that served as a popular funnel for Slavic slaves, where merchants would often castrate the men before sending them on, down to areas in the Middle East. The importance of castration is discussed a bit below.

In an academic article entitle, “Dirhams for Slaves: Investigating the Slavic Slave Trade in the Tenth Century” an argument is made regarding tracking the slave trade, and popular slave trading routes at the time, by hoards of dirhams found, or silver minted coins from various Islamic regions at the time, stamped with both location and date of minting. These stamps make them invaluable ways for archeologists and historians to track things like popular trading routes, for example. One of the biggest hoards has been found in Poland. From the article:

The Rus, in this instance, are the go-betweens. The people who work in getting the slaves from point A, to point B – the market.

Slavic slaves were seen as being good for a few things, from administrative work, to labor, and army service. There are historical documents discussing how the castration of a Saqaliba makes them a better, more hard-working slave. While Slavic slaves do have numerous and diverse roles, they seem to find more of a place as domestic servants, concubines, and eunuchs in more highly placed areas, like palaces (more here) and I leaned on this a bit for my own development of slavery in my series. Their pale skin, light hair, and light eyes made them exotic, and exotic made a certain social statement, as it so often does.

In the Book of Animals, for example, the author al-Jahiz talks about how to improve a Slavic slave (from the same article referenced above).

(Okay, admittedly I’m throwing this last image in here just because I find it both horrifying and interesting and you’re welcome.)

Not all slavery ended in poverty and destitution. In Spain, for example, slaves are found in the historical record who become leaders of provinces, and men who moved armies. And in some regions, freeing a slave was seen as a great act of social welfare, a pious move that a good person made for the betterment of his soul.

So, with all this said, and plenty of books and articles for you, dear reader, to use and jumping off points for further research if you so desire, how did I boil down all that information into a slavery system in The Bloodlands? Well, as with most things, about 99% of what I learned got filed in my “that’s interesting but I’ll never use it” folder. Though I will say that even though a lot of my research will never actually make it into my books, it absolutely helps give me context, which in turn helps me build my world in a better, more well-rounded way.

What I kept, was the “exotic” and racial aspect of this particular slavery. There are references in Seraphina’s Lament to freed slaves, which I felt was important to add in – not just that there was slavery, but there was a way out of it as well. And of course I wanted to touch on the social strata that divides the owned, from those who own. In An Elegy for Hope, the actual act of getting slaves, through raids, barter, and sale by an intermediary group of people will be touched on a bit more, as well as its economic impact. In Seraphina’s Lament, however, I really just wanted to subtly set the basis and parameters for this economic system, which was widespread, if tragic and dark, in its own right.

History is layered, deep, and full of nuance. I really dove down a rabbit hole regarding Slavic slave trade, and this is maybe 10% of everything I’ve actually read about it. Maybe 1% of it is used to craft the world of The Bloodlands, but that other 99% is useful in giving me, the author of it, the context I need to bring that 1% that I do use, to realistic life for my readers.


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