Trade Networks in the Middle Ages: Empires & Routes

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.

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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.

Europe and Africa

Prior to the Age of Discovery and colonization, European trade largely centered upon its own sea: the Mediterranean. Though the Middle Ages are often seen as a period of economic stagnation in Europe (one reason why they were formerly called the ‘Dark Ages’), those with access to the Mediterranean Sea—and therefore access to Middle Eastern ports and trade further east—had a leg up on their competition. Indeed, throughout the Middle Ages, Italian coastal city-states like Genoa, Venice, Florence, and others had a monopoly on Eastern goods entering Europe. Italian merchants traded in the Middle East for spices, silks, and other highly sought after Eastern goods, and traded them across Europe at enormous profit.

In Africa, the most important trade route of the Middle Ages was across the Sahara Desert. Though early routes across the Sahara had been pioneered centuries before, it was not until the Middle Ages that trade across the Sahara reached its highest levels. North African traders utilized oases and camels to make the arduous trek across the world’s largest desert in search of one thing: gold.

Indeed, sub-Saharan African states like Ghana, Mali, and Songhai had enormous quantities of gold, which they traded to North African traders for goods they needed, such as salt and textiles. They then brought this gold back across the Sahara to trade to Arab and Mediterranean merchants. The trade enriched sub-Saharan African kingdoms and transferred much needed gold to the Mediterranean world where it was made into coins and jewelry used to symbolize great wealth.

Lesson Summary

Though it may be easy today for the average person to buy something from the other side of the world, global traders in the Middle Ages actually had to go and buy their goods on the other side of the world! Throughout the period, several well-traveled trade routes existed, which many of these traders used to transport goods around the world.

Though the Silk Road is more often considered an ancient trade route, its roads were reopened for a couple hundred years when the Mongols invaded Central Asia and Eastern Europe during the 13th century. Across the Indian Ocean a vibrant trade existed that used the monsoon winds and enriched East Africa, India, Persia, and elsewhere.

In Europe and Africa, trade was conducted across the continents’ two most important features: the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara Desert. Access to either of these features and the trade circuits that existed across them were important factors in the success of Middle Age cities and states in both continents.

Learning Outcomes

After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Explain the trade routes utilized by most of the known world during the Middle Ages
  • Describe the Silk Road trade routes of Central Asia and Eastern Europe
  • Identify the Indian Ocean trade routes
  • Detail how Europe used the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic to trade with the Middle East and Africa

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