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Early medieval trade

Is a ring from a ninth-century Viking grave a surprising find, or a reflection of the larger trade patterns in early medieval Europe and the Middle East? Vikings traded and raided throughout Europe and as far as the Abbasid Caliphate in the Middle East. Political circumstances and environmental factors shaped these patterns of trade.

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Video transcript

- [Narrator] In this video I want to start to answer the question of how did the environment and how did political factor impact trade? And that is a really big question that we're not gonna answer in one video, but I want to use a specific example to illustrate the role of environment and the role of politics in shaping trade. So I want to start in Birka, which is roughly here in present day Sweden. And the reason I start here is that in the late 1800s a team of archeologists working in this site uncovered a woman's grave, among other things, and found in that grave the ring that we see in the photo here. And they've dated this grave and the ring they found in it to somewhere in the 9th century. So somewhere in between the years 800 and 900 or so and we can see in our bigger timeline that that falls right into what's called the viking age and the vikings were people living in Scandinavia and this region shaded in red. They weren't a single political entity, there were a lot of smaller more independent communities, but they shared a lot of cultural characteristics. So back to our ring, firstly it's made of silver. Secondly, the bead that's set into it is made of a really high quality glass. And that's of a higher quality that archeologists have found in Scandinavia from this time period. So those two facts would indicate that the ring is probably from somewhere else. There's an inscription on the ring, it's kind of hard to see, but if you look closely you can sort of make it out and linguists and archeologists who have looked at this are fairly certain that this is a form of old Arabic script. And they think it says something along the lines of to or for Allah. And I mentioned that the vikings shared a lot of cultural characteristics and one of those characteristics was that they all spoke Norse languages. So an Arabic inscription on the ring implies really strongly that the ring did not come from Scandinavia. So that should raise the question for you of where did this ring come from and how did it end up in Birka? So the first factor we can look at to try and figure out where this ring came from and how it got here is to look at the political context. The political context at any given time is gonna determine where and what goods are traded. So think about it like this, if there are two groups of people and they have a relatively good political relationship it's more likely that they're gonna trade with each other, too. So if we look at the political situation, broadly speaking, during the viking age we have three major empires. The first in purple we have the Byzantine Empire, which was what was left of the Roman empire at this time. We have, in yellow, the Abbasid Caliphate, and this is the Islamic empire that was founded in about 750. And then we have, in blue, the Carolingian empire in Europe, and that's named after Charlemagne who in Latin is Carolis Magnus, so Carolingian comes from that. And I should point out on the timeline the Carolingian empire does continue after Charlemagne's death, it just becomes a little bit more fractured politically. Empires tend to have large cities, they can support larger concentrations of people, which means larger concentrations of wealth, which in turn means that there is more demand. So cities become attractive to traders because you have a lot of customers in one spot and those imperial cities, especially, tend to concentrate a lot of wealth if they are the seat of government too. So I'm gonna pull our cities onto the map, and as we look around here we can see Aachen is the capital of the Carolingian empire, which is actually geographically quite close to the vikings. We have Constantinople as the Byzantine capital, and then we have Baghdad which is the Abbasid capital down here. And when we look at those three empires and those three cities specifically, only one of them speaks Arabic and writes Arabic. And that would be the Abbasid Caliphate. So that would mean that the most likely place of origin for this ring was somewhere in the Abbasid Caliphate in yellow down here. So we want to think about why would the vikings be trading with the empire that's farthest away from them? Well, part of the answer is political. So if we look at the relationship between the vikings and the Carolingians, for example, one of Charlemagne's big projects as the ruler of the Carolingian empire was to wage war against and try to convert the Pagans who were living on the northeastern edge of his empire. So there's this ongoing conflict between Charlemagne and non-Christians, including the vikings, and that tends to hurt the potential economic relationships that they could have. And you actually see the vikings raid the coast of the Carolingian empire in the ninth century, as well. So the vikings are trading with the Byzantines and with the Abbasids, what they're engaging in is what we call long distance trade. So when we talk about long distance trade, what we usually see are luxury goods. And luxury goods are goods that are rare and expensive. And so in all of these empires what we see is the political context, the fact that they have large powerful empires, makes it likely that they have more advanced technology which means that they're able to produce higher quality, more technologically advanced, goods. But then we have to ask what do the vikings have that they would be trading with these more advanced empires? Well one thing we can point out here is that the vikings in Scandinavia are in a very different climate than we have down in the Byzantine empire, in the Abbasid Caliphate, and to a certain extent, different than even what the Carolingians have, although we pointed out some of the political issues prevented more trade from occurring between them. And the point we could make about the different climates is that climates determine what resources are available. So if we look at what the vikings are trading, we see things that are somewhat unique to their climate. And when we talk about the viking traders, a lot of what they're doing is actually coming across the Baltic Sea into this region here, the Baltic region, we call that and they are obtaining goods such as timber. And specifically the timber they want are from pine trees. And pines in the Baltic tend to grow very tall and straight and that makes them really attractive for building material. Also, it's much colder in this climate and animals, fur-bearing mammals, especially will tend to grow nicer thicker coats if they live in cold climates and that makes them more attractive then as potential clothing items. Another resource we see frequently in the Baltic region is amber, and that is dried tree resin. And that can be polished and shaped into stones for jewelry, for decoration, as well. And the vikings also do engage in the slave trade. They'll kidnap and take people from this region and then trade them as slaves with these imperial capitals, that is not something that's necessarily influenced by the environment, but it is also a part of this trade. Some of the most popular items that the vikings are trading for are things like fabrics, especially silk, which is produced in these empires. I also mentioned glass earlier. We saw the glass inset in the ring, they also are making glass vessels like drinking glasses. You can see a picture of one here. And that is gonna be of a much better quality than anything that the vikings are able to produce. So that glass becomes an attractive technology. There's a lot of silver coming out of, especially, the Abbasid Caliphate. One of the reasons that they know this trade was occurring more broadly is that in the Baltic region and along some of the travel routes between the Baltic and the Abbasid Caliphate archeologists have found hordes, or large collections, of silver Abbasid coins. And so we see here both silver and glass, the elements of that ring that we discovered, are things that are being traded for by the vikings coming from this region. So we see the climate impacting to a certain extent what goods exist in different regions. So there's an environmental impact there. We also see geography or environment affecting the transportation of goods. So what I want to do next is pull in the commonly used trade routes at this time. And this helps us to understand how these goods actually move between these places. So we see that the major trade routes between the Baltic region and the Byzantines and the Abbasids follow major river systems. And the vikings are able to take advantage of these river systems in part because of the technology that they possess. So again we see the environment playing a role in trade and determining what routes are convenient to transport goods. And one other point I would make about these routes that develop is we see these cities of Novgorod, of Kiev, and of Bulgar that pop along these trade routes and these cities sort of grow because the trade routes exist. These cities themselves become center of trade over time. So to come back to our ring that we started the video with, hopefully this is looking less like an anomaly, a strange find, and more like the natural result of the existing trade networks that were in in place because of the environmental and because of the political conditions at this time.