Home Geography Arabic-Islamic views of the Latin West : tracing the emergence of medieval Europe
Closely linked to the mobility of humans, manifold objects were moved from the Latin-Christian to the Arabic-Islamic world via commercial and other networks, carrying information about the natural resources, productive capacities as well as the technical and intellectual achievements of Latin-Christian societies.
Raw materials seem to have played an important role among the objects imported from Western Europe from the early Middle Ages onwards, including hides, furs, resin, corals, wood, linen, metals, as well as slaves.276 Oil, wheat, grain, wine, sugar, amber, cloves, cotton, and gyrfalcons only seem to have been exported from the high Middle Ages onwards.277 The most detailed Arabic-Islamic descriptions of the natural resources of Western Europe can be found in the works of al-Bakrl and al-Qazwlnl, both of whom drew on the tenth-century travel account of the Andalusian Jew Ibrahim b. Ya'qub al-Isralll^8 They mention the location of salines,279 classify regions according to their productivity and fertility^0 and give climatic reasons for famines.281 The fact that references to mines can also be found in other works of geography, shows, however, that this travel account was not the only source of information.282 In view of the increasing Western European engagement in the Mediterranean economy,283 it seems plausible that rough data on Europe’s natural resources was available to Muslims engaged in commercial enterprises with the Latin West.
Early medieval Western Europe is often presented as an impoverished barbarian hinterland that was only capable of furnishing unfinished materials to a more advanced Islamic economy. 284 Such judgement seems premature, for objects of higher artisanal value and quality reached the Arabic-Islamic sphere as well. Large amounts of booty from Western Europe, including many precious objects, must have reached the Arabic-Islamic sphere as a result of the Muslim expansion.285 The latter was followed by raids to the same effect, e.g. on the Apennine Peninsula^6 Diplomatic envoys brought further precious objects to the Arabic-Islamic sphere.287 Western European products revealing craftsmanship also reached the Islamic sphere via commercial channels, already in the early medieval period, increasingly from the high Middle Ages onwards.288 Ironically, weapons played a leading role, including swords289 and other kinds of military apparatus.290 Textiles from the Latin West also feature in the sources^91 exports rising from the twelfth century onwards,292 flooding the Egyptian market by the fifteenth century.293 By
ard, ‘Debuts’ (1983), pp. 55-76.
Were Muslim consumers aware of the origin of imported objects? Raiders had seen the places they had looted, the donor of a diplomatic present was known to the ruler receiving envoys, and Muslim merchants in contact with their Western European colleagues or their intermediaries will have been aware of the regional origin of the products they purchased. This knowledge was probably lost as objects passed from one consumer to the next. However, since the above-mentioned Arabic-Islamic texts occasionally link objects and products with specific regions of origin, production techniques, and trade routes, the influx of objects probably contributed to spreading some information about the economic resources of Western Europe.296
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