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Levant Trade in the Middle Ages
By Eliyahu Ashtor
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1983 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
The Crisis of Levant Trade (1291-1344)
A. The Fall of Acre (1291)
The conquest of Acre by the Mamluks in 1291 was surely a heavy blow to Western Christianity. It was understood that it meant the end of that great undertaking, the Crusades, but its reverberations were strongly felt in other areas that had nothing to do with religious feelings. The economic interests of various groups in the nations of Southern Europe were at stake. In fact, for the Westerners, Acre had been the gate to the Moslem Levant and a cornerstone of the trade with the Near Eastern countries, in which they were more interested then than at any time before, as the economic development of Southern and Western Europe had reached a level at which trade with the Moslem Levant supplied articles much in demand and was an outlet for their own products. So suspension of the Levantine trade would have hit the economically most advanced countries of Europe very hard.
Just at the end of the thirteenth century, a long period of demographic growth in Western and Southern Europe was approaching its climax. The population of most European countries had grown almost continuously from the tenth century onward. The population of France had risen to 13.4 millions (based on the territory of 1328, but if that of 1794 is taken as the base, the figure is 17.6 millions). In the twelfth century it had been perhaps six millions. The number of inhabitants of England had grown from 1.1 million in 1086 to 3.7 millions (all the British Isles had 5.25 million inhabitants). In the late thirteenth century, Italy had perhaps 8.4 million inhabitants. An equally striking phenomenon of the demographic development of Western and Southern Europe in the period of the Crusades was the growth of the towns. Studying the medieval chronicles that recount the history of that period, time and again one finds accounts of the addition of new quarters to the walled towns. In many towns the area within the walls was enlarged twice. These texts are clear evidence of population growth. Certainly many towns, or even most of them, were still very small, compared with our own times, but some had become truly big towns. In 1338 Florence had about 75,000 inhabitants, Venice 100,000. Paris must have had about 90,000 inhabitants before the middle of the fourteenth century.
The growth of the town population meant a considerable increase in the demand for such Oriental articles as spices and luxurious textiles, the use of which had formerly been the prerogative of the nobility and high clergy. Whereas in earlier periods rather small stocks, occasionally imported from Levantine ports, had been sufficient, the numerous new towns, which had come into being all over Western and Central Europe, were a great market for the Oriental articles, whose supply was the very profitable business of many merchants engaged in maritime and land trade. They offered not only spices but also silken stuffs in whose production the Oriental craftsmen still excelled. Interruption of the Levant trade would have brought disaster to all those who made a living from this trade, either directly or indirectly. At the end of the thirteenth century the Italian traders, encouraged by the king, also began to carry on regular trade with England. From 1278, at least, Genoese galleys visited England. At the beginning of the fourteenth century these travels became more and more frequent. Then, in 1319, Venice established a state line of galleys to Flanders, while Catalan ships sailed to Southampton and other parts of England. Certainly the main purpose of the travels to Flanders and England was to acquire English wool, so highly appreciated as raw material for the flourishing textile industry of Italy and Catalonia. But the Mediterranean traders also brought Oriental spices and drugs into the countries of Northern Europe, thus providing themselves with a large part of the funds needed for the purchase of the English wool.
The trade with the Levant also opened markets for European industries. The manufacturers of various textiles, mainly woolen stuffs and linen, were badly in need of new markets. For in many provinces of Central, Western, and Southern Europe the textile industries had reached a high level of technical skill and the volume of the output was substantial. The great development of these industries was mainly the consequence of two important innovations: the use of the treadle loom and the introduction of the water-driven mill for fulling. These innovations made it possible to produce more and better textiles. The woolen stuffs of Flemish and Florentine manufacturers were exported into the Near East from the end of the twelfth century and the beginning of the thirteenth century, and the same is true for the linen of Champagne and of some districts in Southern Germany. As early as the beginning of the thirteenth century French, Flemish and German linen was exported to Egypt through the Genoese. In a treaty between the Mamluk sultan and Genoa drawn up in 1290, just on the eve of the fall of Acre, the merchandise referred to for import into Egypt was woolen stuffs of various colors, linen of Reims and others. Likewise, a flourishing fustian industry had developed in Southern France, Lombardy, Tuscany, and other regions of Western and Southern Europe. This industry, too, was oriented toward export of its products to other countries, including the Moslem Levant. The same can be said of the new Italian silk industry. From time immemorial the Near East had been famous for its costly silk products. How many churches and abbeys in Western Europe were proud of having garments made of the Oriental silk! But in the thirteenth century the Italian traders were already exporting the products of their own country's silk industry to Egypt and Syria. The upswing of the Italian silk industry was also the outcome of a great technological innovation. Once more it was the use of water power. Francesco Borghesano began to use it in Bologna for the throwing of silk in 1272, and this innovation, while requiring fewer workers, made it possible to produce much more and much better silk. For this period we have reliable data for the volume of the production of the woolen industry of Florence, one of the major centers of the industry. They show that production reached a peak in the years immediately subsequent to the fall of Acre. According to the Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani, at the beginning of the fourteenth century the output was 100,000 pieces a year with a value of 600,000 fl. This statement may have been exaggerated, but it testifies to the growth of the Florentine woolen industry. The Florentines also fashioned and dyed cloth imported from Flanders and a large part of these textiles was even shipped to the Near East. All these industries were closely linked to the Levant trade for another reason: they used Levantine flax, cotton, and raw silk and various Oriental dyes as well as alum for fixing the colors.
The export of European textiles became possible because the Near Eastern textile industries had begun to decline. The production centers in Lower Egypt, which had been famous for their fine linen and other textiles, decayed from the end of the twelfth century onward. Some important centers of this industry discontinued production. This phenomenon, followed by the decay of other industries, is the background against which the commercial expansion of the European nations should be seen. Indeed, their expansion was possible only because of the industrial decay of the Near East, although this was a slow, progressive development.
The growth of the Levantine trade of the South European nations in the late thirteenth century and the development of their exchanges with Northwestern Europe would probably not have been so conspicuous if the techniques had not changed so considerably. Just in that period the commercial methods in Italy and in Southern France had advanced very greatly. In the first half of the thirteenth century, the merchants of these countries had begun to transfer funds by bills of exchange. This is first mentioned in documents of the 1220's and in the middle of the thirteenth century was frequently used in Southern France, judging from the acts of notaries of Marseilles. This system of combining the exchange of money with its transfer by a letter of credit, instead of actually transporting cash, rendered the activities of the merchants who needed money overseas much easier.
It is also true that the nautical skills of the South European mariners had greatly increased in the thirteenth century. Some important innovations brought about a great change in navigation in the Mediterranean, and this change had substantial economic importance. The progress in nautical methods was particularly notable in the last third of the century, just when the last strongholds of the Crusaders fell. One of the innovations was a new kind of nautical chart, which distinguished itself by great accuracy and on which the windrose was included. The oldest of these charts that has come down to us, the Carta Pisana, dates from 1270-1275. Another new expedient was the navigation table arranged in columns, which the mariners of those days called tavola de marteloio. The use of these new charts and sailing directories would have been impossible if sailors had been unable to measure time exactly. So there is strong evidence for the assumption that by the end of the thirteenth century European seamen used the sandglass, which remained their timekeeper until the chronometer came into general use in the late eighteenth century. The first authentic reference to the use of the sandglass dates to 1345-1346. Even more important was the general use of the compass. Many scholars still believe that the compass as we know it was invented in Amalfi; others differ with this view. The differences in opinion arise from the fact that the compass is the result of a long development. In any case, it is very probable that at the end of the thirteenth century the magnetic needle was amalgamated with the windrose, that is, attached to a compass card, so that they moved together and turned when the ship changed direction. The Chinese sailors, who had used the magnetic needle a long time before the Europeans, remained faithful to the floating compass until the sixteenth century, when the pivoting needle was introduced into the Far East. However, the question of who invented the compass or who introduced it into Europe is much less important than the evaluation of the practical consequences of its use, which clearly emerges form documents of the end of the thirteenth century. The importance of the compass to sailing in the Mediterranean was particularly great, because it made possible the crossing of the sea in winter, when the skies are clouded. As east winds can be expected in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean only in October and November, the merchantmen could sail in these months and no longer had to return from the Levant in a period when they did not enjoy favorable winds. So the Mediterranean became open the whole of the year and two trips could be made to the Levantine ports in twelve months. The schedules established by the authorities of the merchant republics in the late thirteenth century and at the beginning of the fourteenth century for the convoys to the Levant show the great change resulting from the use of the compass.
So there were a number of reasons for which the fall of the last Crusader towns was a particularly heavy blow. These towns had been the destination of many ships that connected the Near East with South European ports. The cargoes they transported seem to us very small, and indeed the volume of the Levant trade was rather limited, as compared with the total of the agricultural and industrial production and the trade of the countries of Southern and Western Europe, but the activities of the Levant traders infused blood into the veins of the fast-developing European economy. They made possible an increase in the output of industries and a rise in the standard of living in the towns.
It would be very one-sided, however, to overlook the fact that the Moslems of the Near East also had a great interest in these commercial exchanges. The European traders provided them with several articles in which they were very much interested. It is sufficient to have a look at the commercial treaties that the sultans of Cairo concluded at the end of the thirteenth century with European trading nations to understand this point.
The Near Easterners had always had a great liking for furs, and even in the days of the Abbasid caliphate the import of various furs, such as ermine and marten, from countries of Eastern and Northern Europe, had been a lively trade. The Mamluks, most of whom stemmed form regions north of the Caucasus, liked furs even more. The commercial treaty concluded between the Mamluk sultan and Genoa in 1290 contained a paragraph in which the import of furs was made duty-free.
There were other articles that were even more in demand. The Moslems had a great need of timber and iron. At the end of the thirteenth century the rulers of the Near East were still engaged in the construction of warships. But they also needed timber and iron for weapons, such as rams and other siege engines to batter the walls of towns. These materials, lacking or very scarce in most of the Near Eastern countries, could easily be supplied by the South European merchants, and the latter were not reluctant to sell them to the Moslems, despite the prohibition of this trade by the Church. The kings of Europe and the governments of the merchant republics were not ashamed to oblige themselves by official agreements to deliver these war materials to the enemies of Christianity. In the treaty mentioned above, the Genoese agreed to pay 10 percent customs for the import of these commodities, and they were certainly not the only European traders who supplied the Mamluks with war material to be used against the Christians. In the same year, King Alfonso III of Aragon made a treaty with the sultan of Cairo in which he undertook to allow his subjects and other Christian traders to export timber, iron, weapons, and similar articles to the Moslems Levant.
These facts were put forward by the champions of a new Crusade and were expounded in many treatises written by them. What was often overlooked was the fart that the supply of war material to the Moslems was associated with technical help. The famous Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), probably the first sociologist, when writing in the late fourteenth century about the decay of Moslem civilization, says that the Moslems are no longer skilled in building good ships and equipping war fleets, so that they need the assistance of European Christians. This statement is fully borne out by papal bulls. In some of those, which forbid the supply of war material to the Moslems, one finds some vague references to the collaboration and help given them. Others are more specific and dwell on the fact that Christians sell the Moslems ships, serve them as helmsmen on their ships, and take part in their naval expeditions against other Christians.
The Moslem spice merchants certainly had the greatest interest in continuing the profitable trade in commodities so eagerly demanded by the South European traders. Even the Mamluk government was interested in it. The revenue the Royal Exchequer of the sultan received from the customs which were collected from the European merchants cannot be overlooked. Although the amount cannot have been too great if compared with the total of the sultan's tax revenues — the land tax in 1298 yielded about five million dinars — it should not be forgotten that the great majority of the rural estates was allotted as fiefs to the military (in 1298, 80 percent of the cultivated area), so that even some ten thousand dinars were appreciated as an additional source of income for the treasury.
As both the European traders and industrialists and the Moslems were so much interested in their commercial exchanges, they were carried on throughout the second half of the thirteenth century despite the ruthless war waged by the Mamluks against the remnants of the Crusader principalities.
Excerpted from Levant Trade in the Middle Ages by Eliyahu Ashtor. Copyright © 1983 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
- FrontMatter, pg. i
- Table of Contents, pg. vii
- Tables, pg. ix
- Preface, pg. xi
- I. The Crisis of Levant Trade (1291-1344), pg. 1
- II. Back to Egypt and Syria (1345-1370), pg. 64
- III. A New Period of Growth (1370-1402), pg. 103
- IV. The Ascendancy of Venice (1403-1421), pg. 200
- V. A New Crisis (1422-1452), pg. 270
- VI. The Levant Trader at Home and Overseas, pg. 367
- VII. Mediaeval Levant Trade at Its Height (1453-1498), pg. 433
- Appendices, pg. 513
- Bibliography, pg. 560
- Index, pg. 577