I came across the Teaching Medieval Slavery and Captivity website as I was searching for primary sources to use in a professional development series with 7th-grade history teachers in California.  Therefore, this reflection will be fundamentally different from those submitted by college, high school, or middle school teachers.  I am a former high school world history teacher and current program coordinator for the California History-Social Science Project (CHSSP), a collaborative organization of college historians and K-12 history teachers funded by the state and the University of California.  Our mission is to improve the teaching of history in the K-12 schools by bringing together the content expertise of university historians and the pedagogical expertise of K-12 teachers.  I joined the CHSSP in the 1990s while I was teaching 10th grade world history and have been involved in multiple ways ever since. 

However, that’s not the only focus of my professional life.  In 2006, I received a Ph.D. in medieval history from UC Davis. Since then, I have taught a wide range of courses in world history, medieval history and classics at the college level.  As a medievalist, I’m especially interested in situating the traditional European events and processes in the world history context.  Along with my colleagues at CHSSP, I was a lead author of the California Framework revision in 2016. Now I am leading online professional development groups for 6th– and 7th– grade teachers.  These group sessions feature exploration of a content topic, such as medieval slavery, centered around an investigative question from current scholarship, and containing primary sources and strategies for inquiry instruction, literacy support and distance learning.  

The unique challenges presented to teachers by the events of 2020 informed our choice of topics for the Grade 7 Group which began to meet online in October.  I wanted to explore ways that middle-school world history teachers could connect ancient and medieval world history to current social issues, particularly movements for social justice and anti-racism.  While scholars are correct to point out the dangers of conflating medieval phenomena with modern events in the United States, teaching about inequality and exclusive power structures in the medieval and early modern world provides students with context on current racism and power relationships over the longue durée and significant perspective on how these processes are similar and different from modern equivalents.  In California, teachers are mandated to address the period between 300 and 1750 in grade 7.  In grade 8, they address US history from the late eighteenth through the nineteenth centuries.  Slavery is one of the most significant themes in both courses.  7th-grade teachers want to establish connections between the medieval and early modern curriculum and students’ experiences to foster student engagement. They also want to set up a foundation of student knowledge that 8th-grade teachers can build upon.  For these reasons, my co-leader, the director of the History Project at UC Davis, Stacey Greer, proposed that we begin the Grade 7 group by examining the nature of ancient and medieval slavery and its differences from the early modern racial slavery created in the Caribbean and the Americas.  The development of trans-Atlantic racial slavery would be the topic of the last session of the group (in March 2021).  In our first session, we would focus on the question: How did systems of slavery in the medieval world compare? 

For the initial session, we decided to feature a brief lecture and a lesson demonstration.  In that lesson, students in small groups would receive four primary sources from one of three slavery systems: Rome, the Viking world and the Mamluk Sultanate, along with secondary background. My responsibility was to locate primary sources and write the secondary backgrounds, support materials and lecture.  I found the Teaching Medieval Slavery and Captivity website when I was searching for an excerpt from the Life of St. Findan, based on a reference to that vita in a scholarly article. I had heard about St. Findan before, but I knew nothing about evidence about slavery on the Inchmarnock hostage stone or the Laxdaela Saga, additional sources that I discovered on the Teaching Medieval Slavery and Captivity website.  I also selected two sources from the Mamluk Sultanate, an illustration of a Mamluk in training and Emmanuel Piloti’s description of the Recruitment of Mamluks.  The organization of the website allowed me to search by geographic region or century.  There is a lengthy introduction for each source, which included the context necessary to interpret the source and situate it in the society and time period.  In addition, each source was cross-indexed to similar sources and the applicable secondary summaries, which included lists of additional primary sources and a bibliography of useful historiography.  In short, much of the information I needed to research was listed there on the Teaching Medieval Slavery and Captivity website.

The excerpted written sources were far too lengthy to be practical for use in the middle-school classroom. I reduced them significantly, choosing key sentences and making liberal use of ellipses to produce a text that would be accessible to 7th-graders. However, I did not paraphrase or substitute simpler phrases for the original (albeit translated) text. I also composed shorter and simpler accessible introductions and vocabulary lists to support teachers and students.  Although we presented the lesson to 7th-grade teachers, it was designed for students.  Our hope was that they might use the lesson, parts of it, or some of the sources in their classes in an inquiry exercise. 

In the Comparative Slavery in the Medieval World lesson, we offered teachers the choice of three possible investigative questions (IQs): Was slavery always racial? How were systems of slavery instituted in different medieval societies? How did these systems of slavery differ from each other and the racial slavery system imposed on the Americas by Europeans after 1492?  To draw on students’ prior knowledge, the teacher asks them to write their definition of slavery in a Slido poll. The teacher displays the results of the poll to the class and then gives them a concise definition, along with the major premise of the lesson – that the slavery system in the Americas was different from slave systems of the medieval period before the global convergence of 1492.  Students receive a chart for comparing the four slave systems.  The teacher then gives students a secondary summary of the Atlantic racial slavery system and guides them through taking notes in the second column of the chart dedicated to slavery in the Americas. She divides students into breakout rooms or small groups and assigns each a similar background summary for Rome, the Viking world, or the Mamluk Sultanate. The groups fill out the assigned column of the chart and report their findings to the whole class. All students then fill in the columns on their charts, giving them comparable background context on each system. 

Students are now ready for primary source analysis.  There are four primary sources for each of the three medieval slave systems.  Teachers can have students analyze only one source, or rotate the students through analysis stations in the classroom or on Google Slides (online.) The analysis activity has students analyze the author and context of each source using the S.O.A.P. strategy to summarize or describe the source and answer the question: What does this source reveal about this system of slavery?  The lesson Stacey designed gives teachers options: completing the lesson with a short discussion of the investigative question, having students share the results of their source analysis followed by discussion, or following the both steps by asking students to write claims answering one of the investigative questions. 

The sources and lesson were well-received by the more than 40 teachers in our Grade 7 group.  Many commented on the rich resources we offered and requested more time to explore the sources in more depth.  Several mentioned that they wanted to use parts of the lesson in their classrooms.  About six weeks later, one of our members made this comment: “Love the slavery materials. We completed the first lesson from this series by just making the slides & docs separate so groups cannot see each other. They then completed a Flipgrid summarizing their civilization’s system of slavery. They had to reply to two other’s videos. They did a great job!”  Our hope is that more teachers will find ways to use the excerpted sources from the Teaching Medieval Slavery and Captivity website, either in our lesson format, or through other pedagogical strategies.

In response, for our second online session, we offered teachers twelve additional sources, four each about Korean Nobis, domestic slavery in Mediterranean Europe and enslaved women in the Middle East.  For the Korean nobis, we used the Deed of Sale and Kim Deuk-sin’s drawing of Nobles and Commoners from the Teaching Medieval Slavery and Captivity website.  For domestic slavery, we used sources on Slave Women and Their Children, Childcare and Slavery in Barcelona, and the Initial Q miniature from the Vidal Major published on the website.  For enslaved women in the Middle East, we used Stories of Shariya from the Book of Songs, the Slave Women of al-Mansur Hajji, Concerning the Sellers of Male and Female Slaves, and the Biography of Inan from Consorts of the Caliphs. These narratives of women who enjoyed a much more lavish lifestyle than ordinary free women and yet suffered loss of freedom and physical abuse offer students the kind of nuance and variety that allows them to make deeper and more meaningful connections with the concept of slavery, as well as to list the differences between different medieval slave systems and racial slavery in the Americas.

Most of the teachers who consult this site will likely teach on the college level.  In high school and especially middle school, it is common for teachers of average (as in not AP or Honors) students to avoid sources like these as “too much reading.”  However, average students need to be exposed to real primary sources, to see the complexity of historical phenomena and to engage in historical inquiry.  With shorter excerpts, well-designed lessons, and scaffolds, average 7th-graders can accomplish quite sophisticated inquiry investigations.  Websites such as Teaching Medieval Slavery and Captivity have much to offer for K-12 history instruction.  If we want our students to be able to think critically and be good citizens of a globalized world, they need this kind of teaching.

Contributed by Shennan Hutton. This contribution CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Suggested Primary Sources: Rome, Vikings, Mamluks

Suggested Primary Sources: Korean Nobis, Domestic Slaves in Mediterranean Europe, Enslaved Women in the Middle East

Suggested Readings for Teachers