Trade Networks in the Middle Ages: Empires & Routes

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  • 0:01 Middle Age Trade Routes
  • 0:27 The Silk Road
  • 2:11 Indian Ocean Trade
  • 3:55 Europe and Africa
  • 5:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore several of the more important trade networks during the Middle Ages, from the Silk Road across Central Asia to the gold trade across the Sahara.

Middle Age Trade Routes

It seems like today you can buy just about anything online. Anything from books to movies to even groceries is at the tips of your fingers! But regular commerce has been around far longer than the Internet, and civilizations and states have engaged in global trade for millennia. In this lesson, we will explore the various trading economies and routes of the Middle Ages, from the Silk Road to the Sahara Desert.

The Silk Road

Perhaps the most fabled of these trade routes was the Silk Road. The Silk Road was not a product of the Middle Ages; indeed, the Silk Road has roots going back thousands of years to ancient China and Central Asia. However, in the Middle Ages, the Silk Road was reopened after a few hundred years of inactivity. This was due to the Islamic Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates, who ruled over large swaths of Central Asia and the Middle East. The traditional connections that had shipped silk and other goods west from China to the Mediterranean were weakened and eventually severed altogether by the 10th century.

However, the Silk Road routes were reopened once during the Middle Ages thanks to one of the most feared armies of all time: the Mongols. Around the turn of the 13th century, Genghis Khan led his Mongol hordes west into Central Asia destroying various Central Asian states along the way. Within just a half century, Mongol armies had captured Baghdad and smashed the Abbasid Caliphate. While the Mongols continued their westward push into the Middle East and Europe, the destruction of Islamic dominance of the Middle East and Central Asia reopened the Silk Road trade routes. Eastern goods became popular again in the courts of Europe and the Mongols nomadic lifestyle meant they had little use for cumbersome material goods.

The decline of Mongol control of Central Asia in the mid-14th century also meant the decline of the Silk Road trade routes. Indeed, the political fragmentation of the region led to trade becoming increasingly dangerous and both Eastern and Western traders balked at the increased costs of the roughly 4,000-mile journey. The reestablishment of an Islamic state in the Middle East—in this case the Ottoman Empire, who took Constantinople in the 1450s—signaled the end of major trading along the Silk Road.

Indian Ocean Trade

As enormous as the Silk Road was, it was not the only trading circuit of the Middle Ages that encompassed vast distances. In Southern Asia, instead of going over land across Central Asia, the traders and merchants of the Middle Ages looked to the sea. Indeed, the Indian Ocean trade was one of the most vibrant trading routes of the Middle Ages, spanning from the city-states of East Africa in the west to the shores of the Middle East, India, China, and Southeast Asia.

The Indian Ocean trade depended heavily on the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean, which changed directions with the seasons. This allowed merchants and traders to sail one direction during the spring and summer months and return home during the fall and winter months. The predictability of these winds fostered an enormous amount of trade, with everything from slaves to timber to spices being traded east and west.

Many of these cities and states grew rich off this trade. In fact, the prosperity of the East African city-states from roughly the 11th to the 14th century would not have been possible if not for the Indian Ocean trade routes. In addition to goods and wealth, the Indian Ocean trade helped spread the religion of Islam as well. Indeed, many of the traders and merchants involved were Muslims, and they brought their religion with them to the shores where they traded. This has endured, as many coastal East African cities maintain a strong Islamic presence and the Southeast Asian island nation of Indonesia is now the largest Muslim-majority state in the world.

The vibrancy of the Indian Ocean trade was disrupted with the 13th-century reestablishment of the Silk Road routes, though it would take European intervention to truly end the Indian Ocean trade. Indeed, Portuguese and Dutch ships arrived in the Indian Ocean in the 16th century, taking colonies and monopolizing the trade for themselves.

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