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New book examines the medieval slave trade in Russia

While the slave trade collapsed in medieval Western Europe following the emergence of sovereign monarchies, territorial states and their rule of law, the situation in Russia was very different.

A new book by University of Eastern Finland Professor Jukka Korpela, entitled Slaves from the North, is the first study in the world seeking to explain the development of the Russian economy by influences from economies of the Middle East and Central Asia.

In the book, Professor Korpela links Eastern European slave trade, which also affected Finns, with the formation of states and state economies. Finns and Karelians were traded as commodities in the Eastern European slave trade. It was profitable for slave traders to transport Finns and Karelians from the North to the slave markets in the South, as their unique qualities were in high demand and worth good money. Blonde-haired and fair-skinned Finns and Karelians were regarded as luxury items in the Eastern slave markets. People were captured into slavery during wars and raids, but it wasn’t uncommon for families to sell their children into slavery, either.

In Western Europe, slave trade collapsed in the Middle Ages, as tyrant rulers sought to block influential clan leaders from rising to power and prevent the emergence of independent power spheres. Slavery did not fit well with this development, as all individuals had to be directly subject to the monarch’s rule of law. Contrary to prevailing views, slavery continued in the West only under exceptional circumstances where it was possible to engage in mass production, such as in American slave trade.

The idea of commerce in Western Europe shifted from trade in commodities to investment activities, and this development was supported by the monarch’s rule of law from the 1300s onwards. The shift in the economic system to observe the doctrine of mercantilism gave rise to controlled economies.

In Eastern Europe, however, the diverse body of well-networked merchants was not under the control of the duchy’s rule of law. This is also why the duchy’s rule of law was not separated from commerce, and no independent state economy or public economy emerged in Russia; not even after the efforts taken by the Duke of Moscow in the 1500s. In consequence, diverse trade in commodities – a bazaar economy – continued to thrive. Moreover, the development of the financing system did not lead to the emergence of public banking institutions. Under these circumstances, slavery and slave trade continued in Russia. However, the proportion of Finns on the Russian slave market decreased following an increasingly strong integrity of Sweden from 1500s onwards.

Slaves from the North. Finns and Karelians in the East European Slave Trade, 900-1600, by Jukka Korpela, is published by Brill. Click here for more details.

See also: Why did Medieval Slave Traders go to Finland?

Top Image: Slaves depicted in the 13th century, from the Madrid Skylitzes

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