Martin Elbl, Trent University

title.none: Constable, Trade and Traders

identifier.other: baj9928.9611.010 96.11.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Martin Elbl, Trent University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Constable, Olivia Remie. Trade and Traders in Muslim Spain: The Commercial Realignment of the Iberian Peninsula, 900-1500. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Pp. xxvi, 320. $59.959194. ISBN: ISBN 0-521-43075-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.11.10

Constable, Olivia Remie. Trade and Traders in Muslim Spain: The Commercial Realignment of the Iberian Peninsula, 900-1500. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Pp. xxvi, 320. $59.959194. ISBN: ISBN 0-521-43075-5.

Reviewed by:

Martin Elbl, Trent University

Compared to publications dealing with the Levant, broad analyses of Muslim and cross-cultural commerce in the medieval western Mediterranean remain rare. This is unfortunate, for it precludes a balanced understanding of the dynamics of Mediterranean inter-regional trade in the Middle Ages. It is this understanding that Olivia Remie Constable seeks to enrich, and in doing so she has rendered both medieval historians and their classroom audiences considerable service.

There are two reasons why Constable's book will undoubtedly be much cited. Firstly, it is the only handy book-length survey of Muslim Spain's trade available in English. In this it resembles the translated histories of the Maghrib by Abdallah Laroui, J. M. Abu-Nasr, and Ch.-A. Julien. Secondly, the book's thesis is of the kind that provides comfortingly clear answers to fundamental historical questions and catches for better or for worse the attention of students in world history classes. Constable's highly contrasted portrayal of the Iberian Peninsula's role in long- distance trade before and after the Christian Reconquest will be difficult to forget.

Until the late twelfth century, Constable argues, Muslim Spain, rich in a variety of raw materials and high-quality manufactures, was a key commercial gateway between Christendom and the wide world of Islam, and "mediated the balance (of trade) between east and west" (p. 139). After the Reconquest engulfed al-Andalus, ultimately leaving only Granada in Muslim hands, Iberian exports narrowed to a limited number of raw materials "geared to meet foreign demand" (p. 14) and competing with superior varieties produced elsewhere. Gradually, new exports and manufactures emerged, but trade between northern Europe and the Peninsula was now less balanced. A massive influx of northern textiles hampered local industries, and the tendency of Christian Iberian rulers to regulate trade more closely than their Muslim predecessors had done "hindered, rather than aided, the success of Iberian (and particularly Castilian) international trade." Papal bans on commerce with the Muslims also "stifled Iberian participation in Mediterranean trade and concentrated interests on unbalanced trade with Europe" (pp. 255-7).

The Andalusi market broke up into several distinct zones, with the south (Andalusia and Granada) falling under the commercial domination of foreigners, mainly the Genoese. The southern ports gained by becoming transit points between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, but the Peninsula's role as a gateway to the lands of Islam was eroded. Alexandria now replaced it as an economic and conceptual border point between Christendom and Islam (p. 255). The loss of her former transit trade leverage intensified the Iberian Peninsula's dependency on northern Europe. By the late Middle Ages, the Iberian paradox lay in having become "part-- yet not fully part--of Europe" (p. 15). Late medieval Iberian commerce was less well "integrated within the European economy than had been Andalusi trade within the Islamic world from the tenth to the late twelfth century" (p. 15).

The fact that Constable's book is decidedly bound to leave an imprint is both good and bad. The good part is, on the one hand, that Muslim Spain as a commercial player will become familiar to a new generation of students, and on the other hand, that there will now be a clear-cut foil for alternative interpretations. The bad part is that both the book and the thesis are flawed, and that it will take considerable effort to wean students, and even many colleagues, off Constable's model. In this sense, the book's generalizations are apt to do similar long-term damage as those disseminated by Laroui's History of the Maghrib, or by Janet Abu Lughod's Before European Hegemony: The World System, A.D. 1250- 1350.

The key flaw of Constable's thesis is its reliance on various unproven claims and assumptions. The second and related weakness is the author's use of hazy analytical concepts. Demonstrating, for instance, that al-Andalus was somehow better "integrated" into the web of Islamic trade than Christian Iberia was into the European economy would have required more evidence, assessed in the light of what economists and economic historians normally define as "integrated economy". The unspoken guiding assumption behind Constable's claim seems to be the idea that the Islamic world, sharing many common institutions and practices, was ipso facto more economically integrated than Europe in the later Middle Ages. This, however, means playing loose with the notion of "integration", and it remains to be established to what extent the Islamic ecumene before c. 1200 can be conceived of as economically integrated.

Because of how Constable constructs her argument, the question of relative economic "integration" is tied to the theme stressed in chapter six, that of the "balance of trade" between al-Andalus and other Islamic areas, and between Christian Spain and Europe. Apparently perceiving the world of Islam as quite homogeneous, i.e. "integrated", Constable argues that because until the late twelfth century "much of Mediterranean international trade was actually inter-Islamic, encompassing the Near East, the Maghrib, and Muslim Spain", the "balance of trade presented little problem within this sphere", especially as al-Andalus "imported goods from the Islamic east, but did not lack for exports of its own" (p. 139). The privileged position that al-Andalus enjoyed as a transit gateway was due to the fact that its exports, whether local or bought beyond the Pyrenees, "were sufficient to preserve ongoing trade between east and west" (p. 139). Unfortunately, this kind of "balance of trade" argument is both meaningless and misleading. To invoke the notion of "balance of trade", very clearly defined in economics, in such a purely intuitive fashion only confuses the issue. Several other instances of a lack of rigor in using concepts proper to economics and economic history spoil the book, although they do not have the same damaging implications.

Somewhat more serious, however, is the second principal source of weakness--Constable's occasional failure to confront her arguments with recent debates in economic history. One example of this is her suggestion that the "vast" post-Reconquest influx of foreign textiles into peninsular markets had a great potential to inhibit local industries (pp. 256-7). The debate that followed Eliyahu Ashtor's 1972-76 sugestion that Mamluk textile production had collapsed partly thanks to a dumping of European fabrics, and Stephan Epstein's 1992 refutation of a link between textile imports and the supposed stagnation of local textile production in late-medieval Sicily, have jointly made it very unwise to use without extensive discussion a model of economic blockage through imports. Constable, however, does not appear to take the relevant literature into consideration.

The third major weakness of the thesis stems from its being so fundamentally based on a comparison of Iberian trade before and after the Reconquest. While the first, Islamic, stage receives proper attention, its Christian pendant does not. The book's last two chapters, devoted to the period after c. 1212, cannot support the weight of Constable's argument.

Chapter eight, dealing with continuities and changes in Iberian exports after the Reconquest, fails to prove the contention that post-Reconquest exports were "mostly produced in competition with superior varieties from elsewhere" (pp. 14-5). Furnishing the proof would have required an extensive study of the prices and market reputation of both Iberian goods and rival commodities. The patterns of supply, competition, and buyers' preferences would moreover have to be observed under various conditions and at different points in time, to make sure that the evidence is representative. For the time being, there are no reliable grounds for the claim that "taken together, late medieval data on changes and continuities in Iberian exports, and royal intervention, show the peninsula emerging as a southern satellite ... of northern Europe" (p. 239).

One cannot blame Constable for not making the attempt to bring together and analyze the extant data. It would have required a vast and prolonged effort, and quite a risky one given the current demands and pressures of academic publishing. Under the circumstances, however, it is a pity that chapter eight and to some extent the two preceding chapters are marred by hasty work with the sources the author did use. One example is Constable's reading of Pegolotti's classic Pratica della mercatura (c. 1340) in her search for data on Castilian alum. Referring only to the general list on p. 293 of Evans' edition, she quickly attributes an Iberian origin to the "allume di Castiglio" cited there, and fails to reconcile her identification with the passage on p. 370, which states that the "Castiglio[ne] alum, called in Florence feather alum, comes from Barbary [the Maghrib]".

Chapter nine, which looks beyond the Reconquest and attempts to highlight the changed role of the Iberian Peninsula with respect to Muslim and Christian trade networks in the later Middle Ages, is even more problematic than chapter eight. Based on a quick sampling of the secondary literature, particularly superficial where the Crown of Aragon is concerned, the chapter touches in a very confined space on a large array of complex issues brought up in support of the central thesis. As a result, the reader is left with a distorted impression of such phenomena as Aragonese-Catalan protectionist policies; the trade in prohibited goods ("cosas vedadas"); Jewish-Muslim participation in trade with the Maghrib; linkages between war and commercial fluctuations; the fifteenth-century decline of Catalan maritime trade; and the roots of late medieval Valencia's commercial prosperity. This is not an adequate platform for the "before and after" comparison around which Constable's thesis is built.

In the rest of the book the defects are relatively venial and outweighed by significant strengths. The brief history of Muslim Spain in the first chapter provides a solid, yet not overwhelming introduction for the non-specialist. Chapter two offers a useful, albeit somewhat scanty sketch of the commercial geography of coastal al-Andalus. It also clearly positions Muslim Spain within tenth- to twelfth-century Mediterranean trade networks, and supplies interesting details about Muslim shipping. Together, the two chapters do an excellent job of acquainting the general reader with al- Andalus and its commerce, while the specialist will find here a store of handy data, some familiar and some new, extracted from a variety of Arabic and Judeo-Arabic sources.

The third, fourth, and fifth chapters, devoted to exploring the professional and social world of the Muslims, Jews, and to some extent Christians, involved in Andalusi trade, constitute beyond any doubt the most valuable part of the book. Here Constable establishes a typology of trader groups, examines the patterns of interaction both within and between the latter, delves into the background of individual merchants and merchant families, focuses on formal and informal modes of cooperation, and discusses the underlying legal and customary frameworks. She also outlines in some detail the institutional context within which merchants had to operate. Her work with her direct commercial primary sources, the documents from the Cairo Geniza made famous by S. D. Goitein, is of high quality.

Chapters six and seven contain a valuable general survey of the commodities of Andalusi trade prior to c. 1212. Although exports receive more attention than imported and re-exported goods, and although the coverage of many items is disappointingly sketchy, these chapters will become a much used reference tool, providing access to data otherwise not available to those who do not read Arabic.