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That Most Precious Merchandise
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That Most Precious Merchandise
The Mediterranean Trade in Black Sea Slaves, 1260-1500

Hannah Barker

328 pages | 6 1/8 x 9 1/4 | 18 illus.
Cloth 2019 | ISBN 9780812251548 | $79.95s | Outside the Americas £66.00
Ebook editions are available from selected online vendors
A volume in the Middle Ages Series
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Awarded the Paul E. Lovejoy Prize by the Journal of Global Slavery for the best academic work on slavery published in 2019

"Undoubtably a significant and detailed contribution to our understanding of medieval slavery and of medieval economies . . . Hannah Barker's book is a thorough and engaging evaluation of late medieval slave trading practices in the Mediterranean . . . an impressive survey of slavery in the eastern Mediterranean from the initial grant of Black Sea trading privileges to these groups in the second half of the 13th century to the commercial shifts caused by Ottoman conquest in the late-15th century."—Reviews in History

"The Most Precious Merchandise succeeds in painting a compelling picture of the Mediterranean trade in Black Sea slaves and the interdependencies between the various parties . . . It is a successful example of looking at the Mediterranean as one large, coherent area of study,"—H-DIPLO

"Exhaustively researched, meticulously argued, and beautifully written, That Most Precious Merchandise engages questions hotly debated among historians about how 'premoderns' conceptualized and understood differences between peoples. At the same time, it conclusively demonstrates how the slave markets of medieval Italy and Mamluk Egypt were two branches of a single system."—Debra Blumenthal, University of California, Santa Barbara

The history of the Black Sea as a source of Mediterranean slaves stretches from ancient Greek colonies to human trafficking networks in the present day. At its height during the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, the Black Sea slave trade was not the sole source of Mediterranean slaves; Genoese, Venetian, and Egyptian merchants bought captives taken in conflicts throughout the region, from North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans, and the Aegean Sea. Yet the trade in Black Sea slaves provided merchants with profit and prestige; states with military recruits, tax revenue, and diplomatic influence; and households with the service of women, men, and children.

Even though Genoa, Venice, and the Mamluk sultanate of Egypt and Greater Syria were the three most important strands in the web of the Black Sea slave trade, they have rarely been studied together. Examining Latin and Arabic sources in tandem, Hannah Barker shows that Christian and Muslim inhabitants of the Mediterranean shared a set of assumptions and practices that amounted to a common culture of slavery. Indeed, the Genoese, Venetian, and Mamluk slave trades were thoroughly entangled, with wide-ranging effects. Genoese and Venetian disruption of the Mamluk trade led to reprisals against Italian merchants living in Mamluk cities, while their participation in the trade led to scathing criticism by supporters of the crusade movement who demanded commercial powers use their leverage to weaken the force of Islam.

Reading notarial registers, tax records, law, merchants' accounts, travelers' tales and letters, sermons, slave-buying manuals, and literary works as well as treaties governing the slave trade and crusade propaganda, Barker gives a rich picture of the context in which merchants traded and enslaved people met their fate.

Hannah Barker teaches history at Arizona State University.

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