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Agricultural West Vs. Merchants Power and Trade Routes of the East

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As the West, under the Carolingians, mainly had become an agricultural, feudal heartland where commerce was not the principal value, such other regions of the world of the time, like the Arabic, or the Chinese of the Tang dynasty, had become centers of commerce, agriculture, or industry. The main link between the Carolingian empire and those regions of the world was done through those Jewish merchants called the 'Radhanites'. The Byzantine empire, albeit on another stance, also kept being a rural empire only. Trade, generally, likely appeared since the dawn of manking under the form of barter. Traders like a specialized caste, appeared by the Neolithics and trade -long-distance one- concerned rare, luxuous goods and raw materials. That was surplus which were traded against such rare products. It is by the contemporary era that international trade concerned wares of usual consumption

The Islamic World

The swift development of the Arabic world led to that the Muslim sway rapidly reached from Spain in the West, to Pakistan in the East during the 7th and 8th centuries. This substrate was accentuated by the development of the Abbasid, Persian-minded Caliphate in Baghdad, which reached an apogee by the middle of the 9th century, which lasted until the 13th century

The Islamic world was a word of merchants, and not of nobility, like those Europe, India or China. It's those merchants which were at the basis of the extent of the apogee of the Muslim world during the 8th and the 13th centuries. Historians even evoke that period like one of the examples of early globalization. The Arab world eventually knew a market economy, with the 'dinar' a stable currency, miscellaneous business techniques (like, among many others, credit, cheques, startup companies, saving accounts, etc.) and urbanization, with Arab traders controling the routes of trade in the West, in Africa, or in the East, in Asia. That trade network eventually allowed advances in the matter of agriculture, as Arabs invented the crop rotation system, or sophisticated irrigation techniques, or new crops. Such advances and new crops and products were exported into the whole of the Islamic world of the time. The Islamic world too made advances in terms of industry, with varied techniques, like the watermills and dams or domains, like perfumery, mining, or sugar factories

The intellectual renaissance, as initiated in Baghdad and other centers obviously -like, for the Carolingian times, Cordoba, Kairouan, or Fez- was linked to such that Islamic ensemble. This Islamic scholarly world was mainly developed into the direction of the humanistic and rationalistic endeavour of the 'ijtihad', this liberal school of thought in Islam, until the 13th century, as opposed to a strong orthodoxy. The scholarly possibilities offered by the wealth of the Arab world, along with the needs for agricultural and industrial know-how, led to that remarkable development of all the domains of knowledge, from science, astronomy, medicine and such, to more practice-oriented agronomy, engineering, chemistry, or architecture. Instrumental to the development of the scholars were the first universities in the world, also with public lending libraries, like was the art of papermaking, which had been taken from Chinese prisoners at the battle of Talas, in 751. Paper as inexepensive to introduce a revolution in the diffusion of knowledge as it originated like a 2nd century Chinese technology. Political science, law, commercial juridical techniques developed too, with public health institutions. This was helped too, when Baghdad, with the preference given to scholars (the famed 'House of Wisdom'), came to be the place where most ancient cultural heritages from varied countries were synthesized, like from Rome, China, India, Persia, or Byzantium. In the whole al-Andalus thus 60,000 treatises, poems, polemics and compilations were published each year, or the library of Cairo contained two million books

The 'Pax Sinica' under the Tang Dynasty

Another factor of boost to the Eastern vitality, in terms of trade routes, had been the advent, in China, between 618 AD and about 900 AD, of the dynasty of the Tang. An era of 'Pax Sinica', with the Silk Road, was extant, with an extensive trade developing with the West and with southern Asia. The Persian and Sogdian merchants benefited from the golden age of the Silk Road, as they lied at the center of the exchanges between China and Europe. Turks, Iranians, Indians and other nationalities from along the road -along with Japanese, Koreans and Malay (those located along the sea routes) came to live in the capital city of the Tang, Chang'an (current Xi'an, in China) making it the most cosmopolitan city in the world, and the largest then. The Chinese junks were active until Mesopotamia, or the eastern African coasts. The Silk Road however really remained opened during two periods, of 60 and 20 years only, respectively. Uigurs came about 850 A.D. to settle in the region, from Mongolia, as they replaced the Sogdians. The oases along the northern, or southern road around the Taklamakan desert were journeyed by merchants with their varied goods and wares. It took barely more than 1 month to go from the Pamir Mountains passes to Chang'an, going from one caravanserail to another. It seems like China kept however to enforce a strong control over foreigners, with government checkpoints, for example, along the Silk Road and a system of travel permits as banditry further was a problem. A form of rivalry with the monopoly which the Arabs tended to set, at the same time, their monopoly to their West and Chinese tried to bypass them. The Tang dynasty was a period of development of the Buddhism in China as the economical wealth also provided for the development of famed and varied scholars, or notable innovations (like the woodblock printing, improving in cartography, compilations in medicine, etc.). Maybe due to a shorter time, or to the Confucianist system of scholarship, this scholarly renaissance under the Tang did not produce such an apogee which was seen in the Arabic world. The 'Marine Silk Road' developed above all at the time of the decline of Tang, when the terrestrial route turned dangerous and that Arabs then traveled to China by sea. They were sailing aboard their dows, with a dimension 67 x 27 feet, with two masts. Those boats likely were built in Yemen or Oman from wood brought from African Sahel as their construction did not use any nail but ligatures instead and waterproofed through paper. Two crewmen were baling water out permanently. Ships were leaving the Arabic Gulf by September-October, when the northwestern monsoon allowed to reach India and then Ceylon. Thence they passed the Malaca Straight and after having ported in Vietnam and current Hong-Kong, they eventually reached China after a year-long journey, in the harbor of Yangzhu, by the mouth of the Blue River. Yangshu was at the time the only Chinese harbor allowed to foreign traders as sailors do not have access to the city proper and commerce is under the control of Chinese civil servants. Exported goods consist of porcelain, spices and gold and silver artefacts. Local craftsmen further can make products on demand. The return journey -which also is lasting one year- is beginning by October when the northeastern monsoon is beginning to blow. Goods which have been loaded on board were also exchanged along the route, in India and eventually yield important benefits once in the Arabic world. Chinese officials, on a other hand, were also entrusting those Arabic sailors with gifts presented by the Chinese emperor to local chieftains. The Marine Silk Road eventually stopped by about 850 A.D. as legends will then arise, like the one of Sinbad the Sailor. Some important trading journeys, likely ordered by Arabic rulers, sailed to China about each 20 years for Chinese products which were taken back in number

The following dynasty of the Song, beginning about 960, saw a period of economic prosperity again due, that time, to a dramatic, two-fold increase in the Chinese population. That led to what even was termed an 'industrial revolution' -with things like a per capita-per year consumption of 3 pounds of iron (against 1 pound in the West), the largest cities in the world at that time, and a GDP per capita income slightly superior, by 1000, to that in the West. The sea-trade of the time was revived too. Science and techniques too improved in China at that time, like they did in the Arab world (canal systems, movable type printing, gunpowder, cartography, maths, etc.). China always tended however to keep a strong state-controled sector in the economy, aside private business. Neo-Confucianism -the Confucianism revived by Buddhism- is originating at that time of the Song dynasty

The Radhanites, the Trade Masters Which Made the Link Between the Agricultural West and the Merchant and Industrial East

It's ill-known that Jewish merchants dominated the trade routes of Eurasia between 600 and 1000 A.D. Those merchants were called the 'Radhanites' -or 'Radanites'. The Barbaric Invasions, due to the disorders they wrought into the Roman world, largely disorganized the trade routes of the Roman era, as the Byzantine empire, as far as it is concerned, swiftly turned into a preponderantly terrestrian empire, with few interest into trade. Hence the Radhanites were those who perpetuated the trade at the Merovingian and Carolingian eras! It's an Arabic source by 817 A.D. -the Kitab al-Masalik wal-Mamalik ('The Book of Roads and Kingdoms' by Abu l-Qasim Ubaid Allah ibn Khordadbeh, a postmaster under the Abbasid Caliph al-Mu'tamid- which is describing the trade routes and activities of the Radhanites. Such merchants were speaking Arabic, Persian, Greek, Frankish, Spanish or Slavish, as they were using sea, or land routes to make the trade of eunuchs, female slaves, children, brocade, castor, marten and other furs, and swords from the Frankish kingdom to the Sind, India, and China as, in the other direction, they were bringing back -to Constantinople included- musk, aloes, camphor, cinnamon, and other Eastern products. The 10th-century book 'Kitab al-Buldan' ('Book of Countries') by Ibn al-Faqih also quotes Radhanites as it mostly builds upon Ibn Khordadbeh as the 'Sefer ha-Dinim' ('Book of Prescriptions'), a Hebrew tale of journeys of Mainz' Yehuda ben Meir quotes Przemyśl and Kiev like Radhanite counters. In the early 12th century, a French-Jewish trader named Yitzhak Dorbelo wrote that he traveled with Radhanite merchants to Poland

It seems like those Jewish merchants be the descendants of Jews who settled into Gaul since the 4th century -beginning in the Rhone and the Saone valleys, thence into the rest of the country- and who led there trade activities mainly. Their fate worsened however when the Christianism was officially admitted to the Roman Empire. They were better treated due to the disorganization of the Invasions, as they became ill-considered again when the Franks converted to the Roman catholicism. The Merovingian King Dagobert I, offered them no choice but to convert or to leave, in 633. The disorders in the Frankish kingdoms however made that the Jewish merchants came back into the Frankish world as they mainly settled into Metz, Verdun and Narbonne (this latter city on the Mediterranean shores). The Radhanites, on the other hand, were called too 'Judaei' ('Jews' in Latin) as other merchants were called 'Syri' ('Syrians'). Those might have been Christian merchants originating into Syria and trading between the West and the East under the Merovingians. They ceased their activities due to the Arab invasions in the Near-East. Some do think, however, that the terms 'Judaei' and 'Syri' were synonymous and hinting, generally, to those practising large-scale trade. Radanites also likely accounted for the conversion to judaism of the Khazars, a Tartaric kingdom by the Azov Sea, who chose that way to resist against both Byzantium and the Caliphate. Radhanites also benefited from most favourable conditions at the time. The name 'Radhanites' might originate from Persian 'rad dan,' 'whose who know the routes', from a Mesopotamia district called the 'country of Radhan,' or from 'Rhodanus,' 'the Rhone river.' They were able to play like neutral go-betweens at a time when any trade between West and the East had been disrupted by the Muslim conquest. In that new, large Islamic empire, Jews of Babylonia turned from agriculture to trade along world routes through the presence of Jewish communities. At the time of Charlemagne, specifically, the Eurasia came to be pacified with the Carolingian empire, the Islamic Caliphate, the Indian Ocean free to ship and the Silk Road allowed by the rule of the Tang in China. Europe demanded for spices and luxury products as the East suffered a shortage of labour force. The points of contact through which the Radhanites reach from the Carolingian empire to the caliphate were from Christian France to Mohammedan Spain, from the Carolingian empire through the Slavonic countries to Baghdad, and from Europe to Palestine. Once the Radhanites reached Baghdad they caught the routes to as far as India and China. Jews, before the second Diaspora, after the destruction of the Second Temple, had had little activity in trade. It's only when dispersed among the Roman empire that Jews intensively turned to commerce. It is thus possible that a part of the story of the Carolingian times be explained by that influence of such a Radhanite 'lobby', from Charlemagne to by the end of the Carolingian times. The disparition of the Avars, for example, allowed to open back the route of the Danube River through which merchants from the Silk Road, through Byzantium, could reach. It is also possible that the move towards the Slavic marches by the end of Charles' rule or under his successors be linked too to such views and based upon a trade route between Byzantium, the Radhanites and the Viking merchants. That Radhanite lobby looks like it powerfully settled in the court of Louis the Pious. Under Charlemagne already, a Jew named Isaac played a important role into the relations between the Carolingian empire and the Abassid Caliphate, in the purpose of securing the alliance of the Caliph against the Arabs of Cordoba. A important philojudaic group appeared at the court of Louis. The Frankish elite, which maybe had been introduced to the cultural questions by the Carolingian renaissance, gets infuriated to Philo writings -a ancient Jewish writer rattached to the Alexandrine mysticism and maybe to the Jewish Caraites or Abassid Mutazilites, has the teachings of rabbins better than those of Christian priests as some Greats convert to judaism. Impress Judith along with Rabanus Maurus, Bayern, and St-Germain-d'Auxerre are part of that as some, with St. Agobard, bishop of Lyons, Lothar and maybe the popes, along with some Greats are opposed to that Jewish influence

The Radhanites were using 4 main routes: one from Arles et Marseille -in the South of France- to India, through Egypt and the Red Sea; one by sea down to Syria, then to the East through Iraq and the Persian Gulf; a third one via Praga, current Czech Republic, the Bulgars then the Silk Road; and a last one, at last, from Spain to the Middle East via northern Africa, thence to the East. The route of the Danube also served to reach to China and India as the route between Byzantium and Prague was managed by Radhanites from Constantinople. In Prague wares from Byzantium were traded against corn, tin, lead and slaves from Russians and Slaves as that route might also have extended North to the Baltic Sea, on the one hand, and to the Khazar kingdon on the other. Radhanites mainly traded commodities that combined small bulk and high demand, like spices, perfumes, jewelry and silk. It took one year to go from Cordoba to Baghdad as caravans were protected by armed horsemen. Radhanites, as they perpetuated a contact between West and the East, likely contributed to have ideas and techniques pass from one world to the other, like the shoudler harness, the paper, Arabic numerals, fruits and varied products, medical products and receipts, or the letters of credit. The Radhanites, on the other hand, founded Jewish communities along, as they eventually controled all of the large-scale trade between the West and the East. Jews from Eastern Europe, Central Asia, India and Chine likely owe their origins to them. They were bestowed significant privileges by the Carolingian rulers as they were seen at the court of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious. The less attractive aspect of the trade activity of them is that they were trading slaves, mostly between the Slavic countries and Muslim Spain -then to Egypt and Syria. Verdun, France was one of their most important trading center along with being a large slave marketplace. This was the place too where eunuchs were castrated. Here follows the text by Ibn Khordadbeh about the Radhanite merchants

'These merchants speak Arabic, Persian, Roman, the language of the Franks, Andalusians and Slavs. They journey from west to east, from east to west, partly on land, partly by sea. They transport from the west eunuchs, female and male slaves, silk, castor, marten and other furs, and swords. They take ship in the land of the Franks, on the Western Sea, and steer for Farama. There they load their goods on the backs of camels and go by land to Kolzum in five days' journey, over a distance of twenty-five parasangs. They embark in the East Sea and sail from Kozum to el-Jar and Jeddah; then they go to Sind, India, and China. On their return they carry back musk, aloes, camphor, cinnamon, and other products of the Eastern countries to Kolzum, and bring them to Farama, where they again embark on the Western Sea. Some make sail for Constantinople, to sell their goods to the Romans; others go to the palace of the King of the Franks to place their goods. Sometimes these Jew merchants prefer to carry their goods for the land of the Franks in the Western Sea, making for Antioch (at the mouth of the Orontes) then they go by land to al-Jabia, where they arrive after three days' march. There they embark on the Euphrates for Baghdad, and then sail down the Tigris to al-Obolla. From al-Obolla they sail for Oman, Sind, Hind, and China. All this is connected one with another. These different journeys can also be made by land. The merchants that start from Spain to France go to Sous al-Akza, and then to Tangiers, whence they march to Karouan and the capital of Egypt. Thence they go to al-Ramla, visit Damascus, al-Kufa, Baghdad, and Basrah, cross Ahwaz, Fars, Kirman, Sind, Hind, and arrive at China. Sometimes they likewise take the route behind Rome, and, passing through the country of the Slavs, arrive at Khamlif, the capital of the Khazars. They embark on the Jorjan Sea, arrive at Balkh, betake themselves from there across the Oxus, and continue their journey toward the Yourts of the Toghozghor, and from there to China'

The decline and fall of the Radhanites were likely due to the fall of the Tang dynasty in China, in 908, the one of the Khazar kingdom -60 years later- the Turkish invasions in the Middle East, the Christianization of Slavonic countries in the 10th, or the decline of the Carolingian empire. The trade routes in Asia, Central Asia and Caucasus became unsecure, as the Silk Road was interrupted. The political fragmentation of both the West and the Middle East, by the same time, had as a result an increase of the needs and the opportunities for trade and that led to the apparition of new concurrent traders like Venice, or the merchants' gilds of the Middle Ages. The decline of the Carolingian empire, further, brought the rulers to less tolerant attitudes towards the Jews. Most of the spices, hence, disappeared completely from the Frankish world during the 10th century. Radhanites, as they were traveling as far as China, likely allowed the Carolingians kings and emperors to get some knowledge from those faraway worlds and neighbourhoods. As some Radhanites are still encountered by the 11th century A.D., money-lending became then the main occupation of the Jews. Some think that the immense sums which enabled them to become the 'bankers of Europe' when Western rulers came to need large amounts of money, might be that immense fortunes in gold that Radhanites had amassed

Of note is that the Rhadhanites were not the sole way by which the Carolingian empire had a link with the East as they might have mostly, as far as their persons were concerned, in southern France. Venice indeed was another actor with that city theoretically the possession of Byzantines and practically independent. Venetian merchants were trading silk, spices, perfumes or ivory (which came as far as from India) as local rulers, like the Partecipazio who ruled the city between 811 and 877 A.D., owed their wealth to that trade in part. The Venitian trade could reached down to the Mideast due to that Byzantines secured the routes. Since a treaty signed with Lothar I, in 840, the Venitians were allowed Eastern goods into the Kingdom of Italy, for example, through the cities of Comacchio and Pavia. Pavia thus turned a main trading hub for such goods. Products traded by Venice thence passed into Gauls through Provence. One could also trade in the western Mediterranean despite of piracy as the route of Pannonia remained militarized under Charlemagne for cause of the Avars. Merchants of the time, generally, were adventurers


The historians, pecularly now that globalization is a trend, tend to stress that, during varied periods of the history of the world, such extensive networks of trade had existed. The Carolingian empire, as far as it is concerned, either by a personality trend of the Austrasians, or due to the disruption of the trade routes in the Mediterranean by the Arab conquest, remained a terrestrial, European heartland and agricultural empire. As the scholarly development in the Arabic world, or the Chinese one, during that time, mostly were linked to the merchants' wealth, or a state-controled, thrieving economy along the Silk Road or the Chinese junks, it's the opportunity to stress how the Carolingian Renaissance mostly was of an ideological nature, as it was mainly powered by the will of a more learned clergy, or the exhaltation of the imperial power

Website Manager: G. Guichard, site Learning and Knowledge In the Carolingian Times / Erudition et savoir à l'époque carolingienne, Page Editor: G. Guichard. last edited: 18/18/2011. contact us at
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