Slavery in Kievan Rus

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Kiev-Slavery-art - 9/8/99
"Slavery in Kievan Rus" by Gregory W. Frux (Peotr Alexeivich Novgorodski).
NOTE: See also these files: Russia-msg, fd-Russia-msg, Russia-bib, kvass-msg, cl-Russia-msg, Rus-Handbook-art, CaRussia-art, Russ-law-art.

This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.

These files are available on the Internet at:
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at




Gregory W. Frux (Peotr Alexeivich Novgorodski)

It may come as a surprise that European history is filled with slavery. Most of us know that classical Greece, the Roman Empire and 'the Moslem Caliphates were slave states. But slavery was also conmon in the Middle Ages: it existed in Visigothic Spain, Merovingian France, among the Vikings and in the Italian city states. (1) Orlando Patterson estimates that in the year 950 AD between 10% and 15% Europeans were bound in servitude. (2)
The first Russian State emerged in this cruel and violent time. The "civilized" empires of the Mediterranean were slave states. In the north, barbarian raiders carried off people as pillage. The Vikings, in particular, abducted and enslaved people from Ireland to Russia, for their use and for sale.
A major Viking trade route ran through the heart of Russian land. Commerce descended from the Baltic Sea, via Novgorod and Kiev to Constantinople; and via the Volga to the Middle East. The Slavic peoples of Russia were among the victims of the Northmen. A Tenth Century Muslim geographer Ibn Rustah describes their actions.
They harry the Slavs, using ships to reach them; the carry them off as captive and take them to Hazaran and Bulghar [both on the Volga], and sell them there. (3)
It is estimated that at its height the Viking slave trade moved 3400 people a year along this route alone. (4)
These East Vikings warriors and traders soon intermixed with the native Slavs to create the Kievan Rus State. Slavery continued throughout the Kievan period. It is mentioned in the earliest treaties between the Russians and Byzantines. Byzantine Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus (c. 950) recounted a Novgorodian trading expedition to Constantinople which includes a description of slaves lead in chains for six miles around rapids in Dnieper. (5)
When Russia converted to Christianity in 988 it did not abandon slavery. Early Russian law codes give us some idea of its practice. It is also mentioned in the national history "Die Primary Chronicle" and in the epic "Pie Song of Prince Igor".
Despite relatively meager evidence, it is reasonable to attempt a reconstruction of conditions of slavery in Kievan Rus. (6) Some questions to address are: Who was enslaved'? What were the conditions of slavery? What was the place of the slave in society? How did the law look on the slave? Did conditions change over time? Did people ever regain freedom?
In this discussion we need to define "slavery"‑‑ Slaves are people held in permanent subjugation by means of violence or threat of violence, up to and including death. They are, in addition, people removed from all inherited and familial rights and any place of honor within the slave holding Society. (7)
The definition of slavery takes leads us to the discussion of who was enslaved. Typically, slaves were foreigner or disenfranchised members of the community. A scholar of slavery identifies eight maj or sources: [1] Capture in warfare, [2] Kidnapping, [3] Tribute and tax, [4] Debt, [5] Punishment for Crimes, [6] Abandonment and sale of children, [7] Self‑enslavement, [8] Birth. (8)
In Russia we will find that while at first foreigners were enslaving Russians (and the reverse) very soon Russians were enslaving one another. The early period Viking raids abducting slaves can be considered either capture in warfare or kidnapping. There is also evidence of Russian prisoners of war enslaved in Byzantium: a 945 Russo‑Byzantine treaty provided for their ransom. (9)
It was also apparently common for the Russians to enslave shipwrecked sailors, presumably foreigners. From the same treaty as above:
"In case the Ruses find a Greek ship cast ashore, they shall not harm it, and if any person remove any object there from or enslave a member of the crew, or kill him, he shall be amenable to both Russian and Greek law." (10)
Very soon after the founding of Kievan Rus, we have evidence of Russians enslaving Russians. During wars, enslavement was an alternative to slaughtering a population. It mentioned at least twice in the "Primary Chronicle". The first is the culmination of Princess Olga's revenge (947 AD)
Thus she took the city and burned it, and captured the elders of the city. Some of the captives she killed, while she gave others as slaves to her followers. (11)
Eighty years later, during a war between rival princes, Minsk was captured (1067 AD).
Then the brethren captured it, put the men to the sword, sold the women and children into slavery. (12)
Warfare shaded into raiding and kidnapping parties. War booty included slaves. A successful war could mean a lowering of the price of slaves in the market. Some of the most revealing lines of the period comes in the epic "Song of Prince Igor" (1187 AD). The section of note is part of a lament that a great prince was not present at a battle.
If you were here, a female slave would fetch one nogata and a male slave, one rezana;... (13)

Directory: files -> CULTURES
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CULTURES -> Note: See also the files: mercenaries-msg, Italy-msg, popes-msg, rosaries-msg, relics-msg, saints-msg
CULTURES -> Congo-art 4/3/00
CULTURES -> Note: See also the files: Norse-msg, Italy-msg, France-msg, England-msg, fd-Normans-msg, Bayeux-Tap-msg, 12c-normans-bib

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