European great trade revolution
From Europe, we place great importance on the European trade revolution of the 1000-the 1500s and the advances and innovations in finance and navigation. And that it was Italy’s ingenuity that achieved all this, with Marco Polo as the leading star. European accounts of Europe’s global leadership during these centuries often begin with Venice. But, as in many other cases, this was no more than a European myth.
Italy became an economic power by contacting within a pre-existing, strong, and developed world economy, which major Eastern empires initiated and maintained. Italy did not find the world and transform it; on the contrary, the much more advanced Eastern world integrated Italy and enabled its growth and development. Almost all the major innovations that made Italian capitalism most probably came from the East, especially the Middle East and China, spreading through the Islamic empire, via North Africa and Islamic Spain, to Europe and East Asia. However, Italy was only a minor player on a much larger world stage; it played a secondary role vis-à-vis the more advanced Islamic traders in the Middle East and especially North Africa.
Europe was at one end, but who was at the other end of the "long-distance trade"?
European historical references from these centuries make much use of the concept of ‘long-distance trade,’ where Europe is at one end. Still, it is not always clear what is at the other end. We often forgot that the East was at the other end and played a crucial role in the emergence of European trade itself. In short, European trade was not only made possible by the flow of Eastern goods into Europe via Italy. In addition, various Eastern ideas, institutions, and technologies from the Middle East and China spread to Italy and Europe mainly through the commercial arteries of the world economy – the centre of which was by no means Europe – and were adopted through the crusades.
Italy played a crucial role in European economics, trade, finance, and production. Still, it was only one of the main channels through which Eastern resources, not just trade, entered and shaped Europe. Italy managed to link itself to the various sub-systems of the world economy, straddling Europe, Africa, and Asia, which gave it a unique privilege. It was Italy’s direct entry into the lucrative African-led world economy that secured its destiny. If Venice prevailed over its rival Genoa, it was not because of its supposed ingenuity but because of its lucrative commercial access to the Orient via Egypt and the Middle East. As Braudel (Civilisation, III) puts it, «the nerve of Venetian trade was the link with the Levant.» Therefore, if Venice seems a particular case, it is because all its commercial activity, from A to Z, was dictated by the Levant».
The Venetians played an essential role in Europe.
Italy played a crucial role in European economics, trade, finance, and production. Still, it was only one of the main channels through which Eastern resources, not just trade, entered and shaped Europe. Italy managed to link itself to the various sub-systems of the world economy, straddling Europe, Africa, and Asia, which gave it a unique privilege. It was Italy’s direct entry into the lucrative African-led world economy that secured its destiny.
In short, although the Venetians played a vital role in the spread of trade throughout Christendom, they were not the great pioneers presented as such by Eurocentrism. On the contrary, they were always dependent on the conditions set by Muslims in the Middle East from the end of the 13th century and in Egypt after that. An essential function of Italy’s trade links with the Near East and, later, with Egypt, lies in the fact that the trade routes were one of the avenues through which many vital resources and technologies from the East – financial, maritime, ‘energy’ and ‘proto-industrial’ revolutions, textile manufacture, paper manufacture, iron industry,… – spread to enlighten the backward West. And these resource portfolios made possible the various «Italian» economic and navigational revolutions for which Italy has been unjustly recognised.
Financial innovations in trade and shipping
Regarding trade and navigation, the commenda (contractual agreement in which an investor financed the trip of a merchant) was allegedly invented by the Italians around the 11th century.
However, together with the bill of exchange or the advanced accounting system, the «commenda» were all introduced in the early 2nd century in Asia, it was not until the late 19th century that European could take advantage of the opportunities offered by these new concepts.
The European revolution in navigation was based on the sailor’s astrolabe and compass, the lateen sail, the stern rudder, and the square hull, as well as the three-masted systems. These new nautical methods were invented much earlier in the East and brought to Europe via the Silk Road.
Waterwheels, watermills, and windmills
As for the medieval energy revolution, conventional wisdom holds that the invention of watermills is a strictly European innovation, given their absence in the East.
As Pacey points out (Technology in world civilization, MIT Press, 1991), there were many watermills around Baghdad, and water power was applied to paper-making two centuries or more before than in Europe. Or, as Hassam and Hill (Islamic Technology, Cambridge University Press; 1986) show, there were mills in every province of the Muslim world, from Spain and North Africa to the Central Asian Transoxiana (a region and civilisation in lower Central Asia, roughly corresponding to eastern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, southern Kazakhstan, and southern Kyrgyzstan today). There were -and still can be seen- also huge waterwheels on the Orontes River in Syria (wooden water-lifting machines over 60 feet high) and Islamic Spain.
At school we learned that windmills were a unique invention that came into use during the 13th century in Europe. However, the first reference to the windmill is found in Persia in 644. At the same time, a century later, reliable authors speak of the remarkable windmills of Seistan (a district of Persia and Afghanistan). A typical response rules out Persian origins, claiming that the Middle Eastern windmill was mounted horizontally, unlike the vertically mounted European windmill. It is no coincidence that the European crusaders who discovered the Persian windmill used it in Europe shortly afterward.
Considered to be the oldest in the world, these mills, which have also been declared a national heritage site by the Iranian government, were the seed of a structure that, from ancient Persia, spread throughout the world, from Central Asia to the Middle East, as well as to the Far East, India and Europe.
The spinning wheel, silk thread, and textile production
Textile technologies spread to Europe from the East, including the spinning wheel, spinning wheels, looms, and foot pedals. The spinning wheel originated in China and came to Italy via Islamic Spain -I was taught at school that everything to do with Islamic Spain had to do with the evil barbarians who had conquered us by the sword and that, fortunately, we could spell them-, arriving in the 13th century. Not coincidentally, Italian silk machines were remarkably similar to early Chinese models.
By the 13th century, silk factories in several Italian cities were operating machines very similar to the Chinese ones. It may probably indicate that some European merchant or other travelling to the East carried the model back. More importantly, silk spinning invention (reeling machines) had been achieved in China by the end of the 11th century. From the 13th to the 18th century, Italian models looked like the Chinese models down to the last detail.
Paper-making and the iron industry
Paper was first made in Europe in Islamic Spain in 1150 and then spread throughout Europe. However, the paper was invented in China in 105 AD, and paper-making started much later. It reached Turkestan between the 4th and 6th centuries, though occasionally used. While the paper was first found in Transoxiana and Persia long before the battle of Talas in the 8th century, it was after this battle that Chinese captives passed on paper-making techniques. At the end of that century, it spread from Samarkand to Baghdad, and Arab paper from Damascus became the primary paper provider to Europe up to the 15th century.
An essential innovation for the future development of paper came from the Arabs. They introduced starch into the paper to fit scribes who used pens (the Chinese used brushes). Paper production reached Europe via Islamic Spain (1150), France (1157), and Italy (1275), more than a thousand years after the Chinese discovery.
Chinese had pioneered iron making more than anyone else in the 11th century, during the «pre-industrial» revolution of the Sung dynasty. Diffusion times from China to Europe are impressive: eleven centuries for water-blowing metallurgical machines and fourteen centuries for piston bellows. The Indians and Muslims were also significant producers of iron in their own right. Iron-making was a vital industry for Islam. It appears likely that the iron production techniques reached Europe via the «Islamic bridge of the world» as John Hobson calls the Muslim empire at the height of its splendour.
Pasta and pizza, paella, ...
We tend to think of Italy in terms of its unique food and cultural artifacts. Yet pizza was first invented in ancient Egypt and, again, via Islamic Spain (where we still eat the tasty «coca» on Spain’s Mediterranean coast), came to Italy. Italians have always been much better at marketing than the Spaniards.
Finally, rice and saffron were introduced to Sicily and Spain by the Arabs (hence our delicious «paella,» in which rice and saffron are indispensable), coffee came from Ethiopia (derived from the Arabic word «Kahwa») and, finally, here is the downfall of the biggest myth: pasta or spaghetti did not come from China (Marco Polo, where did you go?) but from the ancient Etruscans -in the western part of Italy-.
Let’s leave for another day that Marco Polo was not the first European to trade with China by around 1000 years. And that the most celebrated Italian Renaissance polymath, Leonardo da Vinci, insisted that painting should be based on mathematics – especially geometry and optics – and used geometry and optics developments from Muslims of the Middle East and North Africa via, again, Islamic Spain.