European slaves in the year 1000

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Valerie Hansen has a new book just out:

THE YEAR 1000: When Explorers Connected the World — and Globalization Began.  New York:  Scribner, 2020.

A NYT review of Hansen's landmark volume is copied below, but let's first look at some interesting language notes concerning the background of the word for "slave" (Chapter 4 is on "European Slaves"; the quotations here are from pp. 85-86).

The demand for slaves [in addition to that for furs] was also high, especially in the two biggest cities in Europe and the Middle East at the time–Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine empire, and Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid caliphate, in present-day Iraq. The residents of Constantinople and Baghdad used their wealth to purchase slaves, almost always people captured in raids on neighboring societies.

In the early 900s, a Muslim observer named Ibn Rusta noted that the Rus "treat their slaves well and dress them beautifully, because for them they are an article of trade. Adam of Bremen commented on the gold stored on the island of Zealand in Denmark, which Scandinavian pirates had accumulated from trading slaves. The Vikings, Adam said, "have no faith in one another, and as soon as one of them catches another, he mercilessly sells him into slavery." So many slaves came from Eastern Europe that the meaning of the Greek word for "Slav" (sklabos) shifted sometime in the 1000s from its original meaning, "Slav," to take on the broader meaning of "slave," whether Slavic or another origin.

The earliest written description of the Rus comes from Ibn Khurradadhbih (820-911), a Persian official who identified the Rus as one of the fair-haired peoples living in the lands of the Saqaliba, the Arabic catchall term for the peoples from Northern and Eastern Europe. ("Saqaliba" is also the origin of one of the many words for "slave" in Arabic.) "They carry beaver hides, black fox pelts, and swords from the farthest reaches of the Saqaliba to the Sea of Rum," or the Black Sea. Beaver and fox pelts commanded the highest prices because of the density of their fur.

Slavery was widespread across Eurasia.  In a recent post, Diana Shuheng Zhang aptly rendered Chinese "núzi 奴子" as "young Turk", see "Captivating translation: young Turk with flowing charm" (3/26/20).  I should have provided a note to explain that "núzi 奴子" literally meant "servant; slave" in medieval Sinitic.  It was my old friend, Elling Eide (1935-2012), the Li Po (701-762; evidently born in Central Asia and part Turk himself) specialist, who never tired of telling me that the word was often used to refer to Turks.

When I first visited my relatives in the Austrian Alps in the late 60s, I soon grew fond of the word "ciao", but didn't quite know what it meant because it was used in situations where In English I would have said both "hi" and "bye".  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I was essentially saying to the person to whom I was speaking that I was their humble servant / slave.

Borrowed from Italian ciao (“hello, goodbye”), from Venetian ciao (“hello, goodbye, your (humble) servant”), from Venetian s-ciao / s-ciavo (“servant, slave”), from Medieval Latin sclavus (“Slav, slave”), related also to Italian schiavo, English Slav, slave and Old Venetian S-ciavón ("Slav"), from Latin Sclavonia (“Slavonia”). Not related to Vietnamese chào (“hello, goodbye”).


Word History: The Italian salutation ciao, which is now popular in many parts of the world outside Italy, originated in the dialects of northern Italy. In the dialect of Venice, ciau literally means "servant, slave," and is also used as a casual greeting, "I am your servant." Dialectal ciau corresponds to standard Italian schiavo, "slave," and both words come from Medieval Latin sclāvus. Declaring yourself someone's slave might seem like an extravagant gesture today, but expressions such as Your obedient servant or Your servant, madam were once commonplace in English. Similarly, the Classical Latin word servus meaning "slave" is still used as an informal greeting in southern Germany and in Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, and other parts of central Europe that were formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the opposite end of the world, in Southeast and East Asia, one even finds words that originally meant "slave" or "your slave" but have developed into pronouns of the first person through their use in showing respect and humility. In Japanese, for example, the word boku is used to mean "I, me," especially by boys and young men, and it comes from a Middle Chinese word meaning "slave" or "servant" and now pronounced in Mandarin.

Source:  American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition


Selected readings

"Slavs and slaves" (1/17/19)

"Cool slave / guy / tofu / whatever" (5/12/18)

"The bearded barbarian" (8/26/15) — especially this comment

"Misogyny as reflected in Chinese characters" (12/25/15)

The BBC History Magazine HistoryExtra podcast just produced an episode with the title of “Medieval Globetrotters” in which Valerie Hansen is interviewed about her new book.  Here is the link.

The NYT Editors’ Choice for April 14, 2020:

"12 New Books We Recommend This Week"

See the 5th one, by the distinguished Yale historian, Valerie Hansen:

THE YEAR 1000: When Explorers Connected the World — and Globalization Began, by Valerie Hansen. (Scribner, $30.) Today we tend to believe that globalization began in the late 1400s, but Hansen, a history professor at Yale, shows that global connections extended back to the early 1000s and that in many ways life then resembled life today. “Hansen draws upon nearly 30 years of research to make her case. She has examined contemporary records, travelogues, art, artifacts and more, and consulted with archaeologists, Arabic scholars and other experts around the world to paint the fullest cross-cultural picture possible,” Christiane Bird writes in her review. The book, she concludes, is a “highly impressive, deeply researched, lively and imaginative work.”

Here's the complete review:

"When Globalization Really Began" (accompanied by the famous painting, “Leif Erikson* Discovers America,” by Hans Dahl [1849-1937].)

*Leif Erikson, Leiv Eiriksson or Leif Ericson (ca. 970-ca. 1020).

By Christiane Bird

    • April 14, 2020

  THE YEAR 1000
When Explorers Connected the World — and Globalization Began

By Valerie Hansen

In the year 1000, the world was on the move. Traders and pilgrims were sailing across the Indian Ocean, to and from East Africa, Arabia, India and China. Slaves were being marched from Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa to Constantinople, Baghdad and Cairo. The Maya of the Yucatán Peninsula were traveling as far north as the Mississippi River Valley and as far south as Colombia. And then, in the most significant journey of the era, the Vikings sailed to Canada, connecting these trade routes and creating a round-the-world loop. Globalization, Valerie Hansen argues in her fascinating new book, “The Year 1000,” had begun.

Today, we in the West tend to believe that it wasn’t until the late 1400s and 1500s, when Europeans sailed to the Americas and around the Cape of Good Hope, that the world became interconnected, and that it wasn’t until the 20th century that globalization developed. But, as Hansen shows, the Europeans were only using existing trade routes, and by the time they ventured forth, globalization, with all its pluses and minuses — cultural exchange and conflict, winners and losers, the growth of technology and the loss of tradition — was already well underway. One of the book’s surprises is its demonstration of how much life in the early 1000s resembled that in the 21st century. In those years, a citizen living in Quanzhou, China, could buy sandalwood tables from Java, ivory ornaments from Africa and amber vials from the Baltic region; attend Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist religious services; and, if well educated, read a Japanese novel or the latest writings of Islamic scholars.

The Stanley Woodward professor of history at Yale University, where she teaches Chinese and world history, Hansen draws upon nearly 30 years of research to make her case. She has examined contemporary records, travelogues, art, artifacts and more, and consulted with archaeologists, Arabic scholars and other experts around the world to paint the fullest cross-cultural picture possible.

Playing a strikingly central role in the early years of globalization was religion. Time and time again, Hansen shows, leaders converted their peoples to the religion of a more powerful neighbor in the hopes of gaining commercial and political advantages. These conversions had little to do with belief and everything to do with pragmatism, and led to the demise of some smaller religions (like Manichaeism in Persia) and the explosive growth of others, in ways that still resonate today. Hansen writes, “We live in a world shaped by the interactions of the world in the year 1000: 92 percent of today’s believers subscribe to one of the four religions that gained traction then.”

The book is filled with legendary characters. There’s Freydis, a feisty Viking woman who, upon finding herself surrounded by hostile Amerindians, pulled out her breast and “slapped” it with her sword, scaring her would-be attackers off. And there’s Harald Bluetooth, the Danish king who, though raised non-Christian, converted his kingdom to Christianity in order to unite it; Bluetooth technology, which brings computers and mobile phones together in a similar manner, is named after him.

At times, Hansen’s narrative bogs down in mind-numbing descriptions of dynasties and tribes. Occasionally, too, her use of the professorial “we,” in phrases like “as we’ll see in the next chapter,” is irksome, drawing the reader out of the world she has created and into the lecture hall. But these are minor disturbances in an otherwise highly impressive, deeply researched, lively and imaginative work.

[Thanks to Tony DeBlasi and John Mullan]


  1. Valerie Hansen said,

    May 5, 2020 @ 5:42 pm

    Thanks so much, Victor, for the shout out! I do want to give Marek Jankowiak credit for the discovery about the shifting meaning of Slav and slave. His paper entitled, "From 'Slav' to 'slave': Tracing a Semantic Shift," is forthcoming, and he kindly showed it to me.

  2. Chester Draws said,

    May 5, 2020 @ 7:44 pm

    Slavery was widespread across Eurasia.

    Well, yes, but not the same form of slavery.

    The word "slave" can cover everything from a person worked to death in the Athenian silver mines to an Egyptian Mamluk soldier of immense wealth and power.

  3. JB said,

    May 5, 2020 @ 8:10 pm

    To add a word to the list in 'word history', the salutation "serviteur" in French, no longer in use, is also along the same lines.

  4. Chris Button said,

    May 5, 2020 @ 8:14 pm

    I should have provided a note to explain that "núzi 奴子" literally meant "servant; slave" in medieval Sinitic.

    Takashima has recently suggested an underlying meaning for 女 "woman", in its depiction of a kneeling figure with its arms crossed (bound/tied), as "the sex 'suppressed/subdued by external forces'." He has further wondered whether a sense of 奴 "slave" could be found in the oracle-bone inscriptions for 女.

    Personally I think the original sense of 女 may well have been "slave", regardless of whether any attestation of it being used in that sense may be found in the oracle bones. It makes good sense of the graphic form, and a similar semantic relationship might be found in Lithuanian vergas "slave", and Armenian varjak "female entertainer". One could also add things like 努 "exert" via English work from the same PIE root in its sense of servitude.

  5. rosie said,

    May 6, 2020 @ 12:30 am

    Why do we write Ibn? Regardless of how it's written in Arabic, the correct transliteration is "bin" (with or without cap B). And why refer to someone by their patronymic and not their given name as well?

  6. JB said,

    May 6, 2020 @ 3:03 am

    @Chris Button: your last sentence reminds me of the French connection between 'travail' – work, and the Latin 'tripalium' – a torture device.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    May 6, 2020 @ 3:49 am

    Rosie — If Ahmad Ziad Zain Aldeen is to be believed (and as far as I can see there is no reason why he should not be), the story about "Ibn" and "bin" is considerably more complex than you suggest. He writes (on Quora)

    These two words are actually the same word but the word Ibin has an Aleph in the beginning, that kind of Aleph is called “همزة وصل” Hamazat Wasl which is a glottal stop that is only pronounced if started with, which means, when Ibin or bin are in the middle of speech they are pronounced exactly the same.

    There are three situations where Bin is used and more for Ibin:

    If used between a man's name and his biological father's name.
    If was preceded by a calling particle.
    Example: O Jacob son of Issac يا يعقوب بن اسحاق.
    If it was preceded question particle.
    Example: Is that your son? أبنك هذا؟.
    Between a man's name and the name of his grandfather (

    where ∈ℕ
    Between a man's name and his mother's name.
    If it was in a question (different from 1-c).

    Example: Is that Omar son of Ammar أهذا عمر ابن عمار؟.

    If it was between a man’s name and the word “His father”.

    Example: Ziad son of his father زياد ابن أبيه.

    If it was a dual (in addition to singular and plural, in Arabic we have a dual form of words) .

    Example: Ahmad and Mahmoud sons(dual) of Kamal أحمد ومحمود ابنا كمال.

    If the “Son” was connected to a pronoun suffix.

    Example: Yaser son-of-you ياسر ابنك.

    If it the word “Son” was a Khabar خبر. If you don’t know what that is, just ignore it, it’s a grammatical thing.
    In the beginning or the end of the line even if the sentence is not finished yet.
    If there was a pronoun between the man’s name and his father’s.

    Example: Ali he [is] son of Sameer علي هو ابن سمير.

    Between a man's name and an adjective, feature, or qualification of his father/grandfather… etc

    Example: Omar son of the courage عمر ابن الشجاع.

    In idiomatic calling (I don't know if that's the right translation). For example:

    For brother: Son of mother/father ابن أبي/امي.
    For an Arabian man: Son of Arabs ابن العرب.
    For a man from the same country: Son of nation/country/state…etc ابن البلد.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    May 6, 2020 @ 3:54 am

    Sorry, the above did not copy and paste as well as I had hoped. AZZA's use of mathematical constructs such as "($^^ where $∈ℕ$)" in his prose got rather messed up here, where the forum infrastructure tries to render TeX maths markup as intended.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 6, 2020 @ 6:55 am

    From Alan Kennedy:

    Fascinating! I remember hearing people in my parents Hungarian circle
    saying "szervusz" as a form of greeting, although it was considered
    informal. When I once used the word in greeting an adult, I was told
    that I was calling myself a servant, which I later realized was a reprimand for being too informal in addressing an adult. An even more informal version of the greeting is "szió".

    How interesting to know that "ciao" has the same origin, along with words in so many other languages. And "boku" in Japanese too, although I've always had the sense that boku is a somewhat macho guy word, and not at all about humility.

  10. Bob Ladd said,

    May 6, 2020 @ 7:44 am

    @JB: And of course, Fr.travail is the source of Eng. travel, which is something to think about next time you find yourself in an airport security queue.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    May 6, 2020 @ 8:10 am

    Not likening the TSA to the good burghers of the Inquisition, are you Bob ? That would be pretty close to treason in Mr Trump's book, I am sure !

  12. Scott de B. said,

    May 6, 2020 @ 11:02 am

    And why refer to someone by their patronymic and not their given name as well?

    Isn't that common in many languages? We say Jackson was the 7th President of the United States, Macintosh was a pioneer in waterproof fabric, Velazquez was a famous Baroque painter…

  13. F said,

    May 6, 2020 @ 2:36 pm

    Scott, you obviously understand the difference between a patronymic-derived family name and an actual patronym that refers to one's father's name. In a setting where family names are more diverse than given names it makes sense that the family name would become the main reference point. But if there's no particular statistical difference between names of people and names of their fathers, then this is not at all a natural development.

    Of course the actual answer is that there is some cultural meaning to it. In Russian referring to someone by patronym only (usually a slightly truncated one, Ivanych rather than Ivanovich) is a (maybe somewhat outmoded? but as a heritage speaker I'm not really sure) way of referring to an older man which is at once familiar and respectful. If you're friendly with your building manager or janitor you might call him that. Something like that.

  14. Scott P. said,

    May 6, 2020 @ 5:43 pm

    Scott, you obviously understand the difference between a patronymic-derived family name and an actual patronym that refers to one's father's name. In a setting where family names are more diverse than given names it makes sense that the family name would become the main reference point.

    The question, though, isn't what Ibn Rusta's 10th-century contemporaries would have called him, but why we call him by the patronymic. In that context, whether it's an actual patronym or not is irrelevant, no?

  15. Andreas Johansson said,

    May 7, 2020 @ 9:27 am

    I think I've mentioned this before, but the informal Swedish greeting tjänare literally means "servant". Shortened versions like tjena and tja are more common today.

    I did never realize the origin until I read about it as an adult, in part because in the common noun I have [ɛ:] in the first syllable, but in the greeting I have [e:], presumably due to an interdialectal loan from the Stockholm area where those two vowels fall together as [e:].

  16. Chris Button said,

    May 7, 2020 @ 8:12 pm

    I think the whole "your humble servant" thing is pretty common in many languages.

    To add to the the ones mentioned, there is also Burmese ကျွန် /tʃʊ̃˨/ kjwan "slave" used in ကျွန်တော် "I (male)" and ကျွန်မ "I (female)"

    It's often compared to 官/倌 or 宦, but the Written Burmese -jw- in kjwan suggests some kind of prefixation, compounding or external influence. It's also presumably somehow related to ကျွေး /tʃweɪ˦/ "minister to" whose Inscriptional Burmese spelling is က္လွည် klwɐɲ with a truly anomalous -wɐɲ rhyme (showing a similar combination of labiality and palatility as in -jw-).

    Unfortunately the nuances of the Burmese forms tend to be ignored when such comparisons are made with Chinese.

  17. Chris Button said,

    May 9, 2020 @ 9:59 am

    A possible account for the combination of palatility and labiality is that two originally unrelated words, represented by 臣 with its palatal features and 官/倌 with its labial features, became confused as a result of their similar meanings and not totally dissimilar pronunciations. The combination of components in the graph 宦 is perhaps further evidence for this.

  18. ajay said,

    May 12, 2020 @ 4:21 am

    To add a word to the list in 'word history', the salutation "serviteur" in French, no longer in use, is also along the same lines.

    And, of course, we still finish letters with "yours faithfully, Robert Jones", "yours truly, Robert" and so on, which has exactly the same implication – two hundred years ago it would have been "your obedient servant, Robert Jones" or "your humble servant, Robert Jones".

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