Consilia were legal opinions produced by medieval lawyers as briefs for a particular side in court cases. Since consilia by their nature represent attempts to apply the law to real facts, they can provide extraordinary insights into the day-to-day realities of medieval life. In the fifteenth century, about two thousand slaves lived in the city of Genoa, so it is unsurprising that several extant Genoese consilia address cases involving slavery. Of the over five hundred consilia of the fifteenth-century Genoese lawyer Bartholomeo de Bosco, ten concern slavery (nos. 13, 47, 78, 96, 106, 148, 301, 347, 403, 492), a proportion approximating the share of slaves in the Genoese population at the time.

In the following excerpt, Bosco defends a slave seller being sued by a certain Battista de Gogi, who alleges that the seller misled him about the health of an enslaved woman who had subsequently died. Among other more technical arguments, Bosco attacks Battista’s character and credibility. He claims that Battista had purchased the slave for the purpose of sexual exploitation and became aggrieved not through any fault of the slave, but rather through his own impotence. Furthermore, Bosco alleges, it was Battista’s incompetence at treating the slave’s skin condition that had caused her death.

Translated from the Latin by Kevin Wang. Consilium no. 301, Consilia egregii domini Bartholomei de Bosco famosissimi iuris consulti genuensis (Loano: Franciscum Castellum, 1620), 495. This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Excerpt from Consilium 301

Moreover, it has been proven that Battista purchased the said slave for the sake of satisfying his own lust, and knew her, even though he was impotent, on account of which she could have fallen into the severe illness… Likewise, it was proven through the confession of Battista, and through witnesses, that he himself had had the slave smeared with an ointment on account of the itch, which treatment could have caused the said illness, as the doctors say, to whom credence ought to be given owing to their skill.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think Bosco made these personal attacks on the plaintiff? Why might they have been effective, either as legal arguments or rhetorical maneuvers?
  2. What does this excerpt reveal about how Genoese society expected slaveholders to treat their slaves? Do you think those standards were upheld in practice?
  3. To what extent, if at all, does Bosco regard the enslaved woman in question as more than just property?

Related Primary Sources

Related Secondary Sources


Labor, Law, Men, Property, Sexual Slavery, Women