Many different cultures, ethnic groups, and faiths interacted with one another for several different reasons in the medieval ages.
The interaction between cultures in Europe and the Mediterranean involved extensive trade and exchange between peoples. Trade was able to act as a unifying force despite some conflicts that may have arisen between different demographic groups during this time. The primary sources that serve as evidence that trade was a unifying force include an English coin with an islamic inscription from 775 (Source B2), a jewish merchant’s account of his travels and experiences in Spain in the 960s (Source B3) and a collection of three different artifacts that were uncovered at a former Viking trading and manufacturing center (Source B6). These sources show how trade exposed different civilizations new ways of life and thinking. Early medieval society. Currency served a vital role in the functionality of trade between civilizations during this time.
In the early middle ages, money was regularly changing and so was its usage. Coins used for trade in Europe varied quite a bit because changes in leadership were so common. Different leaders, such as Emperor Justinian or Emperor Constantinople in the European and Mediterranean regions during this time period would mint their portraits on to the coins. Currencies from this time period varied in size, weight and color, but eventually they were standardized which allowed for an increase of trade and trade with more and more civilizations. This is one way in which currency was a unifying factor in the early middle ages. The most important coinage in the middle ages in the Islamic medieval economy, and arguably the entire mediterranean, was the gold dinar . Source B2 is an example of this type of dinar.
It is a very unique artifact because it was an English coin imitating a dinar from the Islamic Abbasid dynasty1 . The source belonged to King Offa of Mercia, England. The coin is perplexing because it has an Arabic inscription that was copied on it around AD 773, but it is in fact an English coin1 . It is believed that this source is a coin that would readily be accepted in Southern Europe as a means of currency for trade. This shows how trade acts as a unifying force in the middle ages. A coin discovered in a kingdom of England that was made to imitate an Islamic dinar demonstrates how the two different civilizations desired to trade with each other. Merchants from both cultures would have to travel to the other civilization to trade, therefore being exposed to new ways of life in the process. Without being exposed to trade, these cultures may never have come in contact with one another.
Despite the fact that King Offa’s name is visibly printed on the coin1, it is believed that it would still be used for trade, which highlights the language barrier that was present. Also, according to the source, the name and title of King Offa was placed upside down on the coin, which most likely means that the engraver did not actually understand the Arabic language. The identifying feature of an Islamic objects were Arabic inscriptions. To give objects a foreign and exotic aura, European artists frequently imitated these inscriptions. However, these artists didn’t actually understand Arabic so that the inscription became meaningless when it was copied incorrectly or upside down, but it still looked like Arabic to a non-native speaker. The effort that European artists put into imitating Islamic culture in their artwork goes to show how they admired it and desired more trade of goods with the civilization. Source B2 is a perfect example of how Europe and the Islamic empire were brought together by trade. The existence of merchants during the early middle ages is probably some of the best evidence showing how trade unified the European and Mediterranean regions.
Source B3 is a 10th century Jewish merchant’s accounts of his travels and experiences through Europe and the Mediterranean. According to the merchant, the countries of the Slavs in the Mediterranean region were split into four: King of the Bulgars, King of Prague and Bohemia and Krakow, Meshek, King of the North, and Nakun who ruled in the West. Source B3 demonstrates how as a merchant, Ibrahim ibn Yaqub witnessed the merging of different cultures by means of trade and exchange. According to the source, the Slavs from the Mediterranean Sea had split their countries into four: there was the King of the Bulgars, King of Prague and Bohemia and Krakow, Meshek, King of the north, and Nakun, King of the West3 .
Ibrahim ibn Yaqub describes in the accounts of his travels how Nakun’s country exported low priced bread and plenty of horses to other countries. Prague was also an excellent town for trade between different cultures. Russians, Slavs, Muslims, Jews, and Turks all came from their respective homelands to trade. Using Byzantine coinage, the merchants from all different cultures would trade merchandise such as flour, tin, and various furs .
The country of Meshek was also rich in bread, honey, meat, and fish4 . In the town of Prague, the members of different civilizations and religions that came looking to trade merchandise were unified with other cultures through trade. It is unlikely that these civilizations would have encountered each other in any other different circumstance, with the exception of a war between them. Prague allowed for the different merchants to buy goods from distant civilizations and take them back to their homeland, where the goods would evolve from there. This allowed for a flow of goods and new ideas to spread throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. This also romanticized other cultures and what they have to offer, resulting in more demand for foreign goods. Even more trade between these civilizations would occur when people of one culture had high demand for a good for another one. A perfect example of this is once again Source B2, the Islamic gold dinar, most likely created by a European Artist who admired the works of Arabic Inscriptions on other Islamic artifacts and coinage.
Another important thing that the jewish merchant had made note of was the fact that ambassadors from the kingdom of Bulgar understood many languages, were Christian, and had translated the gospel into Slavonic language4 . This goes to show how through trade, cultures were able to integrate with one another and adopt certain aspects from different civilizations. If it were not for the trade and exchange that these merchants were involved in, they may not have been exposed to Christianity.
Trade allowed for the spread of new ideas and religions, which only benefits all civilizations involved. Source B6 consists of three archaeological excavations that were found at a former Viking trading and manufacturing center. The excavations include: a coptic ladle, a bishop’s crozier, and a Buddha statue . These three objects are referred to as the “Helgo Treasure”. In the beginning of the 9th century, Vikings were feared by many other civilizations because they were known to go on violent raids.
An example that shows the fear the Irish people had for Vikings is the round tower in Timahoe, Laois. Peasants would be able to hide out in the tower with their valuable possessions during a raid. However, these raids started occurring less frequently when Vikings decided to start settling in Ireland. They began to colonize land and set up trading posts. Therefore, some of the goods found in the Helgo collection were acquired through raids, and others were legitimately traded in colonized Viking areas. The coptic ladle that was found at the trading center was from sometime in early medieval Egypt. This ladle was most likely used in the Coptic Church for special ceremonies. During this time period, Vikings were quite active in the Mediterranean region, which is most likely how this artifact ended up at the Helgo trading center in Sweden.
The vikings who obtained this coptic ladle had to have been exposed to the Coptic Church of Egypt when dealing with this transaction. Christianity was brought to Egypt by the teachings of Saint Mark; the religion spread like wildfire in middle Egypt after his arrival in 200 AD. Therefore, the term “Coptic” describes Christian Egyptians. During this time period, many of the vikings were pagan. However, through their raids and trade with other civilizations, Vikings quickly began converting to Christianity. The Coptic ladle is a perfect artifact to represent the mass of conversion to Christianity that the Vikings experienced.
Without their trade in the Mediterranean, it is unlikely that the Vikings ever would have converted to Christianity because they were predominantly either pagan or polytheistic. The coptic ladle goes to show how trade was able to unify the vikings of Europe and coptic Christians in Egypt. The Bishop’s Crozier is an 8th century artifact from Ireland. The crozier is fashioned from bronze and it is decorated with colorful glass. It is apparent that the crozier has significant religious meaning because the biblical tale of Jonah being trapped in the mouth of a whale is carved on the base.
It is likely that this Bishop’s Crozier was stolen from Ireland during the viking raids, and that is why it was found at the Helgo viking trading center6. Christianity came in Ireland in 432 AD, when it is said that St. Patrick first arrived in the country.
This is another example, like the coptic ladle, that shows how the vikings gradually adopted Christianity by being exposed to other cultures. The last artifact that is part of the Helgo Collection in a Buddha statue. The Buddha statue was from the 6th century and most likely made in Kashmir. Historians hypothesize that the statue was carried by merchants for thousands of miles, used as a talisman of sorts. Historians also believe that the Buddha Statue arrived in Helgo because Swedish merchants had passed through eastern trade routes6. This shows how the cultures of specific parts of Europe overlapped with unexpected parts of Mediterranean civilizations.
Overall, the collection of artifacts that was discovered at the Helgo Viking trading center are able to show efficiently that trade was a means of unifying cultures in the middle ages. Although some of the artifacts were raided by vikings rather than traded, it is significant that they were found at a viking trading post. This shows how the vikings used objects from other cultures as a way to make money. Also, the experiences the vikings had with either raiding or trading exposed them to many new ways of life at this time.
For example, the bishop’s crozier and coptic ladle are artifacts that help tell a story about how the vikings gradually adopted Christianity. Although the vikings were not buddhist, the buddha statue found at Helgo also is another example of the ways in which cultures were unified through trade. The buddha statue was most likely brought to Sweden through trade routes, meaning that there was probably a lot of traffic to and from this Helgo trading center. The trading center itself would be an efficient way for merchants from different areas to meet and exchange goods. The gold dinar owned by King Offa of Mercia, a Jewish merchant’s account of his travels in Europe, and the Helgo artifacts all can be used as evidence to support the claim that during the early middle ages, cultures from Europe and the Mediterranean region were exposed to one another and unified by trade. The gold dinar shows how European artists wanted to imitate Arabic script because they romanticized Islamic culture. Merchants such as Ibrahim ibn Yaqub are able to give an inside look at the functionality of trade between cultures at this time.
It is interesting to see how and why trade worked in the Slavic community when it was split between four kingdoms, and what those kingdoms were trading with other cultures. The helgo artifacts also show a lot about trade in the early middle ages; the vikings usually raided other cultures more than actually trading with them, but the Helgo trading center was a way for merchants from other regions to exchange goods from all over the world. It is apparent through this evidence and also historical context that trade had a significant impact on life in the early middle ages. Civilizations were exposed to new ways of thinking and also unified with other cultures through trade and exchange. Interaction between these cultures could have been much different or potentially non-existent if it were not for trade or the exchange of goods.