In theory, estate inventories recorded everything of value in the estate of a decedent. To modern readers, one of the most unsettling features of premodern inventories can be found in the references to enslaved persons. Entries identifying enslaved persons as property are a commonplace in inventories from the colonial United States, where they are often listed at the beginning of the inventory, occasionally alongside the livestock. We also find them in inventories from Mediterranean Europe, especially Florence, as discussed in this essay.
Mediterranean slavery has been the subject of historical research since the mid-nineteenth century. In Italy, one of the earliest contributions was made by the historian and archivist Salvatore Bongi. Despite the abundant literature, Mediterranean slavery continues to operate in the shadows of historical consciousness, and many people profess surprise upon learning about the extent of slaveholding practices in the medieval Mediterranean. Much of the evidence for slavery is derived from contracts of sale and manumission as well as administrative and tax records. Estate inventories, being relatively uncommon compared to these other sources, are not especially helpful for answering basic questions about enslavement practices, such as the number of slaves, origins, gender ratios, and so on. But they are remarkably useful for reconstructing the position of enslaved persons in medieval households.
In Florence, the practice of slavery took off after 1350 to such an extent that in 1364, the Florentine State created legal structures that both sanctioned and monitored the sale of enslaved persons (Origo, 334). For taxation purposes, the city treasury also created a register of slaves (the Registro degli Schiavi, ed. Livi) which documented 357 transactions pertaining to enslaved persons in Florence between the years 1366 and 1397 (Zhang). The Registro is important for what it tells us about the scale the of the slave trade, its gendered make-up, and the physical features of those who were bought and sold at this time.
A search through DALME’s Florentine Wards Collection, currently featuring a full transcription of the Magistrati dei Pupilli Avanti il Principati 4 (MPAP 4) register covering the years 1387-1393, provides substantial evidence of enslavement practices among the Florentine well-to-do in the late fourteenth century. Florentine households where enslaved persons were present appeared to be, on average, slightly better off than those of their contemporaries, since the dossiers containing a reference to enslaved persons were slightly longer, and therefore contained more goods, than the average length of register dossiers from all households combined.
The household inventories, covering roughly the same years as the Registro degli Schiavi published by R. Livi, paint a picture of enslavement similar to the one presented in the tax documents. The enslaved persons listed in these extended inventories were usually women, which corresponds to the gender divide present in the Registro as well (Origo, 336). In some cases, male workers or lavoratore were listed among the items being sold alongside land belonging to the decedent. However, in these cases, the term slave was not used as it was for their female domestic counterparts.
The words for slave (schiava and the plural schiave), appear 19 times in the current MPAP 4 collection of 53 late fourteenth-century inventories, referring to them both directly and indirectly. In the cases of the direct reference, only slightly more common than indirect, the notary listed the enslaved person as one among the household’s many assets (eg., “a slave named Maria”). Enslaved persons were often placed in the final position in a series of entries, or, less frequently, incorporated into the list with commonplace items such as linens or foodstuffs.
In over half of the cases of direct reference, notaries indicated the names of enslaved persons, whereas enslaved persons were never named when referred to indirectly. The children of enslaved women might be listed, but only when their mothers’ names preceded theirs in the document. In one example, Maria, an enslaved woman mentioned among the items in a 1391 inventory of the household of Piero and Bartolomeno di Ligi, appeared along with her son, Giovanni.
Her name was found among the other items in the kitchen (in chucina), in a column where a barrel of flower, a pine-wood ladder, a vase, two kitchen cabinets, and a table to hold bread sacks were also enumerated.
Similarly, an enslaved woman named Melichi, 40 years old, appeared alongside her daughter Domenicha, aged five, in the items in Jacopo del Rosso Stefani’s home. As with Melichi, both an enslaved person’s name and age might be noted, but it was more often the case that those whose ages were recorded were not named. An anonymous 20-yr old woman (d’anni XX), for example, was listed among the items stored in the room “next to the roof” at Bono di Taddeo Strada’s farmhouse, along with a large basin, a bottle of vinegar, and some salted pork.
In cases where enslaved persons were referenced indirectly, the notary did not make a record of the person, but rather of the objects owned or used by them. Clothing was the item most often associated with enslaved persons (“the slave’s old skirt,” “A surcoat and some things belonging to the slave”), and references to these belongings were normally embedded, undifferentiated, into the long lists of the deceased’s other assets. In an inventory of the house of Giovanni Ditano del Brancho, for example, there were two blouses “for the slave” (per la schiava) found after a set of five “good linens,” and before mention of several books belonging to Giovanni, the head of the household. Similarly “a cloak and things belonging to the slave,” were found in the inventory of Jacopo di Bartolomeo Bombeni, as well as “lots of clothes for the slave” (piu panni per la schiava) from the extensive inventory of the household of Guido di Filippo Fagni.
As was the case with most other items, the enslaved persons working in the household or the objects associated with them, were frequently listed under the heading for one room or location within the residence or building inventoried, whether it was a house in town, a villa outside the city, or a rural farmhouse. Although an enslaved person could be situated anywhere, the most typical locations were in the kitchen, in an antechamber or small room located near the bedroom of the lady of the house, or in a room just outside children's sleeping quarters. This spatial assignment suggests occupational activities as well; a woman listed among items found in the kitchen or a kitchen-adjacent room probably performed the duties of cooking, cleaning, and meal preparation, whereas a lady’s maid might have appeared near the rooms of the mistress of the house, and a nanny near the rooms of the children for whom she cared.
Not all enslaved persons, however, were assigned to one room or location. The record of a woman, said to be 25 years old and enslaved in the household of Terrino Manovelli, was not written beneath the rubric of one room or another. Rather, mention of her was made in the folio’s margin, presumably because she moved among the many rooms listed alongside or in other columns on the same folio where her name was placed.
Although the inventories give some sense of the identities, ages, occupations and living spaces of the Florentine enslaved, there are fewer hints about whether their lives changed considerably when the head of the household died and the dynamics of the family altered. In one case from the inventories, we do know that after the death of Vese Magalocti in early 1391, Margherita, whose name was highlighted with a manicule pointing to it in the document, was subsequently “sold to Baldo di Mariotta for 39 florins,” an average price for a female slave at the time.
Information concerning the fate of many of the Florentine enslaved is rare, yet there is reason for some hope for a better life, since many of the estate dossiers also contain the decedent’s wills and the fortunes of some enslaved persons are discussed in the associated documents. In August 1390, for instance, Tuccio Lambertucci’s will stipulated that Caterina, an enslaved woman in his household, should be emancipated within two years of his death. Simone di Ricciardo Baronicelli ordered the same in 1388 for Lucia, an enslaved woman in his household. Although it is difficult to generalize from this slim amount of evidence, some of the enslaved persons in these inventories were eventually freed from servitude, despite the difficult lives they led, working among the Florentine well-to-do.