The Heaven Book that Abolished Slavery

The capital of the Emilia-Romagna region in Italy, Bologna is a historical goldmine for lovers of obscure but important history. The city enjoyed great success during the Medieval period, but perhaps the most interesting thing is the Liber Paradisus, otherwise known as the Heaven Book. Dating back to 1256 – and beating Britain and the US by more than 500 years – the Heaven Book abolished slavery in Bologna, making it the first major city in the world to take such steps. For the emancipation of 5,855 serfs, a little over 54,000 Bolognese Lire was paid out.

Of course, the Bolognese government did this because it was the right thing to do and they owed it to those poor human beings to give them a better way of life. No wait a minute, it was because of war.

The Battle of Fossalta to be precise, which left the aristocracy of Bologna severely weakened and needing to change the relationship they had previously enjoyed with their serfs. These slaves had previously been bound by feudal law to their Signorie, or Lordships, but with the city on the verge of bankruptcy and needing new sources of revenue the government made the revolutionary decision to free the serfs.

Their thinking was less ‘a free man is a happy man’, and more ‘a free man is a taxable-to-the-commune-of-Bologna-and-more-likely-to-work-better man’, but the end result was the same. Ironically, historians are uncertain whether the economic reasons the Signorie had in mind when liberating the serfs actually panned out, but either way innocent men, women and children had been freed from a life of poverty and oppression. Now they had the pleasure of paying taxes to look forward to.

asinelli-tower
The stunning Asinelli Tower. Credit: Davide D’Amico

The city is also home to the University of Bologna, the oldest university in the world. Created in 1088, almost a decade before Oxford, it was so ahead of its time the founders had to coin the word ‘university’ as it hadn’t existed before it.

After 1183 the city began to grow in size and population and this is the period when many of its famous towers were built. Up to 100 towers are believed to have been built during the 12th and 13th centuries, although some historians believe the number to be closer to 180. Still, this would have certainly created the effect of a ‘Medieval Manhattan’. At 97 metres, the Asinelli Tower is the tallest tower that still remains standing. Doesn’t sound too grand by today’s standards, but that was quite possibly the tallest building in the world at the time.

(Credit to the featured image at the top: Toni Pecoraro. Edited on Photoshop)

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