Why did Medieval Slave Traders go to Finland?

The demand for blonde girls and boys was so lucrative that slave traders would hunt for these people as far away as northern Finland, a recent study finds. Like other luxury items, these slaves would be worth the cost of transporting them to far-away markets in Asia and the Mediterranean.


The article, ‘The Baltic Finnic People in the Medieval and Pre-Modern Eastern European Slave Trade’, by Professor Jukka Korpela of the University of Eastern Finland, appears in the latest issue of the journal Russian History.


Using chronicles, travelogues and various administrative documents such as tax and land registers, as well as diplomatic reports, he found that there was extensive raiding into parts of Finland, the Russian Karelia and the Baltic Countries during the late medieval and early modern periods, with thousands of persons kidnapped in the north. Only a fraction of them ended up in the Caspian Sea region and Central Asia via the Volgan and Crimean slave markets. Otherwise, slave trade in the Crimea and Volga regions was extensive, and tens of thousands of people were sold into slavery every year. However, the existence of the trade route shows that it was possible, even under primitive conditions, to distribute information about the demand for blonde girls in the far-away markets. The network of those involved in slave trade included men who participated in raids, slave traders and customers representing the leading class of society.

Raids into the north were launched especially from Novgorod, which was well connected to the Crimea and, from there on, to the Caspian Sea and the slave markets of Central Asia. Raids were done by private warlords and princely troops, and they extended all the way to the coasts of the Gulf of Bothnia and Lapland. For example, Korpela writes how:

The Novgorodian warlord Prokopii conquered the town of Kostroma in 1375, imprisoned many local men, women and girls and continued his raid along the Kama and Volga to the town of Bolghar, where the party sold all their Christian prisoners, “young girls and women,” to Moslem traders. Finally the gang proceeded to Astrakhan’, where they were executed, obviously as bandits, by Khan Salchei.


Finns were especially valuable on the slave trade market because they were neither Christian or Muslim, and because of their light skin colour. Korpela explains:

The most expensive slave on the Caffa register was a 14–year-old white boy referred to in the source text as “Jarcaxius” (“Circassian”?), who was sold for 750 aspers, and there were other slaves with good colour qualifications that seemed to carry an above-average price. One four-and-a-half-year-old Rus’ian “white” boy cost 185 aspers, although such young children were usually very cheap on account of their high mortality rate. “White” Saracen slaves were also overpriced in the Genoese registers, and blond boys and girls were expensive on the Italian markets, too.

The slave trade in Eastern Europe gradually faded, as the control exercised by the emerging structure of European states became stronger. The spreading of Christianity also caused a decline in slave trade during the medieval period. Slave trade within Europe declined already in the early medieval period, but in regions bordering on Islamic countries, slave trade continued up until the pre-modern period.


Click here to go to Jukka Korpela’s website


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