Throughout the later Middle Ages, Genoa and Venice, two influential Italian city-states, dominated the slave trade in the Mediterranean sea. An effect of this was the growth of Genoese and Venetian trade colonies and trade privileges throughout the Mediterranean and Black Sea. Two of these can be seen on the islands of Cyprus and Crete, found in the eastern side of the Mediterranean. As time progressed, these ports grew to become important slave trade hubs influenced heavily by Genoa and Venice. These city-states brought with them their governance and legal systems and imposed them on Cyprus and Crete. However, because of this, there are large numbers of slave contracts which have been preserved that were written by Genoese and Venetian notaries.

Much of what is known about the slave trade during the later Middle Ages comes from notarial registers. These are archives of legal documents created by medieval notaries, or legal professionals, that have been preserved to modern times. These registers are filled with abbreviated versions of contracts that the notary had written previously. Because they are shortened, they sometimes include less information than the original document, but this varies from notary to notary. The notary would collect these reference documents, either copying them into a register or bundling them together and sending them to the city archives. That is how they have survived until today.

The following two documents are slave sale transactions written by Italian notaries. Both of these documents date from April 1301. The first is from the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean and was written by the Genoese notary Lamberto di Sambuceto. The second comes from the island of Crete in the Aegean and was written by the Venetian notary Benvenuto de Brixano. When compared to other slave sale transactions, these documents are fairly ordinary. Their similarities are not surprising. Formularies, or collections of cookie-cutter contracts, were popular during the period, and the Italian legal profession in general was centralized around the practices taught at the University of Bologna. The Cypriot document contains more clauses than the one from Crete, but this is because the Cretan document came from a more bare-bones register.

Document 1

Translated from the Latin by Colten Cook. Published in Valeria Polonio, Notai Genovesi in Oltremare. Atti rogati a Cipro da Lamberto di Sambuceto (3 luglio 1300-3 agosto 1301) (Genoa; Istituto di Paleografia e Storia medievale, Università di Genova, 1982), 405, doc. 340. This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Famagusta, Cyprus. April 11, 1301.

In the name of the lord, Amen. I, Johaninus Trabucus, confess to you, Bernard de Quiliano, that I sold to you a female slave [sclava] and a male slave [sclavus], Turkish, the said female slave is 24 years old and the said male slave is about 30, white, with every right of servitude that I have over them and that are relevant and will be relevant to me, at the final price of 181 silver besants, about which I call myself well quit and released from you, renouncing and so on. And if they are worth more than the said price, I will give that more to you and remit it as a clear and pure irrevocable gift between the living, knowing the true appraisal of them, renouncing the law of double deception beyond half of the fair price, which I promise to you to defend legally, in court and beyond, as much as in Cyprus and not in any other place shall I be held concerning defense. Otherwise the penalty of double how much the said slaves are worth now, or valued at the time, I promise to give and to pay to you stipulating, in consideration of all the remaining and each of the aforesaid things; for the sake of observing and attending to these things I pledge to you all my possessions I held and hold. Done at Famagosta, near the station, the 11th day of April, around vespers. Witnesses Petrus the crier and master Petrus Guascus, crossbowman, were called and asked.

Document 2

Translated from the Latin by Colten Cook. Published in Raimondo Morozzo della Rocca, Benvenuto de Brixano, Notaio in Candia, 1301-1302 (Venice: Alfieri Editore, 1950), 6, doc. 4. This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Candia, Crete. April 8, 1301.

On the same day. I make it clear that I, Hemanuel Vergici, inhabitant of Candia, who with my heirs give, sell, and transact to you, Angelo Vasalo, inhabitant of the said Candia, and to your heirs one of my female slaves [sclava] named Anna, whom I bought from the Turks a little bit ago, with full strength and power of taking possession, having, holding, and so on. The price was 18 hyperper and 1 grossus, about which I shall return to you safe and so on. If therefore and so on. Witnesses Count Andreas and Johannes Roselo. Completed and given.

Discussion Questions

  1. Compare the slave slave contract from Cyprus to the one from Genoa found as Document 1 here. The Genoese document is from 1191, over a hundred years older than the Cypriot document. What are the similarities and differences you notice between the two contracts? Do they share any similar clauses? Have any been added or removed?
  2. Do the same thing, comparing with the document from Crete and with the slave sale contract from Venice in 1434 found here.
  3. In the document from Cyprus, the notary includes the phrase “as much as in Cyprus and not in any other place shall I be held concerning defense” of the validity of the sale. Why do you think that this clause was included?
  4. In order to compare the prices of the slaves in these two documents, they have to be converted into a common currency. The easiest common currency to use for the time period is Venetian ducats. There were 5 besants in a ducat and 2 hyperpers in a ducat. Thus, the two slaves from Cyprus were worth about 36 ducats and the one slave from Crete was worth about 14 ducats. What do you think could be some explanations for the differences in price between the slaves found in the two documents?

Related Primary Sources

Related Secondary Sources

  • Sally McKee, “Inherited Status and Slavery in Renaissance Italy and Venetian Crete,” Past and Present 182 (2004): 31-54.
  • Aysu Dincer, “Enslaving Christians: Greek Slaves in Late Medieval Cyprus,” Mediterranean Historical Review 31, no. 1 (2016): 1-19.
  • Benjamin Arbel, “Slave Trade and Slave Labor in Frankish Cyprus (1191-1571),” Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History 14 (1993): 149-190.
  • Ahmet Usta, Maritime Slave Trading in Fourteenth-Century Famagusta. Leiden: Brill, 2019.


Law, Property, Race, Trade