silk

This topic contains 4 replies, has 3 voices, and was last updated by  anonymous 4 years, 7 months ago.

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  • #15763

    twentynine
    Participant

    Hi,Just listened to the latest episode on medicine. Facinating stuff and, though i'm glad we're moving on, i will miss Unwerth. One thing that really struck me was the mention of silk. Was this coming from China or the Byzantines (they had stolen silkworms around the mid 6th century)? Maybe a mix of both? Did the early anglo-saxons have any idea themselves of its provenance? Who was trading it to them now the roman economic and transport infrastructure was (sort of) gone? In exchange for what? As you mentioned in a previous episode it was long and dangerous to travel. There must have been something extremely worthwhile to trade against to transport it all the way north from Constantinople (i'm assuming that was probably the point of departure), and in enough quantity that it's actually mentioned as part of cures in the leech book (i doubt that if it was an extremely rare luxury it would have been included as a mere dressing).Lots of questions. I know i can go on a bit but trade and economics in the ancient world is a bit of a facination of mine. The sheer distances involved are staggering if you consider the technology and resources they had to work with back then. Not to mention dealing with alien cultures who don't speak your language. And somehow some people managed to make it work well enough that a bolt of silk from China could end up being used to patch up Unwerth after another malaise.Let's end it here. Cheers Jamie. Looking forward to the next episode. Have a great Christmas (Saturnalia if you want) and a Happy New Year everyone who reads this.Alex

  • #18761

    Jamie
    Keymaster

    Well, one thing to keep in mind is that a trade route isn't a straight shot.  So a single trader isn't going from Byzantium or China all the way to Britain.  Rather these things pass through many many hands.  But it is quite fascinating how it all manages to come together, isn't it?  We don't have a lot of hard and fast indications of what was being traded and with whom until Offa.  And even then, it's a bit of a sketchy record.  But we can be pretty sure that Britain was trading both with continental europe and also probably had traders from the Mediterranean visiting. 

  • #18762

    twentynine
    Participant

    Ok i admit i could have phrased some of that a bit better.I didn't really think a Byzantine (or Chinese! Imagine that! What a journey. In your face Marco Polo) merchant was going to go all the way from Constantinople to Britain to trade silk for something. I figured it would have been done bit by bit. The silk would have been traded for something to another group who then trade it on to others and so on. It's simply that i find it incredible that a luxury item that was probably rare and expensive, used to make the clothes of emperors and kings when they could get hold of it, ended up being mentioned in a off hand way to be used as a wound binding in the leech book. How much of the stuff was lying around in Britain? What precious commodity did they have loads of that someone from the Mediterranean was willing to travel all the way up there to get in exchange for silk? Or that a European lord would want enough to swap a fantastic display of his wealth and power for. I suppose one way someone might find out would be to look at the other end of the trade. What was arriving in southern Europe for instance that might have come from Britain? I'm guessing they might have kept better trade records. This was the area where Venice and Genoa were starting to become trading empires after all.Then again maybe i'm totally wrong. Maybe there was far more silk floating around than i'm assuming. I just find it a little hard to believe. The secret of the production of silk was a national secret in China punishable by death. Justinian had to smuggle silkworms out of China possibly putting the entire trade in jeopardy if found out; then he restricted all processing to imperial control only. This doesn't strike me as something to do for a product that there's a surplus of.Not that i'm implying you have to provide all the answers for me Jamie (but wish you did :D). You have a lot to do what with podcasting, family and that Christmas thing. I'm just throwing all my thoughts in and trying to see what comes of them.I'm rambling. And, i notice, focussing on one small thing. It just raises a few questions of how interconnected the world was.Thanks and hats off to anyone who read through all that. I do go on a bit.Alex

  • #18763

    Jamie
    Keymaster

    Yeah, it's all fascinating, isn't it?  For me, it's always the little things that are the most interesting.  Trade, travel, silk, food, etc are vastly more interesting to me than the aspects of history that are traditionally focused on (ie, swords and shields).  I wish I had more information for you right now, but unfortunately I don't.  Does anyone else want to weigh in?

  • #18764

    anonymous
    Participant

    I lived in Uzbekistan for two years.  They make a lot of silk cloth there.  They're along the 'silk road' and any silk going to the island likely went through there.The Uzbeks tell a story of how a princess smuggled silk worms out of China in her headdress to start the silk trade in what is now Uzbekistan.  The Indians have a similar legend.  Given that current political lines between countries were unknown in ancient times, I expect the shared legend refers to the same princess.  I know this really has nothing to do with British History.  As to the trade, yes, the silk had to travel a very long way to get to our story, but it is incredibly light and packs into a very small space.  I should think it would still be profitable to transport it all the way.  While it would certainly have been a luxury item, I expect it may not have been as rare as you might think.

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