Travellers' spicy tales of slaves and silks

Origins of the European Economy
June 27, 2003

Michael McCormick, who is the author of a splendid and wide-ranging book on late antique ceremonial ( Eternal Victory ), here turns his pen to travel and trade. The centrepiece of his work is a detailed discussion of the journeys of 669 individuals, travelling between AD700 and AD900, either across the Mediterranean or into the Balkans.

McCormick has combed the contemporary source material, whether in Greek, Latin or Old Church Slavonic. Almost all travellers were engaged in either political embassies or religious pilgrimage; only 19 are identifiable as merchants. But McCormick argues that the recorded pattern of political and religious travel reveals the underlying and hidden directions of commerce. If ambassadors and pilgrims travelled to Constantinople or Jerusalem, then there were ships and seamen regularly plying these routes for commercial reasons. Hence McCormick's subtitle: his contention is that the pattern of "communications" reveals the pattern of "commerce".

He reinforces his case with an exhaustive analysis of the evidence for eastern coins in the early medieval West, a discussion of the relic trade (focused on the remarkable collections of holy objects at Sens and Chelles, on which he promises us a forthcoming book), and by a thorough look at the written evidence for other traded goods.

He concludes that the late 8th and 9th centuries saw the emergence of a flourishing trade between western Europe and the Islamic world, funnelled in the main through Venice. This trade was, from the East, primarily in luxury goods (such as spices and silks) and, from the West, in slaves.

While the scale did not begin to match that of the Roman world, or that of the 11th and 12th centuries, this is where McCormick places the origins of the European commercial economy.

Henri Pirenne, in his book Mahomet et Charlemagne (1937), claimed the rise of Islam was the cause of death for Mediterranean trade. McCormick reverses this thesis, arguing that a prosperous Muslim world, with its strong demand for slaves, lay at the root of European commercial development. These origins are not necessarily ones to be proud of. The slave trade he discusses was soon to give Europe a new and universal word ("slave", esclave , schiavo and so on), taken from the name of the people who were its primary raw materials, the Slavs.

The book is a remarkable compendium of information about travel. McCormick is an exceptional scholar, blessed with the linguistic gifts that allow him to range through an extraordinary number of texts. All too often, modern discussions of the early Middle Ages, once the Roman empire has been disposed of, become parochial and centred on individual peoples and regions, which does not suit the history of long-distance trade.

McCormick's canvas is Mediterranean-wide. If you want to find out what is recorded about travellers and travel in the early Middle Ages - the season of travel, the possible routes taken or the hazards encountered - this book will tell you what there is to know. Whether the presence of travellers necessarily proves the existence of regular trade is more questionable.

Here, from the perspective of Britain, we might compare the frequent accounts of Anglo-Saxons travelling to Rome for religious reasons during these same centuries (and of southern Europeans making the journey in the opposite direction). No one would (or could) argue that this is evidence of significant early medieval trading links.

Having said this, McCormick may nevertheless be successful in proving the case for the existence of a considerable Mediterranean trade in the 8th and 9th centuries. For this reviewer, he achieves this aim in the subsidiary and more conventional sections of his book: his detailed and impressive discussion of the distribution of eastern coins in the West (from both archaeological and textual evidence); and his systematic search for references that explicitly document trade.

Showing that Venice and the Mediterranean were highly significant in developing long-distance exchange is, as McCormick argues, a useful corrective to historical views of a stagnant and inward-looking Carolingian economy (although it should be noted that this book is not centred on the Frankish heartlands, for which these theories were developed). His Mediterranean perspective will also be a useful supplement to recent archaeological textbooks, which stress the development of North Sea trade (documented from excavations at sites such as Saxon Southampton) but ignore anything further south (because here the pace of archaeological discovery has been slower). This book confirms the importance of Mediterranean trade, furthermore in a language that historians and archaeologists of the North will be happy to read.

There are, however, significant problems with the book. In particular, the self-presentation is overdone. The book is grandly titled The Origins of the European Economy but it is really about a resurgence of trade in the Mediterranean - the many travellers, and the extensive archaeological evidence of trade in the northern seas and along the rivers of Russia, are not included. McCormick also overstates the originality of his conclusions.

Historians of Italy have never doubted the importance of Venetian trade in the 8th and 9th centuries, and even Pirenne, the apostle of Carolingian stagnation, made a clear exception for Venice and its slave trade. Whether we need a 1,100-page book to restate this is open to question. There are problems too with some of McCormick's presentational and rhetorical approaches. He uses the dispassionate language of science to turn every possible scrap of data into an impressive-looking percentage and map. This is a useful technique but, when applied to tiny numbers, it can be as deceptive as it is clear.

In a different vein, the author is also not averse to using his considerable literary skills to brush over weaknesses in his argument. For instance, because he does not want his commercial revival to begin until after 750, McCormick (twice) describes the good merchants of Comacchio, who in about 700 entered into the first recorded commercial treaty in the West, as "peddling" their wares. Ironically, this is a verbal trick that Pirenne used, when he wished to discount references to the very same Carolingian merchants who are the heroes of McCormick's book, dismissing them as mere "unlicensed pedlars ( colporteurs marrons )". Nevertheless, there is no denying this is an important book that brings together scattered but cumulatively impressive evidence of contacts between the West and the East in the 8th and 9th centuries.

I suspect few people will read the book cover to cover but I am certain it will be productively mined, as a comprehensive work of reference, for a long time to come. There is a great deal here - on travel, trade, shipping, monetary history, political contacts, the movement of relics and more besides. Furthermore, Cambridge University Press is to be congratulated on producing such a substantial book (with excellent maps) for a sum that is very reasonable.

Bryan Ward-Perkins is a fellow of Trinity College, Oxford.

Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce AD300-900

Author - Michael McCormick
ISBN - 0 521 66102 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 1,101

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