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In the period between 1250 and 1350, Afro-Eurasia experienced an increase in the amount of inter-regional trade. There were numerous reasons for this increase, as there were for the eventual decline of the trading system. Foremost among these is the arrival of the Mongols as a military power and the end of the Dark Ages in Europe. The system declined for several reasons, including the outbreak of the bubonic plague, a climate change known as a 'little ice age' and political turmoil in several countries, especially China.
Major features of the Trading Network
The vast amount of land between England in the west and China in the east, and Russia in the north and Java in the south is known as a whole as Afro-Eurasia. In the Middle Ages, until around 1350, this area was a busy trading area, with trading caravans and ships coming and going from oases in the desert and ports on the ocean, trading goods from China, India, Arabia, Mongolia, the Mediterranean, Africa and Europe.
Although many goods travelled huge distances in Afro-Eurasia, few traders would traverse the entire region. Instead, the area was broken into smaller overlapping 'circles'. Goods were traded throughout these smaller areas, and taken to cities where two or more trading circles overlapped. Goods from one area could be traded for currency or goods from the other region, which were either sold in markets in the area or taken to the next circle of trade. Venetian traveller and merchant Marco Polo mentioned how goods were taken from Cambay in India to Aden and then 'those that go to Aden are carried thence to Alexandria'. In this way, goods could be traded throughout most of the known world, from North Western Europe (South England, France and Germany) to South East Asia (Sumatra, West Java, Malaysia and Borneo) without any trader having to spend years travelling with the goods. The areas within the circles of trade were relatively independent, but goods could not be traded across the world without cooperation and understanding between traders of different races, religions and classes.
The goods eventually made their way to local markets. The judge and traveller from Tanger, Ibn Battuta, noted the extent of local trade in Egypt. He noticed that 'there is no need for a traveller on the Nile to take any provisions with him,' because he could 'descend on the bank' to purchase provisions whenever necessary. He saw a 'continuous series of bazaars from the city of Alexandria to Cairo' as cities and villages 'succeed one another along its bank without interruption'.
Marco Polo made very detailed observations of trade deals in his travels. He noted the trading practices in India, listing as exports 'pepper and ginger, besides cinnamon in plenty and other spices, turbit and coconuts.' Merchants returned with 'brass, which they use as ballast, cloth of gold and silk, sendel, gold, silver, cloves, spikenard, and other such spices that are not produced here'.
Arabia was almost literally the centre of the trading network in the 13th and 14th Century. Goods were brought to Arabia from every 'corner' of the known world. Several trading circles overlapped each other, all incorporating Arabia. One reached from South-West Arabia to North-West Africa (to beyond the Nile), one from South-East Arabia to West India, one from North-West Arabia to Italy and the Black Sea (including all the Mediterranean Islands and North Africa, including Cairo) and one from North-East Arabia to the Caspian Sea (including Baghdad and the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers).
Europe's contribution to the trading network included grain, timber, precious metals, fur and hides, wool and woollen goods, and slaves. They received 'luxurious' goods in return, such as silk, porcelain, spices and paper. Of course, these products were very expensive by the time they had been traded across the entire known world, changing hands several times on the way. The goods were transported by camel or by sea, depending on the weight/profit margin. For example, silks and spices could be transported in camel trains, as they were lightweight and expensive. However, larger, heavier goods such as iron ore were transported on ships, despite the increased cost and danger involved in travelling by sea.
Before the Mongols conquered China in the 1260s/1270s, trade was not widespread. Despite having the largest population and industrial production, trade was discouraged. Instead, an elaborate system of tribute supplied China with goods. Ibn Battuta described a transaction he witnessed while staying in Delhi in which 'the king of China had sent to the sultan a hundred mamluks and slave girls, five hundred pieces of velvet cloth, five maunds of musk, five robes adorned with jewels, five embroidered quivers, and five swords'. The sultan requited the present with 'a hundred thoroughbred horses saddled and bridled, a hundred male slaves, a hundred Hindu singing- and dancing-girls, fifteen hundred pieces of cloth, unequalled in beauty, a large tent, six pavilions, four candelabra in gold and six in silver enamelled, four golden basins with ewers to match and six silver basins, ten embroidered robes of honour from the sultan's own wardrobe and ten caps also worn by him, one of them encrusted in pearls, ten embroidered quivers one of them encrusted in pearls, ten swords one of them with a scabbard encrusted in pearls, gloves embroidered in pearls, and fifteen eunuchs.' After the Mongols took control of China, the world system benefited from the increased trade.
Rise of the Trading Network
The emergence of the Mongols as a major power in the late 11th and early 12th Centuries eventually led to the expansion of the trade network to include China and enabled the use of the land route through southern Russia to West Asia, which had previously been too dangerous for regular trade caravans. After the Mongols under Genghis Khan, and later Kubla Khan, conquered a large part of Asia, from Baghdad to China, trade was encouraged and traders were protected from robbers and brigands on the trade routes. The Mongol invasion of China was beneficial to the world trade network. Before the invasion, China was insular and the government (under the Song dynasty) did not allow Han Chinese to leave the borders of China to trade. Under the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty, technologies increased and Chinese commerce was added to the global network. Under the Yuan dynasty, China became one of the greatest trading centres in the world. Marco Polo attributes this to Kubla Khan's presence. He claimed that 'more precious and costly wares are imported into Khan-Balik than into any other city in the world.' He also claimed that this was 'on account of the Great Khan himself, who lives here, and of the lords and ladies and the enormous multitude of hotel-keepers and other residents and of visitors who attend the courts held here by the Khan.' Marco Polo estimated that 'every day more than 1,000 cart loads of silk enter the city'. China's huge population base and advanced technology greatly increased the amount of trade between the 13th and 14th Centuries.
Post-Dark Ages Europe
Europe became involved in the world economic system relatively late, after the end of the Dark Ages, when trade was already well-established in the Middle East. Europe was only connected to the trade network through its contacts in the Mediterranean trading circle, which stretched from Genoa (North Italy) in the west to Cairo in the south-east and Caffa (on the Black Sea) in the north-east, both of which were large trading centres. Europe became aware of the trade occurring in the Middle East during the first Crusades at the end of the 11th Century, when pilgrims gained a taste for the exotic and luxurious goods available at most Middle-Eastern urban centres. The contact with the rest of the world encouraged manufacturing in north-west Europe, as goods were made specifically to trade for 'exotic' luxuries.
Decline of the Trading Network
The world trading system underwent a drastic downturn in the 14th Century. This decline led many historians to assume that when Europe emerged as a global power after 1500, the various European empires were the first example of a global trading network. More recently, historians have realised that there was a sophisticated trading system operating throughout Afro-Eurasia before 1500 which fell for a number of reasons, including climate change, the spread of the bubonic plague, and political unrest.
The climate underwent a drastic change around 1300, with global temperatures decreasing in what came to be known as a 'little ice age'. Crops failed all over the world, and Greenland eventually had to be abandoned. By the 1330s the global trading system was showing signs of imminent collapse. Banks failed in Italy, the ports in Genoa and Venice stopped expanding, labour difficulties in Flanders1 resulted in poorer quality cloth being produced, and the number of local wars increased, as did 'protection' costs.
At the same time, the world was struggling to deal with a larger problem - the spread of the bubonic plague. The plague probably originated in Central Asia and was carried by infected fleas with Mongol horsemen to south-central and north Asia. It spread to Caffa on the Black Sea when Mongols besieged the city and was taken to the Mediterranean with rats aboard trading ships. It then probably spread along trading routes. Areas that were worst-affected by the plague were generally the trading centres, while remote areas and trade routes of limited importance fared better.
In Mongol-ruled China, economic difficulties and political problems, and the 1368 Ming Rebellion lead to the collapse of the Yuan dynasty. China, under the Ming ('brilliant') Dynasty, removed itself from the global trade network. The loss of one of the largest trade circles contributed to the decline of the entire system.
The Past and the Present
Understanding the events which led to the rise of a global trading network in the Middle Ages as well as the events which led to its downfall is crucial in today's world. The events which occurred Centuries ago in Afro-Eurasia directly led to the development of systems in our modern-day world. The past is not isolated from the present; it is integral in understanding the present and to help predict the future course of human events. One of the greatest misconceptions about the past that has come to light in the past few decades is the erroneous Eurocentric assumption that Europe has always been ahead of the rest of the world culturally and economically. Better understanding of the Middle East and Asia is extremely pertinent in today's society.
Ross E. Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveller of the 14th Century (Berkeley: University of Los Angeles Press, 1976).
Marco Polo, Marco Polo: The Travels, ed. by Ronald Latham (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1958).
Ibn Battuta, The Travels of Ibn Battuta, ed. by Tim Mackintosh-Smith (London: Picador, 2002).