Rethinking the medieval Mediterranean

  • Themes: Books, History

In a work that is ambitious, punchy and even occasionally amusing, Chris Wickham sifts through new evidence to reveal how short- and long-distance commerce created the world of the early medieval Mediterranean.

A map of Europe from the Catalan Atlas, 1375
A map of Europe from the Catalan Atlas, 1375. Credit: PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy Stock Photo

The Donkey & the Boat: Reinterpreting the Mediterranean Economy, 950-1180, Chris Wickham, Oxford University Press, £40

Where to begin with this one? It’s got the heft of Lord of the Rings and it’s probably about as important, at least to anyone interested in medieval economic history. This book is nothing less than a fundamental reinterpretation of the medieval Mediterranean economy between the years 950-1180. In the process, Chris Wickham rides roughshod over a large chunk of received wisdom on the subject.

Let me explain what I mean. The Silk Roads are barely mentioned; the Spice Routes make occasional appearances, but essentially as a matter of marginal concern; the much-vaunted Italian cities of Venice, Pisa and Genoa are brought down from their pedestal and put in their place; and the trade in luxuries – silk, pepper and cumin, etc – is consigned to the sidelines. Already it should be clear that a major thesis is afoot.

Wickham’s argument differs in its fundamentals from so many previous theses and – with considerable relish – he decisively overturns the applecart. At risk of oversimplification the main features of his model are as follows.

As implied by the title, this book compares the roles played by the ‘donkey’ (representing internal commerce within a society, often short-distance) against that of the ‘boat’ (representing longer-distance maritime trade between different societies) in shaping the broader Mediterranean economy. To date, the part played by the ‘boat’ has generally been emphasised by historians, who have stressed the formative role played by the region’s major trading arteries. Wickham disputes this kind of interpretation. He takes the view that internal commerce was almost always the most important aspect of economic activity and that inter-societal maritime trade was substantially less significant, forming only a small fraction of a society’s commercial activity. Thus the ‘donkey’, not the ‘boat’, is the key to understanding the economics of the medieval Mediterranean.

Naturally some seaborne trade did take place, but here, too, Wickham has a strong revisionist view. He contends that there has been too great a focus on the cross-Mediterranean export of luxury items and that the key to understanding the maritime commerce of this era is the trade in bulk goods, such as linen, wood, metal, ceramics, and cotton; boring everyday things that lack the glamour of silks and spices. He then goes to great lengths to establish the areas of supply and demand for these goods, located in different areas around the Mediterranean periphery, as well as their interconnecting trade routes.

These arguments are presented within a discussion on six major case studies, whose commercial networks and zones of economic activity are recreated in remarkable detail. These are: Egypt, North Africa, Sicily, al-Andalus, Byzantium, and Northern Italy. Naturally, these examples do not include every society with a stake in the Mediterranean economy but, even so, covering so many regions in such acute detail is an impressive achievement.

The result is an intricate macro-mapping of the medieval Mediterranean economy. Wickham goes still further by showing how it developed over time. His basic point is that almost all regions under consideration underwent a period of sustained economic growth at this time, a pattern that can be observed on all the Mediterranean’s shores. North Africa is the only region where Wickham hesitates from drawing this conclusion too strongly, due to the nomadic invasions of the eleventh century. Within this period of widespread growth, Egypt held steady as the central dynamo of economic activity, but with other areas – such as northern Italy – developing rapidly. Byzantium is presented as wealthy and growing through internal trade, but comparatively cut off from the broader trading system; a similar story is told of al-Andalus.

All this leads naturally to the question of why these economies were all flourishing during this era, not least because Wickham makes it clear that external trade (and therefore commercial relations between territories) cannot provide the main explanation. Here, too, he offers a highly thought-provoking argument rooted in large part in the region’s peasantries. Far from being the oppressed and beleaguered underclasses depicted in the popular media, Wickham describes them in more upbeat terms, as a cadre that was never oppressed to the point where they lacked sufficient surplus wealth to buy goods from markets – especially textiles. This point, linked to other complementary factors, such as ongoing land reclamation and population growth, meant that peasant demand for bulk goods, such as clothes, tools, and ceramics, grew over time, enabling trade to dilate considerably along well-worn routes already established by elites and tax-collection systems. This, in turn, created a mutually reinforcing growth cycle, with the donkey playing the leading role.

As if he hadn’t been revolutionary enough, Wickham’s concluding chapters take his views still further, offering his findings from the Mediterranean as a model for pre-Industrial societies as a whole, referred to here as ‘feudal economies’. He presents the tensions between landlords – seeking to increase their rents and incomes – and peasants – seeking to retain their surpluses – as a dynamic force, visible both in Mediterranean societies and further afield, a force potent enough to explain developments on a much wider canvas.

At this point it might be asked where the evidence for all of this comes from. This is one of the most striking dimensions to The Donkey & The Boat. Wickham pools a vast amount of data, including scholarly studies, textual primary sources, as well as published and unpublished archaeological reports to offer this remarkable synthesis. His source of choice is nearly always ceramics (and for good reason). Different forms of ceramics can be traced from area to area, standing as proxy evidence for commerce and the diffusion of goods in general. Wickham, in his earlier book, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800, was responsible for persuading me that ceramics were not unexciting museum exhibits, but rather provide a crucial litmus test for trade-routes and the proliferation of commodities. This is very much the case in this present work, and ceramic evidence mixed with other archaeological and textual sources persuasively help to recreate whole swathes of the Mediterranean economy.

This is a stellar, game-changing book, but there are a few quibbles. Wickham’s point that the Silk Roads have been overplayed in their commercial significance is a valid one, yet the scale of the traffic passing into the Mediterranean from Northern Syria, Persia and lands further afield in the twelfth century was truly considerable; this needs to be fitted into any macro model for Mediterranean trade, even if Syria was not one of Wickham’s case studies. It would also have been useful for Wickham to provide more discussion on Anatolia when discussing Byzantium, in particular the impact of the Seljuk invasions, yet his focus is firmly on the Aegean. The lack of coverage on this region is important for many reasons, but more of an engagement with Anatolia and the iron mines on its southern coastlands (especially Cilicia) would have provided more material for his extensive discussion on the Eastern Mediterranean trade in iron. These are points of detail, however, and do not seriously detract from his overall thesis.

Punchy, eye-wateringly ambitious, and occasionally amusing, The Donkey & The Boat will set the benchmark for debate on this subject for many years to come


Nicholas Morton