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Michael Toch (1999)

?יהודי אירופה בימי הבניים המוקדמים: סוחרי עבדים [The European Jews of the Early Middle Ages: Slave-traders? (in Hebrew)]

In: Zion 64, pp. 39-63.

From the author’s abstract, ibid., pp. v-vii: “Over the last hundred and fifty odd years one aspect of the medieval economic history of the Jews has acquired the status of dogma - the belief that the Jews of ninth to eleventh century Europe were professional slave-traders who supplied the Islamic world with great numbers of white slaves. The origin of this notion goes back to another assumption ..., namely, that at such times the Jews were the only ones able to effect a commercial bridge between Europe and Islam. ...

It is the aim of this study to re-evaluate the sources adduced as prooftexts for the slave trading hypothesis by earlier scholars and fully enunciated by Charles Verlinden. Employing the regular tools of source criticism, a number of texts are proven to be of no relevance to the problem. Thus the Arabic writings by Ibn Khordadbeh and Ibrahīm ibn Ja‛aqūb refer to Oriental Jews and have no bearing on the Jews of Christian Europe. Latin sources mentioning slave trade in general have been associated with the mention of Jews in roughly the same geographical areas, thereby creating Jewish slave-traders where there is no evidence for them. Hence the merchants of Verdun, made famous for their habit of castrating slaves by the text of Liutprand of Cremona, were arbitrarily declared to have been Jews. Jews sojourning in Magdeburg were made into slave-traders who followed the Germanic armies to purchase Slavs taken captive during the border wars of Emperor Henry I. Other sources, of the ningh, tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries respectively, were combined to construct a route of slave commerce allegedly leading from the Danube in Austria via Switzerland to Venice. But such a route lacks all commercial and geographical logic. Its only justification lies in the random diffusion of sources as widely removed from one [an]other chronologically as they are geographically.

Of the sixteen texts originally adduced for the slave-trading theory we are left with nine to which there are no objections of source criticism. For them an alternative interpretation is proposed, which accords with numerous contemporary Hebrew sources mentioning slaves in Jewish households, yet not one single incidence of professional commerce in slaves. Thus most of the remaining Latin texts, allowing Jews to buy and sell slaves, are shown to refer to nothing more than the well-known fact that early medieval Jews indeed possessed household slaves. ...

We are left with three texts which prima facie might be viewed as evidence for a Jewish slave trade. Two of them are ordinances, from early ninth century Austria and mid-eleventh century Germany respectively. Each mentions custom duties to be paid by transient Jews for their slaves. By comparing these to other articles in the same texts referring to non-Jews, it becomes clear that such duties were levied on merchants, their beasts of burden and their servile work force. Such use of slaves as transport workers closely accords with what we know from Hebrew sources about contemporary Jewish commerce. This leaves us with a single source, an epistle written in the early ninth century by archbishop Agobard of Lyon. Despite it being part of the author’s polemical writings, this text raises the possibility that some European Jews were indeed engaged in the commerce of slaves.

Such likelihood must however be weighed against the fact that all other prooftexts cited were found to have been falsely interpreted. Moreover, against this single instance there is a wealth of information for the identity of early medieval slave-traders. In the North of Europe these were Vikings, Slavs, Germans, English and Irish. In the Mediterranean south they belonged to all creeds and cultures, including Jews from Islamic countries. Finally, the slave-trading theory accord[s] poorly with the handful of small Jewish communities existing in ninth to eleventh century Christian Europe. Despite the age-old convention of Jewish resourcefulness, it is hard to see how such a sparse settlement structure could have served as the infrastructure for a slave trade purportedly moving many thousands of Europeans to the realms of Islam. In the light of all this it is difficult to understand how a dominant role in the slave trade, indeed a veritable monopoly, could be attributed to European Jews. This is an idée fixe that should now be discarded.”

Jews slave trade 09th century 10th century 11th century
by Christoph Cluse last modified 2007-02-19 15:37

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