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Felicia Roşu (ed.): Slavery in the Black Sea Region, c.900-1900. Forms of Unfreedom at the Intersection between Christianity and Islam (= Studies in Global Slavery; Vol. 11), Leiden / Boston: Brill 2021, XXIII + 448 S., ISBN 978-90-04-47071-2, EUR 179,00
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Veruschka Wagner
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Stephan Conermann
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Veruschka Wagner: Rezension von: Felicia Roşu (ed.): Slavery in the Black Sea Region, c.900-1900. Forms of Unfreedom at the Intersection between Christianity and Islam, Leiden / Boston: Brill 2021, in: sehepunkte 22 (2022), Nr. 6 [15.06.2022], URL:

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Felicia Roşu (ed.): Slavery in the Black Sea Region, c.900-1900

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Within the vast literature on slavery published in recent times, comprehensive studies on the Black Sea have nevertheless been lacking. We are therefore all the happier to hold in our hands this collected volume, edited by Felicia Roşu (Assistant Professor at Leiden University), the result of a workshop held in 2017 at Leiden University, entitled Slavery in the Black Sea Region, c. 900-1900: Forms of Unfreedom at the Intersection between Christianity and Islam. This volume clearly shows that there is no single history of Black Sea slavery but rather several histories of several slaveries and other forms of dependency, such as captivity, that took place in that given region. The contributions included cover a wide range of topics, relating the reader to different times and places, focusing on different individuals or groups and a variety of forms of unfreedom. Taking them all together, we can identify the different facets of Black Sea slavery and the slave trade and put them together to help us form a larger picture of diversity but also of the connectivity to other regions and cultures.

The volume does not cover, as the title might suggest, all forms of unfreedom over a period of a thousand years in the Black Sea region, which would of course be impossible. As Roşu states in her introduction, she aims rather to make the Black Sea 'more visible in the broader discussion on slavery' as well as 'to initiate a conversation on specific patterns of unfreedom' (3). These patterns are intended to provide access to comparisons with other periods and areas to contribute to new perspectives on global slavery. Every single contribution helps fulfil this ambition, providing different insights and foundations to serve for discussions and on which to build further research. For a study of slavery as a global phenomenon, research needs to be accessible to researchers from other regions, as Toledano notes in the preface. He argues for using a same language for combining approaches to analyse global slavery and proposes focal points, such as emancipation, the role of microhistory and agency, which must be elaborated theoretically and empirically to bring research together.

The 12 contributions are themselves quite diverse in nature, focusing on different periods, places, people, sources, approaches and questions, but there are some links among them that illustrate how the slave trade was connected within itself and how it functioned in the region and beyond. As the volume's subtitle states, in addition to the various forms of unfreedom, religion plays a significant role. Even though the second part is dedicated to slavery and Christianity, religion arises throughout all of the contributions, as it is a significant feature in slavery. The division of the articles into thematic chapters is, by the way, somewhat irritating, as the themes seem rather contrived and in some cases do not really represent the content of the articles thus grouped together. A certain structure in a contributed volume of this size is of course helpful, but since the individual texts touch on such varied topics, it is sometimes misleading in this case.

The contributions vary quite in length and build on a broad corpus of sources, as well as providing information on previous research. They illustrate their theses in case studies and raise questions for further discussion and research. There is a clear connection to the Mediterranean region, as several papers report that in the medieval and early modern periods the Black Sea region, constituted a main source of slaves for the Mediterranean slave trade and, later, the Ottoman Empire. The role of the Genoese and Venetian traders who controlled much of the Black Sea slave trade until the second half of the 15th century from their headquarters on the Crimean Peninsula is an important topic as well. Nearly all contributors deal with questions of terminology and the definition of slaves and other unfree individuals. The issues we face here are manifold. The use of terms varied not only within languages but also over time. Terms were not clearly separated from each other and categorisations are therefore difficult to make. However, as Toledano urges in the introduction, to enable collaborative work, we must dispense with needless definitions and choose simple language that allows access to other researchers. This is certainly not an easy task, but it is worth striving for.

The idea behind the volume as expressed in the introduction is to present an inventory and classification of forms and degrees of unfreedom in the region and commonalities transcending political and legal boarders. By drawing on Genoese notarial sources, Michel Balard provides insights into slavery on the Crimea at the end of the 13th century, when Kaffa was under the authority of a Genoese consul. He traces the transformation of the slave trade from a private to a specialised activity and discusses the changes that affected the slave trade. With a focus on Tana and Venice, Sergei Karpov deals with shifts in the Black Sea slave trade. Notarial acts composed during the 14th and 15th centuries help him to analyse aspects such as origins, gender, age, duration of enslavement, manumission and integration, as well as the profitability of the slave trade.

Daphne Penna focuses on the economic activities of slaves in Byzantium and related legal aspects. She draws on regulations concerning guilds in Constantinople in the 10th century and codes issued by Leo VI that dealt with current problems. Her research shows that slaves could engage in business and become merchants themselves under certain restrictions. She describes slaves as business agents and represents their legal capacity. Sandra Origone deals with Genoese and Venetian settlements along and beyond the Black Sea coast. Her focus is on the actors involved in the slave trade and especially the attitudes of the Genoese government and the pope towards Christian slaves in the Black Sea settlements. She underlines the link between missionary and slavery, as well as the importance of religion. Using notary acts and tax registers, Origone tackles the issues of manumission, ethnicity, categorisation and sale of slaves. Viorel Achim discusses Gypsy slaves in Moldavia and Wallachia in the mid-18th century, focusing on the relationship between the Church and slavery by analysing the position and participation of the Orthodox Church to slavery and emancipation. The author also discusses the legal status of slave and emancipation debates from 1830s onwards.

Mikhail Kizilov analyses the role played by Polish captives and slaves in the Crimea, comparing Christian and Muslim sources. He is concerned with aspects of daily life, such as duties, slave status, religion and conversion, as well as the time after enslavement, forms of manumission, returning home and integration into society. Andrzej Gliwa focuses on Tatar raids and slavery and deals with the question of how captives were taken. He analyses the constituents of Tatar expeditions, the structure and organisation of Tatar slaving raids and their military operations. The concept of asymmetric warfare and a cartographic method are employed to illustrate the Tatar military art of war. He also deals with religious, ideological and socio-economic aspects.

In their extensive contribution on Cossack captors and their different raiding zones, Maryna Kravets and Victor Ostapchuk are engaged with the takeover of the Black Sea by the Ottomans in the second half of the 15th century. While elaborating a typology of main raiders and captive-takers as well as modes of captivity, they also discuss the legality of captive-taking and slavery, the legal status of captives and the role of other players (Polen, Lithuania and Ruthenia). The authors deeply engage with degrees of unfreedom and differentiate between spectra with gradations of unfreedom (when states of unfreedom were well defined) and continua of unfreedom (when conditions varied widely), a promising approach that could serve for comparative studies.

Hannah Barker is concerned with the shift in the ethnic composition of the Mediterranean slave population in the late 14th century and analyses the change from Tatars to Circassians. In her comparative study, she draws on Mamluk chronicles and advice literature for the Mamluks and on Genoese and Venetian records for the Italian context. She explains that Genoa, Venice and the Mamluk sultanate used the same slave supply from the Black Sea region, although for different purposes. The author argues that reason for the shift is one of supply not of demand, and this was linked to aspects such as wars, destabilisation of certain regions and creation of offices that led to changes in trade routes. Natalia Królikowska-Jedlińska focuses on the ambiguous status of Circassians in the Crimean Khanate and the Ottoman Empire. Drawing on chronicles, mühimme registers, reports and missionaries' letters, she elaborates on the complex relationship that links Circassians with Tatars and Ottomans in the 16th century, where the religion and religiosity of Circassians played an important role.

Colin Heywood takes up the question of global piracy, discussing how far the Mediterranean and Black Sea could be seen as two parts of a single world. First, he contrasts and compares maritime and terrestrial frontiers to describe the parallels and divergences between the littoral societies of the Black Sea and those of the Mediterranean in regard of people-taking and enslavement. However, the main part of the contribution narrows the focus to the years 1670-1720 and to the Mediterranean Sea, dealing with three enslavement narratives from people taken captive at sea in the Mediterranean. The author concludes that differences in enslavement experiences often depended on the social status of the individuals enslaved. Different slave experiences and the topic of frontier and hinterland questioning may lead to further compared research for a global perspective. The global perspective is examined by Dariuzs Kołodzieczyk, who is concerned with similarities and differences between Black Sea and Atlantic slavery in the early modern era (the 15th to the 18th centuries). He deals with types of slavery, employment of slaves and their assimilation into a new society. Furthermore, he briefly analyses the demographic and economic development of countries as a result of the slave trade. He draws a link to today and current discussions, as well as the attitudes of scientists, media and others, and he holds the most important point as that the descendants of former slaves from the Black Sea and Mediterranean are not visible as such in their current societies.

Toledano's preface and Kołodzieczyk's contribution provide a fitting framework for the volume, in that both relate to the present. Linking historical topics to current debates illustrates the meaningfulness of the research and should be emphasised even more and should be striven for. The volume successfully demonstrates the breadth of topics to be considered in relation to slavery and other forms of unfreedom in the region and provides points of reference for studies that take up comparative purposes. For further studies, it is desirable that contributions not only overlap across specific topics but perhaps relate more closely to each other and address overarching questions. As some authors also suggest, common ground needs to be found to collaborate across languages, disciplines and regions. Kizilov proposes, for instance, a comparative study of the analysis of the legal status of slaves. More complex models of the variants and nuances of unfreedom, such as those provided by Kravets and Ostapchuk, can also serve as an overarching approach for comparative studies. The process of capture, as Gliwa discusses in his paper, or the systematisation of the slave trade could provide an opportunity to compare the phenomenon in a more comprehensive (global) perspective.

The variety of contributions demonstrates the diversity of topics related to Black Sea slavery. The authors brought their expertise to this study, enriching the volume that was produced over a wide time span and broad region. Once again, it is evident that mastery of multiple languages allows researchers to approach a topic using different sources and from different perspectives, especially in a region where so many cultures join together. The volume is a type of inventory that offers us insights into the thematic range of slavery in the Black Sea, provides an overview of what has already been done in this area and where there is still a need for research and presents opportunities for comparative studies from a global perspective. To sum up, this work collects valuable studies that will serve to stimulate further research.

Veruschka Wagner