Blonde cargoes: Finnish children in the slave markets of medieval Crimea

Testing a female captive's teeth in an eastern slave market.

Testing a female captive’s teeth in an eastern slave market.

The horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade have left an ineradicable mark on history. In the course of a little more than three and a half centuries, 12.5 million prisoners – at least two-thirds of them men destined for a life of labour in the fields – were shipped from holding pens along the African coast to destinations ranging from Argentina in the south all the way north to Canada. It was the largest forced migration in modern history.

When we think of slavery, we tend to think of this African traffic. Yet it was not the only such trade – nor was it, before 1700, even the largest. A second great market in slaves once sullied the world, this one less well-known, vastly longer-lasting, and centred on the Black Sea ports of the Crimea. It was a huge trade in its own right; in its great years, which lasted roughly from 1200 until 1760, an estimated 6.5 million prisoners were shipped off to new and often intensely miserable lives in places ranging from Italy to India.

Slavery in the Crimea, however, differed in significant ways from the model made so familiar by the trans-Atlantic trade. The slaves sold there were drawn for the most part from the great plains of the Ukraine and southern Russia in annual raids known as the “harvesting of the steppe.” Their masters were successively Vikings, Italians and Tatars – the latter being, for nearly half of the trade’s life, the subjects of the Crimean Khanate, a state that owed its own long life to its ability to satisfy demand for slaves. And most of the slaves themselves were not male labourers. They were women and children destined for domestic service – a fate that not infrequently included sexual service. The latter sort of slave was always fairly commonplace in the Crimea. When the Ottoman writer Evliya Çelebi toured the north shores of the Black Sea in 1664, he noted down some examples of the local dialect that he hoped other travellers to the region might find useful. Among the phrases that Çelebi selected were “Bring a girl” and “I found no girl, but I found a boy.”

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Three 1950s youths in a medieval plague village

Kersey in 1957. Although Jack Merriott's watercolor presents an idealized image of the village – it was commissioned for use in a railway advertising campaign – it does give an idea of just how 'old' Kersey must have looked to strangers in the year it became central to a 'timeslip' case.

Kersey in 1957. Although Jack Merriott’s watercolor presents an idealized image of the village – it was commissioned for use in a railway advertising campaign – it does give an idea of just how ‘old’ Kersey must have looked to strangers in the year it became central to a ‘timeslip’ case.

Looking back, the really strange thing was the silence. The way the church bells stopped ringing as the little group of naval cadets neared the village. The way even the ducks stood quiet and motionless by the shallow stream that ran across the road where the main street began.

And, when the boys thought about it afterward, they recalled that even the autumn birdsong faded as they neared the first houses. The wind had dropped to nothing, too.

Not a leaf stirred on the trees they passed. And the trees appeared to cast no shadows.

The street itself was quite deserted—not so odd, perhaps, for a Sunday morning in 1957, especially in the rural heart of England. But even the remotest British hamlets displayed some signs of modernity by then—cars parked by the roadside, phone wires strung along the roads, aerials on roofs—and there was nothing of that sort in this village. In fact, the houses on the high street all looked ancient; they were ragged, hand-built, timber-framed: “almost medieval in appearance,” one boy thought.

The three, all Royal Navy cadets, walked up to the nearest building and pressed their faces to its grimy windows. They could see that it was some sort of butcher’s shop, but what they glimpsed in the interior was even more unsettling. As one of them recalled for the author Andrew MacKenzie:

There were no tables or counters, just two or three whole oxen carcasses which had been skinned and in places were quite green with age. There was a green-painted door and windows with smallish glass panes, one at the front and one at the side, rather dirty-looking. I remember that as we three looked through that window in disbelief at the green and mouldy green carcasses… the general feeling certainly was one of disbelief and unreality… Who would believe that in 1957 that the health authorities would allow such conditions?

They peered into another house. More

The strange tale of the Warsaw basilisk

A basilisk–a lethally poisonous monster hatched from a cock’s egg–illustrated in a mediaeval bestiary. Note the weasel gnawing at its breast; only they were impervious to basilisk venom.

A basilisk–a lethally poisonous monster hatched from a cock’s egg–illustrated in a mediaeval bestiary. Note the weasel gnawing at its breast; only they were impervious to basilisk venom.

Few creatures have struck more terror into more hearts for longer than the basilisk: a crested snake, hatched from a cock’s egg, that was widely believed to wither landscapes with its breath and kill with a glare. The example to the right comes from a German bestiary, but the earliest description that we have was given by Pliny the Elder, who described the basilisk in his pioneering Natural History (79AD) – the 37 volumes of which he completed shortly before being suffocated by the sulphurous fumes of Vesuvius while investigating the eruption that consumed Pompeii. According to the Roman savant, it was a small animal, “not more than 12 fingers in length,” but astoundingly deadly nonetheless. “He does not impel his body, like other serpents, by a multiplied flexion,” Pliny wrote, “but advances loftily and upright” – a description that accords with the popular notion that the basilisk is the king of serpents – and “kills the shrubs, not only by contact, but by breathing on them, and splits rocks, such power of evil is there in him.” The basilisk was native to Libya, it was said, and the Romans believed that the Sahara had been fertile land until an infestation of basilisks turned it into a desert.

The Roman poet Lucan was one of the first authors to describe the basilisk. His work stressed the horrors of the monster’s lethal venom.

The Roman poet Lucan stressed the horrors of the monster’s lethal venom.

Pliny is not the only ancient author to mention the basilisk. The Roman poet Lucan, writing only a few years later, described another characteristic commonly ascribed to the monster – the idea that it was so venomous that if a man on horseback stabbed one with a spear, the poison would flow up through the weapon and kill not only the rider but the horse as well. The only creature that the basilisk feared was the weasel, which ate rue to render it impervious to its venom, and would chase and kill the serpent in its lair.

The basilisk was popular in medieval bestiaries, and it was in this period that a great deal of additional myth grew up around it. It became less a serpent than a mix of snake and rooster; it was almost literally hellish. More

“They don’t like it up ’em…” Revisiting the sordid deaths of Edmund Ironside, Edward II, Kenneth II and James I of Scotland

Edward II – still the only English monarch to be subject of his own ‘anal rape narrative’

To be a king and to be murdered – one might say – is no more than a hazard of the job. To be a king and to be murdered in one’s privy, however, is to suffer a considerable indignity. Yet precisely this fate was visited on at least two British royals, if certain sources are believed – and to that number we might add the awful fate of a third king, Edward II, popularly thought to have been done in by means of a red-hot poker forced into his rectum, not to mention the fortunate if malodorous escape of a royal consort, Gerald of Windsor, whose ravishing Welsh wife, Princess Nest, lived an adventurous life early in the twelfth century. More