St. Adalbert freeing Slavic slaves (source). With the Christianization of Eastern Europe, the trade in fair-skinned women and boys came to an end.
The white slave trade played a key role in ending the Dark Ages—this seemingly unending downward spiral that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. By the 8th century, the elites of Western Europe had run out of gold and possessed very little else that could be traded for luxury Oriental goods. It was at that point in time that the possibility arose of selling fellow Europeans into slavery, particularly Slavs from the lands between the Elbe and the Volga.
Yet this historical episode is relatively unknown. One reason was its semi-illegality. Involuntary servitude wasn’t unlawful in itself. In fact, most Europeans were bound by long-term ties of submission, like the serfs who farmed the land. This was an accepted part of life. Enslavement was even seen as a humane way of dealing with criminals, prisoners of war, and other people who would otherwise be killed. But this particular form of enslavement meant more than just inferior status. Some of its aspects contravened both secular law and Christian morality, notably castration, the breaking up of families, and the abandonment of individuals who were too old or too young. There was also the exporting of fellow Europeans to the Muslim world and the prohibition against letting them learn about the Christian faith. It was for this reason that the existing term for involuntary servitude—servus—was felt to be inappropriate. The ethnonym ‘Slav’ thus came to mean a particularly degraded kind of servant—a slave.
This leads to another reason why this trade is little talked about. It sheds an unflattering light on our early history. The end of the Dark Ages was bought at a high moral price, even by medieval standards. After selling off the family heirlooms, our ancestors began to sell eunuchs, concubines, and toy boys—all this to get gold and precious fabrics to adorn their palaces … and churches.
This same price would also make possible the rise of states in Eastern Europe. When we read that early Polish and Russian kings had hundreds of wives or concubines, we smile and assume that this sort of thing was normal in those days. Yet it wasn’t. The slave trade initiated a cultural revolution that radically transformed social relations throughout pre-Christian Slavic Europe. Chieftains were previously elected and ruled over small territories through consensus; now, with Arab gold and silver, some of them had the means to assert their power unilaterally over much larger territories. A primitive form of democracy gave way to despotic rule.
Finally, this historical episode sheds an unflattering light on a group of Jews based in Spain and France who came to be called Radhanites. Being neither Christian nor Muslim, they were ideal middlemen for the overland trade route to Muslim Spain. At the other end of this route, there arose between the 8th and 12th centuries a network of trading posts across the Slavic lands that stretched from the Elbe in the West to the Volga in the East.
These trading posts may have eventually given rise to the Ashkenazi community of Eastern Europe. Admittedly, the usual explanation is that Jews emigrated to Poland in the wake of 12th-century persecutions in Western Europe. Yet there are earlier references to the presence of Jewish traders in what is now eastern and central Europe:
The appearance of Jews in central and eastern Europe occurred, it seems, only in the eighth century. It was linked to two important facts, the first of which was the establishment of a Jewish cultural and political center in Khazaria, a great Turkish empire whose center was on the lower Volga. […] The second fact that favored the formation of Jewish colonies in central and eastern Europe (located east of the Elbe) was the role played by Jewish merchants in the trade between Western Europe and the Muslim East.
[…] The Jews of Bohemia are cited for the first time in the 10th century; the Jews of Prague, in particular, are mentioned in the biographies of St. Adalbert. The existence of Jewish colonies in Poland go back only to the early 11th century.
[…] Jewish trade with central and eastern Europe was from the beginning closely linked to the fact that the Western Jews, especially the Spanish, French, and Rhineland Jews, played a major role in the international trade of Western Europe with the Muslim East. This trade began in the late 8th century at the initiative of Arab and Muslim traders. Many colonies of Jewish merchants formed along the trading routes that linked Western Europe to the countries of the Abbasid Caliphate.
[…] We have already mentioned the existence of Jewish traders in Prague in the late 10th century. The biographies of St. Adalbert tell us that they trafficked in slaves. There was also in the early 11th century, we will discuss further, a Jewish establishment at Przemysl, a town at the crossroads of two trading routes: Prague-Krakow-Kiev and Hungary-Kiev. The importance of this center is confirmed by the discovery, made in the mid 19th century of a great treasure of dirhams (Arab silver money) from the Iranian dynasty of the Samanids, dating from the first half of the 10th century (Lewicki, 1960)
This settlement model is also consistent with the genetic evidence that Ashkenazi Jews descend from a small founder group of only 300 to 400 individuals who lived about 800 years ago (Carmi et al., 2013).
We should keep in mind that that these merchants were only a small group within a much larger Jewish community. Moreover, this trade was shared with at least two other groups: the Vikings, who dominated the trading routes via the Baltic and the Dnieper, the Don, and the Volga, and the Khazars, who controlled the Volga trading route. Indeed, the sudden eruption of Viking raids into Western and Eastern Europe at this time was, to a large degree, motivated by a desire to cash in on the white slave trade. Captives from both western and eastern Europe were taken to the trading center at Hedeby (in present-day Denmark) for sale to Muslim traders (Skirda, 2010, pp. 143-146).
The world was a very different place in the 8th century and should not be seen through the lens of more recent times. Back then, Western Europe was a ruined civilization with memories of former grandeur. The white slave trade offered the ruling classes a way out, either indirectly through taxation or through direct sale of prisoners of war from the Elbe frontier. Had Jewish merchants not been available as go-betweens, there would have been other middlemen. The Vikings and the Khazars, for instance, who dominated this trade at the eastern and northern ends, would have eventually developed the overland route through Germany and France to Muslim Spain.
Carmi, S., E. Kochav, K. Hui, X. Liu, J. Xue, F. Grady, S. Guha, K. Upadhyay, S. Mukherjee, B.M. Bowen, V. Joseph, A. Darvasi, K. Offit, L. Ozelius, I. Peter, J. Cho, H. Ostrer, G. Atzmon, L. Clark, T. Lencz, and I. Pe’er. (2013). The Ashkenazi Jewish genome, American Society of Human Genetics, Annual Meeting http://www.ashg.org/2013meeting/abstracts/fulltext/f130120972.htm
Lewicki, T. (1961). Les sources hébraïques consacrées a l’histoire de l’Europe centrale et Orientale et particulièrement a celle des pays slaves de la fin du IXe au milieu du XIIIesiècle, Cahiers du Monde russe et soviétique, 2, 228-241.
Skirda, A. (2010). La traite des Slaves. L’esclavage des Blancs du VIIIe au XVIIIe siècle, Paris, Les Éditions de Paris Max Chaleil.