Italian merchants of the late Middle Ages not only traded slaves, but also owned slaves for their own or their company’s household. These slaves were mainly female and originally came from the Black Sea region, from where merchants, Italians and others, exported them to the slave trading hubs in Venice and Genoa. In Italy, the supply of slaves encountered the demand for slaves –  a rather detailed one in the merchant milieu.

This letter by Francesco Datini (1335–1410), a merchant from Prato with a ‘holding company system’ in the western Mediterranean, is a fairly typical order for a slave. The merchant, then in Tuscany, placed his order with his trusted business associate in Genoa, Andrea di Bonanno di Ser Berizo. As a broker, Andrea had full power of attorney to act on Francesco’s behalf, including the purchase of a slave in the name of his business partner. In his letter of 12 May 1393, Francesco provides Andrea with detailed information on what criteria the desired slave should meet and what Andrea should be aware of during the search and purchase process in the Genoese slave market.

Andrea awaited the arrival of ships carrying slaves from the Black Sea region in the port of Genoa and also searched the local resale market for a slave who met Francesco’s specific criteria – without success. Given Andrea’s difficulties in brokering, Francesco placed his slave order in parallel with another broker in Venice, his wife’s cousin and business associate Bindo di Gherardo Piaciti. In Venice, Bindo purchased a ten- to twelve-year-old female slave on Francesco’s behalf for 38 ducats (net price) and sent her to Tuscany with a male courier in mid-December 1394 – one and a half years after the initial slave order discussed here.

In the name of God, Amen, on 12 May 1393. […]

The reason [for this letter] is that I want you to buy me a little slave girl [ischiavetta][1] over there [in Genoa], young and robust, who is eight to ten years old […], exceedingly strong to endure much exertion, and that she be of a good nature and constitution, so that I may educate[2] her to my liking and place her in my ranks, so that I may receive good service from her. And for the said reason I want her so young, because she will learn better and faster and I will have better service, in view of the six or ten years that I shall still be able to mould her according to my ideas. And the reason I want her is only to make her wash dishes, carry wood and bread to the stove, and such things, and therefore she shall be very sturdy and full of strength, because I shall want her to endure quite an effort, and she will not have to take care of any other thing, because the other one I have here is a good slave[3], and she knows how to bake bread well, and cook and serve the table excellently. So I do not want this [slave] to have to do any other thing […]. Therefore, Andrea, take this burden upon yourself to buy her for me; and then you will send her to me. But take a little care in this respect, to want to see her and find out everything, that is, whether she is perfectly healthy, has a good appearance, and is of good physical constitution. And therefore you will exchange and inform yourself about this with those who know about her in such a way that I will be well served and have a good thing [chosa] and a good commodity [derata][4]. Now I do not intend to go on about this with you, because I think you know about it very well, and you will want to find out and see everything before you buy her, so as to see to it that I am well served; and with this I burden you as much as I can and know; and then report to me how you will proceed in this respect. […]

May God protect you. Francesco di Marco in Prato.

[1] ischiavetta is the diminutive of schiava (the Italian word for ‘slave’) and thus, from an emic perspective, refers to a ‘young female slave’ or ‘slave girl’. The i at the beginning of the word (prothesis in linguistics) is common in the Tuscan vernaculars of the time. It contributes to the sound of the first syllable but has no additional semantic meaning.

[2] Alternative translations of the verb avvezzare are ‘to shape‘ and ‘to accustom’.

[3] Francesco refers to his slave Lucia. Lucia was bought in Genoa in December 1387 by a broker (not Andrea) on behalf of Francesco and sent to Tuscany in January 1388. At the time of purchase, the broker described her as a schiavetta of 12 or 13 years of age. In 1393, Lucia would therefore have been about 17 or 18 years old.

[4] The abstract terms cosa (‘thing’) and derrata (‘commodity’) emphasise that the purchase of slaves was a market transaction.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is Francesco Datini’s ideal profile of a slave? Which categories does he use?
  2. What explicit tasks does he want a slave for? Why does he want a young slave? What does this tell us about Francesco Datini’s self-perception as a slave owner?
  3. What are Andrea di Bonanno’s tasks as a broker in Genoa? How would you define the relation between Andrea and Francesco?
  4. What side information do we get about the everyday life and organisation of the Datini household?

Related Primary Sources

Related Secondary Sources

  • Hannah Barker, “Purchasing a Slave in Fourteenth-Century Cairo. Ibn al-Akfānī’s Book of Observation and Inspection in the Examination of Slaves,” Mamluk Studies Review XIX (2016): 1–23.
  • Debra Blumenthal, Enemies and Familiars: Slavery and Mastery in Fifteenth-Century Valencia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009.
  • Giampiero Nigro, ed. Francesco di Marco Datini. L’uomo, il mercante. Firenze: Firenze University Press, 2010.
  • Corinna Peres, ““She wants to do it her own way.” Enslaved Women, Their Work, and Their Children in the Datini Merchant Community, 1380s–1410s.” PhD diss., University of Vienna, 2024.


Children, Labor, Property, Trade