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Slavery on the Frontier: The Mediterranean, Central Europe, and the Black Sea, 15th-19th centuries


Admission requirements

BSA norm and a pass for both first year Themacolleges


This seminar explores enslavement in all its forms in the frontier zone between Europe and the Ottoman empire, and more specifically in Mediterranean basin, Central Europe, and the Black Sea.
Whereas slavery in the Americas has been studied extensively, its Ottoman/European counterpart has received comparatively less attention—an oversight usually justified by quantitative differences between the two. Yet there is evidence to suggest that the economic, political, social, and cultural impact of enslavement in the European borderlands and borderseas is comparable to the transatlantic slave trade. Captive-taking and enslavement were liberally practiced on both sides of the European-Ottoman divide, well into the eighteenth and, in some areas, the nineteenth century. Algerian and Tunisian galleys were manned by Christian slaves, while Muslim captives rowed on Spanish, French, Italian, and the pope’s galleys. Tatar raiders regularly snatched large numbers of Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, and Circassians, whom they either held for ransom or sold at the slave markets in Caffa and Constantinople, while the knights of Malta captured North African, Ottoman, and Greek ships, using the same methods as their rivals, the Barbary corsairs.
Central Europe and the Balkans were also the stage of constant raiding, and not only by the Ottomans, as our readings will reveal. In the Black Sea, the Venetians and the Genoese had been the most successful slave traders until the fifteenth century, only to be replaced by Ottomans, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews after the Ottoman expansion in the area. European governments—all the way to the British Isles—had ransom budgets dedicated to the rescuing of their captured subjects or citizens. All the while, Catholic and Protestant missionaries traveled to the main pockets of Christian slavery in North Africa and Crimea to provide religious support to the captives, sometimes acting as intermediaries on behalf of the Muslim captives held in Europe, and other times falling prey to enslavement themselves.
Our discussions will include not only the cases enumerated above, but also some less widely known aspects of slavery in the European frontier zones, such as: the legal status of Christian slaves and the possible advantages of conversion to Islam in the Ottoman Empire; the mediating role of Christian missionaries between European and Ottoman institutions; Muslim slavery on Christian territories; and other types of slavery in Eastern European societies.
We will also explore the main historiographical debates and controversies surrounding the topic and global slavery in general, including the issue of causality and functionality (e.g., was frontier enslavement a form of economic, political, or religious warfare?) and revisionist and counter-revisionist claims (was slavery always as terrible and violent as most sources say it was? Was Ottoman slavery as mild as some historians claim?)
The readings selected for this course are a combination of (mostly) secondary and (some) primary sources, most of which are written in English. In their final papers, students may either engage with a historiographical debate, choose a comparative perspective, or make a theoretical point. Sources may be included if desired (after consultation with the instructor).
The first half of the course will focus on discussing the readings, while the second half will be dedicated to the students’ projects.

The seminars will be held in English but students may write their papers and do their presentations in the language of their choice (English or Dutch).

This course is connected to the kerncollege ‘Global Connections’ (sem. 2) insofar as it explores the connections between Europe and the Ottoman world, but also because it is related to current debates in global slavery studies. A basic knowledge of early modern history as taught in the first year at Leiden (on the basis of McKay’s History of Western Society) is needed for this class.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student can:

  • 1) carry out a common assignment

  • 2) divise and conduct research of limited scope, including
    a. searching, selecting and ordering relevant literature:
    b. organising and using relatively large amounts of information:
    c. an analysis of a scholarly debate:
    d. placing the research within the context of a scholarly debate.

  • 3) reflect on the primary sources on which the scholarly literature is based;

  • 4) write a problem solving essay and give an oral presentation after the format defined in the first year Themacolleges, including
    a. using a realistic schedule of work;
    b. formulating a research question and subquestions;
    c. formulating a well-argued conclusion;
    d. giving and receiving feedback;
    e. responding to instructions of the lecturer.

  • 5) participate in discussions during class.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialization

  • 6) The student has knowledge of a specialisation, more specifically: in the specialisation General History : the place of European history from 1500 in a worldwide perspective; with a focus on the development and role of political institutions.

  • 7) Knowledge and insight in the main concepts, the research methods and techniques of the specialisation, more specifically of - in the specialisation General History - the study of primary sources and the context specificity of nationally defined histories.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this specific seminar

  • 8) Gain an understanding of enslavement in Europe’s frontier zones in the early modern period as well as of the main historiographical debates in slavery studies;

  • 9) Gain the ability to engage in scholarly debates related to the subject;

  • 10) Gain the capacity to develop well-supported written argumentation on the subject, either in one region or in a wider, comparative fashion, on the basis of secondary literature (and, if appropriate, some primary sources).


The timetable is available on the BA History website

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (attendance required)
    This means that students have to attend every session of the course. If a student is not able to attend, he is required to notify the teacher beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the teacher will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, he will be excluded from the seminar.

Course Load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours = 280 hours

  • Class meetings: 26 hours

  • Study of compulsory literature: 86 hours

  • Written assignments (on the basis of the compulsory literature): 16 hours

  • Preparation of oral presentation: 32 hours

  • Final paper (including the reading of the necessary literature): 120 hours

Assessment method


  • Written paper (ca. 6000 words, based on historiography, including footnotes and bibliography)
    measured learning objectives: 2-4, 6-7, 9-10

  • Oral presentation (includes giving comments on a colleague’s presentation)
    measured learning objectives: 3-4, 9-10

  • Participation
    measured learning objectives: 5

  • Assignment 1 (weekly literature reviews in the first half of the course)
    measured learning objectives: 3, 5-9

  • Assignment 2 (in-class debate; two teams; preparation in the first hour and debate in the second hour)
    measured learning objectives: 1


  • Written paper: 60%

  • Oral presentation: 15%

  • Participation: 10%

  • Assignment 1 (literature reviews): 15%

  • Assignment 2 (group debate): 0% (part of the participation grade)

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Written papers should be handed in within the given deadline.


The written paper can be revised, when marked insufficient. Revision should be carried out within the given deadline.

Students should be aware that revised versions of insufficient papers will be graded more strictly (1 point will be subtracted from the paper grade).

Exam review

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • communication

  • grades

Reading list

All compulsory literature will be made available online. Students will receive details about the plan for the first seminar and the schedule of classes before the beginning of the course.

Students should be familiar with McKay’s History of Western Society (the pre-19th century chapters) before the beginning of this class.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available in [English]) and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable


Felicia Roșu