After the fall of the Roman Empire, trade in Europe declined, roads fell into disrepair and commerce was centred on small towns and local markets; but by the 11th century new routes were opening up, author Hilary Green tells Historia.
Most trade was now carried on water, either by sea or along the great rivers that crossed the continent. In the North Atlantic cargoes were carried in round bellied ships called cogs, while in the Mediterranean the great galleys, sometimes requiring 200 oarsmen, were the norm.
Markets grew up in towns like Troyes and Antwerp, where trade fairs brought together merchants from northern Europe and the Italian cities that were coming to dominate the Mediterranean trade routes. In such places a traveller might find marten skins from Ireland, furs from Russia, linen from Flanders, tin from Cornwall, soap and fine armour from Italy and also luxury goods such as silk and spices, whose origin was unknown to those who traded in them.
England’s principal export was wool from the sheep that grazed on the land of the great feudal lords or the monasteries. The trade was in the hands of the staplers, a group of merchants who bought the raw wool, sorted and graded it and prepared it for export. They worked under a royal warrant and only those who belonged to the fraternity could trade in wool.
Most of it went to Flanders, which was the centre of the textile trade, and from there it was exported in the form of cloth, carpets and tapestries, together with linen woven from flax grown in the Netherlands. Some was sold in Italy, but it was also traded as far afield as Egypt.
Another item of high value which England produced was the famous Opus Anglicanum, exquisite pieces of embroidery destined for altar fronts and religious vestments, but also found as wall hangings in the homes of wealthy merchants.
Of crucial importance to the weavers of Flanders were the dyestuffs to colour their wool and linen. Most vital of all was alum, which was used to fix dyes. Woad was grown in Flanders itself, but kermes, which produced scarlet, was made from small lice, parasites on evergreen oaks, and imported from Portugal, Armenia and Crete. The Genoese had a monopoly of the trade in alum, which came from Asia Minor via the island of Chios.
Slaves were also traded, though they were not owned in Northern Europe. They were, however, common in Byzantium and the Balkans and the Genoese had slaves to row their galleys. The only proviso was that they had to be non-Christian. Some came from Russia, others from North Africa.
The wine trade centred on Bordeaux and took a triangular route; cogs carried wine to London, where they collected wool for Flanders and exchanged it for finished textiles destined for Italy.
In the area of foodstuffs, there were two valuable commodities; salt and sugar. The trade in salt was largely in the hands of the Venetians, from salt pans at Chioggia at the mouth of the lagoon, but the Genoese also brought salt from Ibiza, to supply the Papal states.
Sugar, which the Europeans called ‘sweet salt’, came from Muslim territories around the Eastern Mediterranean, but around this time it began to be cultivated in Cyprus. The refining of the crop is labour intensive, under very hot conditions, and the local people were not prepared to do it, so slaves were imported to carry it out.
Most valuable of all was the trade in exotic silks and spices. Arab and Indian merchants brought cumin and ginger, pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon and aromatics such a myrrh and frankincense to Egypt via the Red Sea. Here traders from the Italian city states had their funduqs or inns, and, after paying a heavy tax, they could purchase these goods, together with elephant ivory, pearls and turquoises, emeralds, sapphires and rubies. The precise origin of these luxuries was shrouded in secrecy.
Alternatively, the same items were carried by camel train from Mecca to Syria and Palestine, where they reached the ports of Tyre and Acre. From here they were carried in armed galleys to the ports of Italy.
The origin of silk was equally mysterious. It came out of the desert on camel trains to centres like Antioch, but the secret of its origin and how it was produced was carefully kept. The Byzantines, however, had their own silk industry which had developed after Christian monks smuggled silk worms into Constantinople in the sixth century. The spinning and weaving of the fabrics was an Imperial monopoly, handled by members of a special guild. The Genoese dominated the export of this silk from the colony they had been allowed to establish at Pera, on the opposite side of the Golden Horn.
In this turbulent cauldron of commercial activity, it was inevitable that merchants from Italy and beyond should come into contact with cultures and languages hitherto little known in Europe. Greek became the lingua franca of trade, but obviously a knowledge of Arabic was a necessity as well.
The Byzantine Empire had preserved much of the knowledge and literature of classical Greece, while the libraries of Cairo held many of the same works in translation. In this way the works of Aristotle and Plato began to be known in the west, while translations of medical texts influenced western doctors and surgeons.
For example, the writings of Aelius Galenus, (Galen) were translated into Arabic by Hunayn ibn Ishaq and then re-translated into Latin to inform western medicine, while equally influential were the writings of the Persian Ibn Sina, known in Latin as Avicenna.
It was not until the sack of Constantinople by the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and the resulting diaspora of Byzantine scholars that all these works became widely known, sparking that great flowering of art and culture known as the Renaissance; but the trading ventures of these intrepid Europeans laid the early foundations.
This research forms the background to my new novel, Ironhand, in which my hero, Ranulph, spends much of his early years sailing the wine route from Bordeaux to London and Flanders and later becomes a wealthy and successful merchant trading in silks and spices. This gives him a wide knowledge of the languages, customs and geography of the eastern Mediterranean, which will enable him to play a key role in the army of Bohemond of Taranto as part of the First Crusade.
Hilary tells me that she’s been commissioned to write a book on international trade in the early Middle Ages after a publisher saw this Historia article. What wonderful news!
See more about Opus Anglicanum in Carol McGrath’s article for Historia.
European traders with camel caravan (Marco Polo): via Wikimedia
Galley: via Wikimedia
Chasuble, opus anglicanum: via Wikimedia
Map of the world, English, second quarter of the 11th century: via Wikimedia
Arabic manuscript of Avicenna (Ibn Sina)’s Rules about medicines of the heart: Wellcome Library