Date Palms and Elephant Tusks

Some time around the middle of the twelfth century, perhaps in AD 1160, the Welsh tenant of an English (or more accurately Anglo-Norman, and probably French-speaking) landlord agreed to pay an annual rent of three ivory dice for his holding of five acres.1 What, if you stop to think about it, an extraordinary agreement! Dice, the perennial remedy for human boredom, are commonplace enough. They turn up among the debris of frontier stations along the Roman Wall, and anywhere else, no doubt, where a dispirited soldiery is garrisoning a crumbling empire. But ivory dice are something different. Where in the backward, heavily wooded fastnesses of Gwent in AD 1160 did you find ivory dice to pay your rent? There was certainly no Harrods or Macy’s near at hand. And where did the ivory come from? Not from Zaire, of which the inhabitants of Gwent were blissfully unaware, but from Lapland, and not from elephant tusks but from walrus tusks. But how did it get from the walrus hunters of Lapland to the tenant farmers of Wales, across well over a thousand miles of wintry seas? And where on the way was the ivory made up into dice? Who, in short, were the manufacturers and middlemen, and how did they operate?

This is the sort of story I wish Professor Curtin had told us in his new book, because it casts a good deal of light on “cross-cultural trade,” if we explore it in all its ramifications. We had better, to begin with, be clear in our minds what we mean when we use the term “cross-cultural.” Is there any sense, for example, in which trade between Byzantium and China was cross-cultural and trade that linked Lapland and Wales was not? Not that Professor Curtin is unaware of the problems. “Local exchange,” he says, by which I imagine he means trade within one cultural area, “was more important than long-distance trade” everywhere in early times, and he cites as an example the trade across the African sahel between the meat and milk producers of the arid steppe and the grain producers further south. Nevertheless the greater part of his book is concerned with long-distance trade in the traditional sense, Phoenicians and Greeks in the ancient Mediterranean, the familiar story of the penetration of Muslim merchants down the east coast of Africa, Arab and Gujurati traders in the Indian Ocean, and the Portuguese drive to the East Indies. “Cross-cultural trade” as he interprets it seems to be essentially intercontinental trade, and it is not surprising that he has little to say about Europe, except when European traders reached out to Egypt or Persia, or along the famous “silk road” through Ferghana to China.

Anyone who has read Fernand Braudel’s impressive volumes2 may well feel that this interpretation is unduly restrictive. Perhaps we should be more careful when we draw a line between “local exchange” and “long-distance trade” in terms either of volume or of cultural influence. In the case…

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