Trade History – Sources, Traditions, Methodological Spillovers



In the historiography of the Later Middle Ages, trade plays a crucial role in furthering international and cross-cultural exchange. Since this was not limited to tradable goods but also extended to cultural and linguistic flows, the historical analysis of trade is critical to our understanding of the long-term development of societies and regions. Although “trade history” from a methodological point of view remains primarily a sub-field of economic history, trade has also been a major concern in fields such as cultural history and political history. This multitude of perspectives has substantially furthered our understanding of the dynamics and geopolitical ramifications of trade. Thus, trade history most cogently exemplifies the benefit of combining different heuristic and analytical methods as well as both quantitative and qualitative research techniques. By dealing with exchange between regions, it is inherently comparative since the relative level of development of a given region and its specific economic and political circumstances are inevitably part of the analysis.  


In this session, we will consider both macro- and micro-scale examples of research on historical trade, compare different analytical techniques and discuss their respective advantages. Second, we will inquire about potential methodological spillovers to other fields of inquiry, most notably empire studies and political communication; that is, we will examine whether the combination of research techniques as pioneered in trade history could be applied to a similar degree in other fields. Curtin’s book chapter offers a comparative overview of the late medieval economic development of China as well as both the Muslim and the Christian Mediterranean, highlighting the importance of transportation and agency networks in triggering quite different developmental trajectories. Rougeulle’s and Greif’s papers illustrate the roles of Chinese transportation networks linking East Asia and the Arabic peninsula as well as specific mono-cultural agency networks more closely. Rougeulle uses archaeological evidence on the spread of Chinese artefacts to retrace the (sea and land) routes of commercial exchange followed by Chinese export goods in the High and Late Middle Ages. Greif’s analysis, which is based on the geniza documents mentioned by Curtin, identifies the economic institution supporting a Jewish mercantile network in the eleventh-century Mediterranean and offers a game-theoretic explanation of incentive structures and equilibrium behaviour within the network. Against this backdrop, we ask:

  1. How can analytical methods such as game-theoretical modulation enhance our understanding of trade dynamics? Is there a risk of misrepresenting historical documentation (cf. Edwards and Ogilvie’s critique of Greif’s work)?
  2. Is there a risk that a greater variety of methodological perspectives on trade may lead to a misrepresentation of its effects, especially when cultural circumstances are taken as causal factors (cf. Jones’s critique)?
  3. Can the analytical frameworks of trade history be applied to other contexts of exchange, e.g. of information and political ideas?
  4. Which analytical methods that have been applied to trade are likely to be equally beneficial in the context of political communication? Is there an unambiguous historiographical link between trade and communication with respect to the late medieval period.


More generally, we are interested in the variety of ways in which insights from trade
history may be used to illuminate historical contexts and phenomena unrelated to
economic history. Participants are invited to contribute their own experiences of
methodological adaptation.

Core reading:

Curtin, Philip D.: Cross-Cultural Trade in World History, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984 [chapter 6: Asian trade in Eastern seas 1000-1500].

Greif, Avner: "Reputation and Coalitions in Medieval Trade: Evidence on the Maghribi Traders", in: Journal of Economic History 49 (Dec., 1989), No. 4, pp. 857-882.

Rougeulle, Axelle: "Medieval trade networks in the western Indian Ocean (8-14th centuries): some reflections from the distribution pattern of Chinese imports in the Islamic world", in: Ray, Himanshu Prabha, Salles, Jean-François (eds.), Tradition and Archaelogy: Early Maritime Contacts in the Indian Ocean, New Delhi: Manohar Publishers and Distributors, 1998, pp. 159-180.

Recommended background reading:

Ashtor, Eliyahu: Levant Trade in the Later Middle Ages, Princeton (N.J.): Princeton University Press, 1983 [esp. chapters III, V, VI]

Bentley, Jerry H.: "Hemispheric Integration, 500-1500 C.E.", in: Journal of World History 9 (Fall 1998), No. 2, pp. 237-254.

Edwards, Jeremy, Ogilvie, Sheilagh: "Contract Enforcement, Institutions and Social Capital: the Maghribi Traders Reappraised", in: CESifo Working Paper, March 2008, No. 2254.

Greif, Avner: "Contract Enforceability and Economic Institutions in Early Trade: The Maghribi Traders' Coalition", in: The American Economic Review 83 (Jun. 1993), No. 3, pp. 525-548.

Jones, Eric: Cultures Merging - a historical and economic critique of culture, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006 [esp. chapters 1, 6]

Mitchener, Kris James, Weidenmier, Marc: "Trade and Empire", in: The Economic Journal 118 (November, 2008), No. 533, pp. 1805–1834.

O'Rourke, Kevin H., Prados de la Escosura, Leandro, Daudin, Guillaume: "Trade and empire", in: Broadberry, Stephen, O'Rourke, Kevin H. (eds.), The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Europe - Volume 1: 1700-1870, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 96-121.

Pomeranz, Kenneth, Topik, Steven: The World that Trade Created - Society, Culture, and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present, Armonk (N.Y.) and London: M. E. Sharpe, 2006.

Tracy, James D. (ed.): The Rise of Merchant Empires – Long-Distance Trade in the Early Modern World, 1350-1750, Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press, 1991.

--> Mauro, Frédéric: "Merchant communities, 1350-1750", pp. 255-286.

--> van der Wee, Herman: "Structural changes in European long-distance trade, and particularly in the re-export trade from south to north, 1350-1750", pp. 14-33.

Tracy, James D. (ed.): The Political Economy of Merchant Empires, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

--> Brady, Jr., Thomas A.: "The Rise of Merchant Empires, 1400-1700: A European Counterpoint", pp. 117-160.

--> North, Douglass C.: "Institutions, Transaction Costs, and the Rise of Merchant Empires", pp. 22-40.

--> Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, Thomaz, Luís Filipe F. R.: "Evolution of Empire: The Portuguese in the Indian Ocean During the Sixteenth Century", pp. 298-331.

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