Goitein and the Study of Slavery in the Medieval Islamic World


This essay assesses S. D. Goitein’s contributions to the study of domestic slavery and the slave trade in the medieval Middle East between the eleventh and the thirteenth centuries. As early as 1950, Goitein begin publishing documentary material from the Cairo Geniza that shed light on the lives of domestic slaves and enslaved factotums. In 1967, he published the first volume of his magnum opus, A Mediterranean Society, which included the chapter “Slaves and Slave Girls” along with detailed notes. Since its publication, the survey “Slaves and Slave Girls” has served as a crucial reference for the study of domestic slavery in the medieval Islamic world. Criticisms of Goitein’s writings on slavery are also explored here. First, his commitment to demonstrating the piety and humanism of Geniza society led Goitein to emphasize the positive treatment that slaves sometimes received and downplay the violence and exploitation also present. Second, he understated the importance of the Geniza documents and Jewish merchants’ activities for historians’ understanding of the slave trade. Ultimately, Goitein viewed his work on slavery, as he did A Mediterranean Society as a whole, as a provisional sketch. Indeed, his published work and research archive continue to provide an invaluable point of departure for new histories of slavery and related topics. This essay suggests avenues for future research on slavery in the medieval Islamic world.

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Correspondence to Craig Perry.

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Perry, C. Goitein and the Study of Slavery in the Medieval Islamic World. JEW HIST 32, 535–539 (2019) doi:10.1007/s10835-019-09332-4

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  • Slavery
  • Slave trade
  • S. D. Goitein
  • Cairo Geniza
  • Egypt