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Conditions at the Late Byzantine Mint: Indentured Servitude?


TheTrachyEnjoyer
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I came across an interesting passage while reading the writings of Nicholas Mesarites 
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This eyewitness account occurred during the July 31st rebellion of John Komnenos “the Fat” under Alexius III Angelus. Mesarites comments on the conditions of the imperial mint which state that the workers were sourced from outside Constantinople and brought into the mint where they kept for months or years at work. I am curious what other sources people have encountered which describe the conditions at the mint of Constantinople. I presume these strict conditions were imposed to limit theft from the mint and allowed because it was done to non-Constantinopolitan individuals. Either way, it would appear that these mint workers were in some form of indentured servitude.

 

(I believe Choniates also describes the mint but I forget at which point in his work)

Edited by TheTrachyEnjoyer
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That's an interesting passage, thanks for posting ☺️. "Indentured servitude" may not be the best description of the situation described by Mesarites. The early 13th century was a perilous time for the Byzantine Empire, especially after the 4th Crusade. Indentured servitude implies working without pay for a period of time for eventual compensation later, possibly for citizenship or working off a debt. Indentured servitude was widely practiced in early colonial America. The dismal working conditions described by Mesarites sounds like the diamond miners in South Africa, & not much different than the early coal miners in America who worked a long distance from home. Mesarites doesn't imply that the mint workers were forcibly conscripted for the work.

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We do not always appreciate how modern times compare to the past, even the recent past.   I suspect most of us descend from slaves, serfs, captives, and emaciated victims who barely survived the hard winter, the latest famine, raid, pestilence,  and war.   And more recently, persons who were of the wrong ethnicity, political opinion, language, or religion, who were prescient enough, or lucky enough to get out of harm’s way before the killing began.   If you enjoy peace and prosperity in your life, thank your Creator or thank your lucky stars.  

Those mint workers were regularly fed (I am presuming) and had a warm place to sleep.  They may have felt fortunate compared with their families who endured backbreaking agricultural drudgery in the blazing sun, or kept watch over a flock of sheep on some cold, windswept hillside.   Starvation was a common way to die in prior centuries, and sometimes still is.  

Workers who lament the loss of what to us would be intolerable conditions tells us something about what the rest of society endured.  

I only need to go back 4 generations to see starvation in my family, 2 generations for crippling polio and death by TB, one generation for death from scarlet fever and political internment based on nationality.    We peasant-descended folks have never had it so good as now.   Less than two centuries to go from destitute penniless refugees to professors, doctors, dentists, and military officers.   

Some roughly contemporary Byzantine coins.image.png.7bcc170251126be17564afed22d0a91d.pngimage.png.7621d77c602619cdffb12ed6d556d5fc.png

77,78,79,80.      Romanus IV                 1068-71AD           Histamenon nomisma

                           Manuel I Comnenus    1143-1180 AD     Aspron Trachy of Electrum

                           Isaac II.                          1185-1195 AD     Hyperpyron of gold

                           Michael VIII.                  1261-1282 AD.     Hyperpyron 

Hyperpyra were struck to an intended fineness of 20 1/2 karats fine gold.  

- C.P. Barclay.  I believe aspron trachys were around 7 karats.  

 

 

 

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That's an interesting excerpt, but not terribly surprising.  Slaves, for sure were used in antiquity for mining and other hazardous settings, going back to Athens and perhaps even earlier.  The crude and inhumane conditions described were probably not atypical.  It would be interesting to see other documentation and accounts of life as a mint worker in those times.

The Spanish were not above using slaves in mining and minting activities during colonial times, including the processing of silver ore with mercury, which required the mixing of crushed ore with mercury by means of having workers mash the powdered silver ore and mercury with their feet, an eventual death sentence.

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That's an incredibly interesting piece. It's funny, we know so much about Roman coins but we don't know that much about the Roman imperial mint. Particularly in the later period. Where was the mint located in Constantinople? Where did they source the metal? What quantities of coin were they minting? What are the conditions of the mint workers? Who is responsible for operations? When does the new Emperor's image start being used? 

Does anyone know anymore sources for this? I'm currently reading Choniates' histories and will get back here if I find the mentions of the Queen of Cities great imperial mint. 

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Serfdom might be a more appropriate concept than slavery or indenture, though all three from a sort of historical continuum. While nominally "free", rural serfs were bound to their landlords by debt. It may be that landowners in the provinces "lent" unprofitable or unruly serfs to the mint in return for payment or favor in some form.

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