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Slavery in Europe in the Period of Renaissance

Roots of Slavery start at the beginning of the human history. Since people started life in towns and cities, there was real benefit in a source of cheap labor, costing no more than the minimum of food and shelter. These are the conditions for slavery. It is known, that every ancient civilization used slaves. And it proved easy to acquire them. In the period after the collapse of the Roman empire in the west, slavery continues in the countries around the Mediterranean.” ( Blackburn, 1997) The slaves are employed in the households and armies. The Mediterranean provided the geographical and economic environment to encourage a slave trade. Areas populated by relatively unsophisticated tribes, were the sources for slave trade. Market benefits forced the tribes to seize prisoners of their own to service a developing slave trade.

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The period of Renaissance was a cultural movement developed during the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Florence in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. Being developed in the city-states of Italy in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the uncertainty in economic and political situation supplied the material for new intellectual, cultural, and social changes, which caused the development of a new European identity focused on humanistic studies, science, and the arts. The rapid growth of wealth in the Italian cities finally led to the growth of city-states: individual regions ruled centrally from a single city.

They differed from the cities in central and northern Europe, ruled by monarchs, because the Italian cities were autonomous and expanded their political influence over the areas surrounding them. “ At the end of the fifteenth century the wealth of Italy had eventually been transferred from the nobility to the new commercial class. It can also be said, that slavery was rediscovered during the period of Italian Renaissance.” ( Blackburn, 1997). The market in human slave labor in southern Europe began in 12th century.

The Spaniards were the main suppliers of slaves, but as the Italian city-states grew, their demand for slaves also grew and they became one of the largest consumers of human slaves in Europe. Most slaves sold in Italy were Muslims from Spain, North Africa, Crete, the Balkans, and the Ottoman Empire. Black slaves were also transported into Spain, Portugal, and Italy. “ The slaves in Italy were mainly used as domestic servants and most wealthy in most cities had at least one.” (Blackburn, 1997) When a slave was acquired, the owner acquired full rights, including the right to sell that slave. Usually the slaves were involved in the household and their children were always born free. In many cases the slave owner would raise the child as a legitimate child.

Involvement in the African Slave Trade Began before the Reformation

The first slaves were brought to Portugal in 1441. “ Slaves were being brought to work on South American and Caribbean plantations under Portuguese and Spanish rule by 1502.” (Curtin, 1986) As to the Reformation, there was no slavery amongst the early Protestants in Northern Europe: not among German Lutherans, nor Swiss Reformed, nor the Reformers in England. The majority of the leaders and members of the crusade to abolish the slave trade, then slavery, were evangelical Protestants, first in Britain, then in the United States.


During the Renaissance and Reformation, the reason for enslaving Africans was that they were non-Christian. But after Virginia decree in 1667 converted slaves could be kept in bondage not because they were non-Christian, but because they had non-Christian ancestry. In the teachings or Reformers, hardly anything can be found for support of slavery and the slave trade. On the contrary, the very foundations of the Protestant Reformation rested on the appeal to the "common man". Basically, only economic benefits encouraged slavery. European powers proceeded to explore, colonize and exploit the New World for the good of their homelands – that was the reason of slavery and the trade.

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