The Amber Road
This now obscure route has existed since Neolithic times making it one of the earliest known examples of long distance trade. Often spoken of as the gold of the north thanks to its colour and use in fashioning jewellery, amber was transported from its source in the Baltic region into Central Europe, Russia and beyond, often it was transported via rivers particularly the Dnieper and Vistula, but also overland through modern day Poland and Central Europe, its lightness lending it well to long distance trade.
Amber is fossilized tree resin and was found in the form of decorative items inside the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs and the Temple of Apollo in Greece, it has also found use as ingredient in perfume and folk medicine. In the Middle Ages it was popular to make rosary beads from the substance and its trade was controlled by Teutonic Knights before passing to the Kingdom of Prussia before they finally relaxed their monopoly and allowed private individuals to trade amber.
Ancient Greco – Indian Trade
The epic conquest of the lands stretching from Greece to India by Alexander the Great and the subsequent Hellenization of the newly conquered region led to new and unprecedented trade opportunities. Luxury items like gold, stones, myrrh, and spices were taken by camel led caravans across modern day Iran to Egypt, Palestine and Europe, in the other direction Greek wine, weapons, cloth and olive oil made their way across to what is now the Middle East and to ancient India.
This route was in many respects the foundation of the Silk Road, which eventually connected the Eurasian continent until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. But perhapsthe most fascinating aspect of this relationship was the cultural exchange. Two previously separate regions enjoyed a unique cross cultural fertilisation, which led to the development of Greco – Indian art and religious symbols, the blending of their languages and religion. Many archaeologists believe the first instances of coinage also appeared at this time, coins found in Northern India in the 1930s had Sanskrit written on one side and the other ancient Greek.
The Colombian Exchange
While arguably Columbus the Genoan explorer did not “discover” the American continent, he did precipitate the mass exchange of goods, people and fauna now known as the Colombian exchange. The colonialization of the Americas in terms of population is familiar, but the movement of items like avocados, tomatoes, potatoes and turkeys to the Old World is less well known. These plants and animals drastically changed Europeans cuisine, which would unthinkable with tomatoes and potatoes. In the other direction unfamiliar diseases such as smallpox helped wipe out the indigenous population of the Americas. While microbes originating from the Americas did not have the same impact on Europeans, one crop tobacco which came from the New World, did have a negative impact on European health.
England and the European wool trade
English wool exports to the continent during the Middle Ages made parts of the country extremely wealthy for the period and in many respects represented the backbone of the country’s economy until the fifteenth century. The high quality of English wool meant it was in high demand across Europe, but in particular by the weavers of Flanders, who manufactured it into clothing used by commoners and nobility alike. The weavers also benefited from acting as middlemen and adding value through the manufacturing process, which was far less commonly done in England.
The strength of the wool trade meant that it was heavily taxed by English kings to help pay for the Kingdom’s continental wars, mainly against France. Wool declined in importance by the sixteenth century as European alternatives like merino emerged and displaced English exports. The eighteenth century saw the emergence of cotton textiles which were manufactured in the UK and a key to the nation’s successful industrialisation.