The Arc Blog and Podcasts

The Donkey and the Boat

When looking at the history of the eleventh-century commercial upturn in the Mediterranean – which accompanied a similar upturn in the North Sea, focussed on Flanders – many historians have not got significantly beyond the conceptual framework of Roberto Lopez’s work, summarised in his The commercial revolution of 1971, for whom, as he schematically put it, demographic growth caused agricultural progress, which in its turn caused more surpluses which could be traded; this, plus the ‘freedom and power’ of Italian cities – unlike their Muslim counterparts – and their flexible commercial contracts and credit operations, was enough to make the ‘European’ commercial revolution of the central middle ages happen.

Actually, when Lopez rounded off his career with that synthesis, it was already out of date. Cairo does not appear in its index, but in 1967 Shelomo Goitein had published the first volume of his A Mediterranean society, about the commercial activities of the communities of Cairo Jews whose Judeo-Arabic letters and documents, above all from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, were thrown into the geniza – not an archive, but a huge waste paper bin, hundreds of thousands of bits of paper – of the Ben Ezra synagogue, one of the two main synagogues of Fusṭāṭ, Cairo’s commercial sister city, in our period. Geniza scholarship has been highly active ever since, in the hands of Goitein’s pupils and their pupils; in recent years by far the most significant book on geniza economic issues has been Jessica Goldberg’s Trade and institutions in the medieval Mediterranean, of 2012. From all this work, a clear picture of a Mediterranean-wide trade by Jewish merchants could be established. It started in the late tenth century, well before the Italian cities got a look in, and was focussed on selling Egyptian flax to Muslim-ruled Sicily and Tunisia to be made into linen cloth and sold on, whether inside those two regions, or on to Muslim Spain, or back to Egypt.

The network of the geniza has, by now, been added to the western-centred picture which Lopez inherited from his predecessors. It is now generally recognised that the Pisans, Genoese and Venetians simply added themselves to this network by force, and in the twelfth century they established trade treaties with the major Muslim powers (as also with Byzantium) which gave them the same sort of rights that local merchants had. The Italians largely took over the carrying trade by 1200 or so, shifting much of it northwards, as Lopez and indeed his nineteenth-century predecessors thought already, and it stayed that way.

This picture isn’t in itself dramatically wrong. But it is partial, and misleading because it is partial. Because just a thought about basic economics will remind you that most exchange isn’t trans-Mediterranean shipping, but local, and then regional. You have to grow produce, raise animals or mine metal and stone locally; you then often have to turn them into artisanal products such as clothing and iron tools, either locally or somewhere accessible; only then do you have something to be traded, either locally/regionally (which is the commonest situation) or interregionally. Who produces? Who sells? Who buys? Where does the motor of exchange start, and what keeps it going? Those are the questions which are going to give form to the infrastructure of exchange. The maritime network depends entirely on that infrastructure; without it, the goods won’t even get to the coast. If you start with the maritime network, it is only too common for historians to neglect the local, sometimes almost entirely; it is less sexy, more workaday. It gets mentioned casually and then moved on from; it isn’t analysed in any detail. But it is the core; you need to start from there if you want to understand the economic system as a whole. And this means studying the donkey, not the boat. In this lecture, I will look at Egypt and Sicily across a long eleventh century, European regions which have dramatically different source-bases for the period (above all letters in Egypt, archaeology in Sicily) to see what insights can be gained by doing just that.
By Chris Wickham

See Chris Wickham speak at the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies!