Slavery in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia

Slavery in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia

Slavery in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia

Slavery in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia


The enslaved population of medieval Iberia composed only a small percentage of the general populace at any given point, and slave labor was not essential to the regional economy during the period. Yet slaves were present in Iberia from the beginning of recorded history until the early modern era, and the regulations and norms for slavery and servitude shifted as time passed and kingdoms rose and fell. The Romans brought their imperially sanctioned forms of slavery to the Iberian peninsula, and these were adapted by successive Christian kingdoms during the Middle Ages. The Muslim conquest of Iberia introduced new ideas about slavery and effected an increase in slave trade. During the later Middle Ages and the early modern period, slave owners in Christian Spain and Portugal maintained slaves at home, frequently captives taken in wars and sea raids, and exported their slave systems to colonies across the Atlantic.

Slavery in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia provides a magisterial survey of the many forms of bound labor in Iberia from ancient times to the decline of slavery in the eighteenth century. William D. Phillips, Jr., examines the pecuniary and legal terms of slavery from purchase to manumission. He pays particular attention to the conditions of life for the enslaved, which, in a religiously diverse society, differed greatly for Muslims and Christians as well as for men and women. This sweeping narrative will become the definitive account of slavery in a place and period that deeply influenced the forms of forced servitude that shaped the New World.


Slavery (servitus) is named from saving (servare), for among the
ancients, those who were saved from death in battle were called
slaves (servi).

—Isidore of Seville, early seventh century

This present work of synthesis surveys the history of slavery in Iberia from ancient times to the modern period. It relies in part on the studies of slavery I published in the 1980s but differs greatly in its content, focus, and structure from those earlier works. Though I cite a few archival sources, I have based the work on my reading of as much of the available scholarly literature as possible. This has occupied me for a longer period than I anticipated or would have preferred, in large part because the study of slavery in Iberia has become popular among scholars since the late 1980s. Their publications appeared in a boom period that began in the second half of the 1980s and peaked around the year 2000, though important contributions have continued to appear. Several factors accounted for the accelerated production, including the greater number of students pursuing advanced degrees and an increased availability of venues for publication. This outpouring of material has made it impossible for any one individual to read and digest all that is available. The bibliography indicates what I have been able to do.

Before the 1980s there were a few pioneering studies, and from the midtwentieth century the most prominent scholar on the topic was Charles Verlinden (1907–1996). His massive survey of slavery in medieval Europe, the first volume of which appeared in 1955 and covered Iberia and France, relied heavily on legal sources and created interest in a subject that had not been comprehensively studied before. In addition to his major survey, Verlinden’s wide-ranging scholarship included items that he published on medieval slavery for well over half a century. Antonio Domínguez Ortiz (1909–2003) . . .

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