The name Circassia refers to a country in the Northwest Caucasus, along the northeastern shores of the Black Sea and north of the Caucasus mountains. Native to it are the Circassian languages, mutually intelligible dialects that are related only to a few other Northwest Caucasian languages. Today, the majority of Circassians are Muslim, but in medieval times, their religious affiliations were often in flux between various sects of Christianity, Islam, and the native polytheistic religion. Circassians formed an important part of the complex slave trade networks of the Black Sea region at their height in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.[1]

In this period, both Christians and Muslims of the region shared several crucial points of understanding about slavery and the slave trade. First, they all considered the sale and purchase of slaves to be legal and ordinary. Second, slavery’s ideological basis was rooted in religion, meaning that the slaves being bought and sold were theoretically all of a different religion to the buyers and sellers. Lastly, they understood that there was always a chance that anyone, including them, could be enslaved if they encountered raiders at the wrong place and the wrong time. Circassians were involved in both ends of this trade: many Circassians were sold as slaves, and many also raided, captured, and sold slaves themselves. 

This is a section from the “Libellus de notitia orbis,” a short text completed in 1404 by John, the Dominican archbishop of Sultaniya. He describes his book thus in the opening lines: “Here begins a short little book about the news of the world and specifically, about the peoples living in it, about their sects, ceremonies, and novelties, and specifically those which are outside the Catholic Church, etc.” In these sections, John discusses Cumania and Circassia. At least some of his knowledge seems to be first-hand, and he pays special attention to two parts of their culture: their religious practices and their slave-raiding and trading.

There are a few curious parts of John’s account that are difficult to explain. The first is the division of the Circassians into two groups, white and black. John himself states that these names have nothing to do with skin color. It is possible that these names have to do with directions; many Central Asian cultures associated cardinal directions with cultures. Hungarian and Turkic languages, for example, associate black with north and white with south. However, these direction-color associations varied from people to people and place to place.[2] 

The other intriguing description John gives is of the so-called “Tree of God.” Pre-Christian Circassian religion involved the worship of certain trees and sacred groves, in which religious ceremonies were conducted.[3] In particular, the worship of the god of crops, Theghelej, involved festivities in the sacred grove, where animals were sacrificed and the god represented in the shape of a cross placed on a tree.[4] What John describes may, then, be some form of syncretism.

[1] Amjad M. Jaimoukha, The Circassians : a Handbook (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 2001), 11-12.

[2] Osman Karatay, “On the origins of the name for the ‘Black Sea’,” Journal of Historical Geography 37, no. 2 (2011): 1-11.

[3] Jaimoukha, The Circassians, 140.

[4] Jaimoukha, The Circassians, 142-143.

Translated from the Latin by Jai Pranav Konuru. Anton Kern, “Der ‘Libellus de notitia orbis’ Iohannes’ III. (de Galonifontibus?) O.P. Erzbischofs von Sulthanyeh,” Archivium fratrum praedicatorum 8 (1938): 106-108, 110-112. This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Cumania and Tartaria (excerpts)

…Bordering on Wallachia [Volaquia] to the west and Russia to the north is Great Tartaria [Thartaria] or Cumania [Comania], and it extends over the greatest distance all the way to China [Chatay]; on the eastern side it extends all the way to the kingdom of Khwarazm and a certain wilderness. On the northern side [it has] Russia or Yhabri, or the wilderness. On the western side is the Great Sea or the Sea of Tana. To the south it has the extremely tall Caucasus [Coquas] mountains [or the Caspian mountinas and the Sea of Baku] or Caspia and Persia…

Many marvelous things must be said about these parts, but for now I will pass over them. They are scarcely habitable for now because of wars, and also because every day the lords sell their own subjects for their taxes, and also the parents sell their children, and finally Timur [Themurlank] destroyed the area and took people into captivity seemingly without number. And because they do not have gold and silver when the lord demands it from them, not having such things they give them their animals, children and wives, and they immediately sell them to merchants, and thus the country is emptied.

Through this crosses the most famous river that is called the Volga [Hedyl] and goes into the Caspian Sea, and, as it is said, it separates into 40 parts, of which one is the river Don [Thanay], which goes into the Sea of Tana, then to the Great Sea. No matter the year, it is frozen for several months and people cross over it, and even horses, carts, and camels.

These Tatars [Thartari] are diverse in worship. The more important of the people and the more important places follow in sect the Saracens dwelling on their borders; those in the central lands or on the edges are beastlike and idolaters; more are Christians and are easily converted unless the Saracens have been obstructing it, because they promise them delightful things, and that they just should believe in one God and his messenger Muhammad [Machumetus]. But, our faith, to the contrary, is strict. Therefore, few come to us, and if they are ever converted to the Catholic faith, they nevertheless rarely give up their idols. They imagine that they give them good fortune and that they protect their animals from wild beasts. They have countless ceremonies, all of which would be lengthy to describe. They act like pagans in many ways and, in particular, in the sacrifice of animals. When they have several wives and children, they sell some just like animals, because they say they cannot feed so many. In this country there are many Christians, like the Latins or Catholics, Greeks, many Armenians, Zichs, Goths, Thats, Wallachs, Russians, Circassians, Leks, As, Alans, Avars, Kazikumyks, and almost all commonly speak the Tatar language…


Next to the foot of the mountains and the Great Sea is the country which is Zichia or Circassia [Ziquia or Tharquesia]. They do not have a king, but there are some small lords and many villages which are ruled by the people themselves, and they do not care about any kind of government. They have no city, but they have small plains and the highest mountains which stretch all the way to the Caspian [Caucasus] mountains. There are two types of people or country, the black and the white Circassians [Tarcasi]; black by name, not by skin. Those who live in the mountains are called black, while those who live in the valleys or the coasts are called white Tharcasi. And no one goes to the black people, nor do they emerge except for salt, and only seldom. They have writing and their own language. In sect, almost all follow the Greeks in some ceremonies or fasts; in the rest they do not care much, but they have their own orders and ceremonies. They fast 50 days for Lent, and on Advent and the sixth day, they do not care about the rest. 

They have churches, images, and feasts as the Greeks do. On important feast days and Sundays, they make a sacrifice of animals, divide it among themselves, eat it up, and give the heads of the animals specifically to the poor and elderly, and they place them high up or in the branches of trees, and these are said to be shares for the spirits. They plant a tree next to the church, above which they place a cross, which they call the tree of God, in the branches of which they place various signs and the heads of animals. They do not have monks; their priests have wives like the rest and those who do not have a wife cannot stand among them. 

They are the greatest robbers and thieves and they go out from one village to another and violently carry off the children and adults of the other village publicly, or even secretly if they can, and immediately sell them to the merchants on the coasts. And just as the Thartari [Tatars] are accustomed to sell themselves, so too are these miserable people. But they have one good thing, because next to the church and that tree of God, they make a circle and no one dares to touch anything within the circle. Outside, however, whatever he has touched first will be his, especially on the coasts where ships are wrecked, and they say God sends [the shipwrecks] to them and they sell a man like a pig. Furthermore, they claim that their women are the greatest necromancers, are devoted to that art, and cause the winds and sea to be stirred up, and thus ships are wrecked because they do not have safe harbors. 

And this I can certify myself when I was around or within the said regions. They were stirring up the sea through magic skill and specifically at night. However, we, through prayers and the judgement of the saints, overcame it. When we were eighty people […] finally they said: We cannot prevail against you because the saints fight for you, and we saw blessed Nicholas visibly in the night run to your aid with great lamps at the worst part of the storm and in the most dire straits. And we give thanks to God, released after several months, we went to the church of Saint Nicholas in their land, and had peace. The women are the most subtle characters, and beautiful. Men go as if nude, except nobles.

It is well-known that one of those nobles was sold to Genoa. Educated and freed from slavery, he entered the Order of the Preachers[1], and he was finally made archbishop in one church of this land by the apostolic seat, and he was there and remained there for a long time; in addition, he converted many from his own people. 

The Sultan of Cairo [Chayrio] during our times was a slave brought from this land into Egypt, and after the death of the former sultan, he was made sultan;[2] and now his son after him. And I saw that boy and his relatives, who came to him after a time. 

And therefore I said that they are the most subtle characters and able to do all work, yet not in their own country. This land has on the west the Great Sea, on the north Tartaria [Thartaria], on the east the Caspian mountains, on the south Georgia or Abhkazia [Ioriania or Apcasia]…

[1] The Dominican Order

[2] Barquq, first sultan of the Circassian Burji dynasty of the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt

Discussion Questions

  1. Johannes indicates multiple times throughout this passage that he finds certain of the Circassians’ slave-related activities objectionable. What, specifically, about their practices does he find fault with? What does this suggest about Johannes’ own beliefs about the ethics of capturing slaves? How might Johannes’ status as a member of the clergy affect this?
  2. Circassian women were considered to be important agents of the slave capturing process, as their necromantic powers are said to cause ships to wreck upon the coasts. Compare the involvement of men and women in slave-capturing in Circassia—how are their roles similar and different? How does gender factor into Johannes’ own reaction to the practices he describes?

Related Primary Sources

Related Secondary Sources

  • Anton Kern, “Der ‘Libellus de notitia orbis’ Iohannes’ III. (de Galonifontibus?) O.P. Erzbischofs von Sulthanyeh,” Archivium fratrum praedicatorum 8 (1938): 82-123.
  • Lajos Tardy, “The Caucasian Peoples and Their Neighbors in 1404,” Acta orientalia academiae scientiarum hungaricae 32, no. 1 (1978): 83-111.


Captives, Kidnapping, Race, Raiding, Religion, Women