“A cross cultural phenomenon, corsair activity was the shadow of commerce, an unceasing form of guerrilla warfare, a frontier opportunity for the upwardly mobile, the crusades at a grassroots level, a kind of kidnapping or mugging, and a routine investment.”[1]

“The link existing between piracy and the capture of human beings in the Western Mediterranean Sea during the mediaeval period is undeniable. However, it is a link that is associated, almost exclusively, with piracy between Christians and Muslims. Christian piracy against Christians was interested above all in seizing goods, while Christian piracy against Muslims or Islamic piracy against Christians was basically interested in capturing humans.”[2]

Slavery has violence inherent in it both in the everyday life of enslaved people and in the ways in which most people became slaves. Many were captured in war or kidnapped. Piracy was endemic to the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages. We might think of pirates as freebooters acting against, or at least with no regard for, the law. In the Western Mediterranean that was not always the case – pirates and the merchant marine were not clearly distinct groups. Crusade and conquest relied heavily on private vessels.

During the thirteenth century the Count-Kings of the Crown of Aragon sought to regulate the active commerce in Muslim slaves and the trade in Muslim captives to be ransomed. The crown sought to bring the captains of ships, and others who participated in its campaigns, under firmer royal control. By 1250 Jaume El Conqueridor (aka James I of Aragon “the Conqueror” who reigned 1213-1276) legislated concerning which Muslims could legally be captured and granted royal licenses to privateers. Muslims from countries or regions with whom King Jaume’s realms were at war were fair game, while those who came from areas or communities with surrender treaties from the king or from established Mudéjar aljames—that is, recognized Muslim communities under his rule— were not. Mudéjares (Muslims living under Christian rule in the Iberian Peninsula) could be enslaved for crimes by judicial penalty, and might be penalized for rebellion, but were not supposed to be kidnapped and sold out of hand. Only Muslims who were considered “enemies of the faith” were legally fair game to be enslaved through violent confrontation or capture. King Jaume’s conquest of Mallorca in 1229, Valencia in 1238 (and on-going after), and his grandson Alfonso III’s taking of Minorca in 1287, were accompanied by the sale of many of the conquered. Military campaigns that sought to cow North African powers, like the attacks of Pere El Gran [“Peter the Great”] in 1282 on Tunis, also yielded captives.

The capture of Muslims at sea by those with royal licenses and individual pirate/entrepreneurs acting alone and defying or eluding royal control produced a steady stream of slaves during the thirteenth century and beyond. The four documents that follow show how lucrative this trade could be as well as how it was incorporated into the economy in terms of commercial investments and legal disputes. The capture of Muslims on the high seas for sale in Iberia continued even after the commerce in slaves around the Black Sea and the Balkan Peninsula lead by Italians regularized and came to dominate the slave trade in Iberia from the 1360s. Even if piracy was not the main source of slaves in the later Middle Ages, it was a continuous source well documented throughout the fifteenth century and beyond.

[1] Robert I. Burns, “Piracy: Islamic-Christian Interface in Conquered Valencia,” in his Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Crusader Kingdom of Valencia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 110.

[2] Speaking of the fifteenth century. Roser Salicrú i Lluch, “Luck and Contingency? Piracy, Human Booty and Human-Trafficking in the Late Medieval Western Mediterranean,” in Seeraub im Mittelmeerraum Piraterie, Korsarentum und maritime Gewalt von der Antike bis zur Neuzeit, ed. Nikolas Jausbert (Leiden: Brill, 2013), volume 3, p. 361.

Translated from the Latin by Rebecca Lynn Winer. These translations CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Source 1: Investment in a Naval Voyage

Source 2: Appointment of a Legal Representative to Admonish Count Pons Hug of Empúries

Source 3: Royal Pardon for Wrongfully Enslaving Free Muslims

Source 4: Contract of Sale

Discussion Questions

  1. In what ways do war, commerce and crusade relate to slavery? What violent ways to acquire a slave were legal in this society?
  2. Why did Guillem de Puig-orfila go to so much trouble to gain possession of “Saracens” [Muslims] and their ship? Why might wealthy financiers like Jaume Nadal and his partner have thought putting money into Jaume de Brassa’s armed voyage was a good investment?
  3. How does de Brassa describe his voyage and why? Do you think this was good advertising, sincere devotion, legal boiler plate or all of these? Which Muslims could Christians enslave legally?  Which were not supposed to be taken captive?
  4. How well do you think the laws protected free Muslims living under Christian rule from being sold into slavery? Do you think Mudéjares [Muslims] who were subjects of the King of Aragon felt safe taking journeys by land or sea?

Related Primary Sources


Captives, Kidnapping, Law, Property, Raiding, Trade, Violence