Reflection: Proseminar “Slavery in the Mediterranean (1350–1750)”
The purpose of this post is to share my teaching experiences and pedagogical reflections on the integration of the website “Teaching Medieval Slavery and Captivity” into my classes. I am a social historian, medievalist, and scholar of Romance philology and literature, with a particular interest in the history of labour, slavery, and the slave trade in the Mediterranean.
For the past three years, I have been teaching courses at the University of Vienna, Austria, for undergraduates in the Bachelor’s program and (as a co-teacher) for graduates in the Master’s program. One of these courses is the Proseminar “Slavery in the Mediterranean (1350–1750)”. A Proseminar is intended for advanced undergraduate students and is the intermediate step in preparing students for their final courses, including the bachelor’s thesis. The 25 students enrolled in a Proseminar are mostly in their second or third year of study and must have successfully completed all introductory courses. In the Proseminar, they receive in-depth practice in academic writing and presentation by focusing on a particular topic, in this case slavery in the Mediterranean in the pre-modern period.
The study of Mediterranean slavery in the pre-modern period (here 1350–1750) has experienced a boom in the last twenty years. In line with Fernand Braudel’s legacy, the Mediterranean and the Mediterranean region have come to the fore as objects of research on slavery throughout history. In the Proseminar, we took an actor-centred approach and discussed numerous historical source genres to follow the traces of enslaved people, slave owners and brokers in Valencia, Genoa, Florence, Venice, Istanbul, Cairo, Alexandria and Constantinople. The main questions of the course were: Who was considered enslavable in the pre-modern Mediterranean and why? How did the Mediterranean slave trade (not) work? What did it mean to be a slave or a slave owner? Was there such a thing as a “common culture of slavery in the late medieval Mediterranean”?
The aim of the Proseminar was to sensitise students to theoretical, methodological and thematic approaches to the study of slavery in the Mediterranean and to develop an awareness of the historical dimension of slavery. At the beginning of the course, most of the students admitted that they knew about Atlantic slavery and slavery in the ancient world, but that they had never thought about slavery ‘on their own doorstep’ in the Mediterranean. The workload of a Proseminar is 5 ECTS, that is 125 hours, including class attendance and all out-of-class tasks (preparation, further reading, writing assignments). At the end of the course, students are required to write an empirically based 15-page term paper (50 % of the final grade) in which they should develop their own research questions relevant to slavery studies and identify and address research desiderata. The topic is chosen by the students themselves within the thematic framework of the course.
 Hannah Barker, That Most Precious Merchandise: The Mediterranean Trade in Black Sea Slaves, 1260–1500 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), 13.
In developing their own ‘mini’ research agendas, students often struggle with finding and evaluating source material. Especially since the Mediterranean is a region of diverse language communities, it is difficult for students to find sources they can completely understand and work with. This is where the project “Teaching Medieval Slavery and Captivity” comes in. After four sessions – an introduction to concepts used in slavery studies and a first discussion of sources (letters and advice manuals) on the purchase of slaves – the students had a digital workshop on the e-learning platform Moodle.
One of the tasks of the workshop was to find and select historical source material from the “Teaching Medieval Slavery and Captivity” database that matched the own interest in a particular area of research on slavery. The specific task was as follows:
Explore the Teaching Medieval Slavery and Captivity project. Do you find a historical source on slavery in the pre-modern Mediterranean in this database that you find particularly interesting? Why is it interesting? Record your impressions of the project and a selected source in a commentary for your fellow students by creating a mini-podcast (audio file, max. 1 minute) using Kaltura (an audio recording tool on Moodle).
The feedback from students on the “Teaching Medieval Slavery and Captivity” project was overwhelmingly positive. They highlighted the user-friendly interface, the wide range of source material, and the suggestions for further reading, which made it easier for them to access certain sub-topics. As most of the students aspire to become school teachers, they found the suggestions for further discussion questions extremely helpful and mentioned that they would like to incorporate some of the offered material and ideas into their own future classes.
When it came to the students’ own research agenda, they had difficulties in two areas: 1) formulating amain research question and 2) finding further historical sources to cross-reference the one they had selected from the database. To address the first problem, students wrote a short exposé of their ideas for the final term paper. This exposé was peer-reviewed and discussed in small groups of students in class. Students then presented their agenda for 5–10 minutes in plenary with the whole class and the supervisor. Writing an exposé and the two levels of discussion helped the students in their work-in-progress. They figured out what exactly they wanted to know and why it might be of interest to current slavery studies. Only the exact wording and narrowing down of their research question remained a challenge for some students, which was resolved in personal consultations with the supervisor.
The second issue proved tricky as students often faced a language barrier. In class discussion, students acknowledged the benefits and pitfalls of using translated material from the “Teaching Medieval Slavery and Captivity” website. Discussions arose about the relevance of language skills in the humanities and possible biases in a translator’s choices. Students who had a basic knowledge of other languages, such as Spanish and Latin, had an advantage in compiling their source material starting from the one source they had chosen in the workshop. Other students looked for non-text based sources such as images and objects. The bottom line was that all students were happy to have the translation of the “Teaching Medieval Slavery and Captivity” project as a window into a sphere of slavery that they would not have been able to access otherwise. But it also made them aware of how much more work is involved in doing research on Mediterranean slavery: the importance of having a basic understanding of the source languages and how to carry out analyses that cross disciplinary boundaries (art history, archaeology).
In the end, the Proseminar addressed many challenges for students: Familiarising oneself with a new topic, thinking about theories of slavery, grasping historical contexts across the Mediterranean, selecting and evaluating source material (and the online database that provides it), and developing an individual research agenda. Not to forget the side lessons: that it is always a good idea to learn new languages or improve those already acquired, and to look beyond the methodological boundaries of a discipline – for which slavery studies is well known!
Contributed by Corinna Peres. This contribution CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.