James M. Murray

title.none: Blanchard, Mining, Metallurgy and Minting (James M. Murray)

identifier.other: baj9928.0501.034 05.01.34

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: James M. Murray, University of Cincinnati,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Blanchard, Ian. Mining, Metallurgy and Minting in the Middle Ages: Vol. 1. Asiatic Supremacy, 425-1125 and Vol. 2. Afro-European Supremacy, 1125- 1225 (African Gold Production and the First European Silver Production Long-cycle). Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2001. Pp. liv, xxxv, 919. vol. 1 $130.00, 3-515-07958-0 (hb). ISBN: vol. 2 $115.00, 3-515-07967-x (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.01.34

Blanchard, Ian. Mining, Metallurgy and Minting in the Middle Ages: Vol. 1. Asiatic Supremacy, 425-1125 and Vol. 2. Afro-European Supremacy, 1125- 1225 (African Gold Production and the First European Silver Production Long-cycle). Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2001. Pp. liv, xxxv, 919. vol. 1 $130.00, 3-515-07958-0 (hb). ISBN: vol. 2 $115.00, 3-515-07967-x (pb).

Reviewed by:

James M. Murray
University of Cincinnati

These first two volumes of a planned four volume history of non-ferrous metals and their uses encompass the largest expanse both of time and geography--the final volumes take the story "only" from the central Middle Ages to 1575, after which bullion imports from the New World changed the Old World's economy forever. As a whole, the work is encyclopedic and exasperating; full of interesting information and arcana, yet also distressingly prone to cutting and pasting material from one part of a volume to another. So prevalent is this practice, that the last chapter of volume 1--chapter 16--is reproduced virtually word for word as the first chapter of volume 2!

All self-quotation aside, Dr. Blanchard has synthesized a vast body of material in a plethora of languages in an attempt to follow the trail of bullion from mine to mint to user. As such it joins venerable works like those of Marc Bloch, as well as more recent contributions by John Day, Peter Spufford, and Carlo Cipolla. But Blanchard's project is on a much greater scale than any previous work, and its scale is one of the problems confronting the reader trying to grasp the complexities of metal mining and exchange from Britain to China across a span of eight centuries.

The first volume describes the fading of the Roman monetary world and its replacement by an age of Asian supremacy that endured until the twelfth century. Though defined as "Asiatic," there was little stability in the location and distribution of gold and silver bullion. On this point, Blanchard makes the useful observation that in less developed economic systems, the impact of climate and political change is much greater, leading to rapid development, and abandonment, of trade patterns, urban entrepots, and mint networks. Even something as subtle as a shift in trade winds, or rainfall patterns, could result in fundamental economic shifts.

Set amid this constant change there were points of long term fixity: Gold came mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, arriving in the Mediterranean world via camel caravans; silver mining was much more dispersed but, in the main, silver came from Central Asia, and from the seventh century, Islamic rulers controlled it all. This Islamic economic order approximated in size the Roman empire at its greatest extent, yet it functioned to a much greater degree as the distributor and regulator of long-distance trade between the great world empires, from China, south Asia, to Byzantium and the comparatively impoverished and backward economy of western Europe.

Not surprisingly, Europeans became dependent on bullion coined and distributed by neighboring Islamic states: from the eighth and ninth century, through Muslim Spain and slightly later via Sicily. This is the essential background to Carolingian initiatives in standardizing silver coinage throughout the Frankish empire, which enabled Charlemagne not only to meet the monetary needs of his subjects with abundant silver, but also to propagate the coined image of Frankish hegemony throughout Europe. A final interesting observation made by Blanchard here is to debunk the idea of Charlemagne's reforms as the beginning of European mono-metallism: in reality a large amount of Muslim gold also flowed into the Carolingian empire, but only silver was worth coining. The gold found its way into the objects that so richly decorated European churches and monasteries, thus luring the Vikings and other raiders.

The end of Islamic hegemony came with a crushing silver famine, which left no corner of what had become a world trading system unaffected. For Europe, this meant a major relocation of silver production, which by the twelfth century resulted in a reverse in the traditional flow of silver from east to west, with mines in Britain and the continent providing large quantities of silver for use and export. Blanchard describes in detail the alternating patterns of British and continental booms and busts, which never quite resulted in enough silver to satisfy both internal demand for coinage to fuel a commercializing economy, and provide specie to pay for far eastern imports. Insatiable demand launched a great era in European mineral prospecting, with finds stretching from western Britain to the Harz mountains. Byproducts of this mining frenzy included improvements in mining and extraction technology, as well as system of bureaucratic oversight and control by European monarchs.

Against this backdrop of booming European silver production, gold production in the Sudan region of Africa increased as well, producing what Blanchard calls an "anti-cyclonic" distribution of the two metals between continents. Abundant gold and silver permitted the creation of a distinctive "Afro-European" market structure, that in Europe resulted in the Champagne fairs through which silver flowed and was coined into the distinctive denari provisini, which between roughly 1150 and 1200 became the exchange medium of intra- and extra- European trade. Even a silver famine between 1195-1255 did not bring this new system to an end, though it did require and foster inventiveness among European money changers and merchants, who developed a host of coin substitutes to enable trade in the face of bullion scarcity.

Although the above is the main plot in the story narrated by Blanchard, it is by no means the only one. A short review simply cannot do justice to the subsidiary stories of the development of mining technology: the shifting geography of mining, or the extensive history given here of the extraction of base metals in Europe and elsewhere. Any future researcher will turn to these volumes, and no doubt to the two that are to come, with real gratitude to Dr. Blanchard and his indefatigable quest to narrate these important histories.