ahrc-logo-forwebox brandDirhams for Slaves
Dirham hoards from Northern Europe, trade in Slavic slaves, and the emergence of Medieval Europe (800-1000)

Description of the project

This project aims to explore the implications of a neglected trade system that connected Northern Europe and the Islamic world in the 9th and 10th centuries AD. The hundreds of thousands of Islamic dirhams found in hoards strewn across Northern Europe, from England through Scandinavia to Russia, are probably a residue of a large-scale trade system. But how exactly did it operate? What commodities were traded? This project will explore the hypothesis of a massive trade in Slavic slaves, which has so far received little scholarly attention. The study of various aspects of this trade system will lead us to ask questions of fundamental importance for the study of the Middle Ages. To what extent did the unprecedented accumulation of wealth derived from the long-distance trade trigger epochal social, economic, and political change, which in turn resulted in the emergence of states in non-Carolingian Europe in the 10th century? Was slavery a central feature of some early medieval societies, the reality of which has been overshadowed by the prevalent narrative of the emergence of feudalism? Answers to these questions are of paramount importance for any study of the medieval world, and are likely to pave the way for a new vision of the emergence of Medieval Europe and of the early contacts between Europe and the Islamic World.

The project will focus on four key research questions:

1) The Slavic slave trade in the 9th-11th centuries.

Despite its significance, trade in Slavic slaves has never come under close scrutiny. We will study its mechanisms, scale, and chronology by combining archaeological evidence, written - mainly arabic - sources, and a comparative approach. We will also assess the importance of this slave trade for the state formation process in Northern Europe. Finally we will extend our analysis to the 11th century, when silver was still hoarded, although dirhams were replaced by German and Anglo-Saxon coins. We will investigate whether this shift in the money supply indicates a substitution of the Islamic demand for slaves by a demand generated in Western Europe.

2) The Islamic demand for slaves and the role of the Samanid emirate.

Although over half of the dirhams found in the Northern hoards were produced by the Samanid emirs, no source explains why this Central Asian dynasty was interested in trade with Northern Europe. We also don't know why this trade system collapsed around 950-970. The dearth of studies on the Samanids currently makes it impossible to answer theser questions. In order to situate their commercial policy in its context, we will publish the first monograph on the Samanids, a study of wider relevance which will shed new light on a pivotal period of Central Asian history. We will also try to understand the nature of the Islamic demand for slaves.

3) Dirham imitations.

Over 10% of coins retrieved from northern hoards are imitations of Islamic dirhams, which remain to date almost entirely neglected by scholars. Who produced them and why? Were they a key tool in establishing market equilibrium in the annual slave markets? In collaboration with the leading expert on the topic, Gert Rispling, we will undertake a pioneering work of systematisation and attribution of these coins, which were probably produced by such trade intermediaries as the Khazars and the Volga Bulgars. We will build a database of dirham imitations, which will enable us to publish a catalogue covering their most important types.

4) Reasons for silver hoarding in the Northern Lands.

New archaeological evidence and the increased availability of Eastern European data will allow us to reassess the reasons for massive hoarding in the Northern Lands and also for the non-retrieval of the hoards. We will conduct a comparative study of three major areas of hoarding, Gotland, Rus, and Poland, in order to explore the role of economic and non-economic motives in the accumulation of silver.