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Series: Middle Ages
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Trade in medieval Christendom

This map is part of a series of 8 animated maps showing the history of Middle Ages.

In the 11th century, the Latin West entered a great phase of demographic growth and economic expansion. One consequence of this was a rise in trade and commerce: goods were exchanged in increasing numbers, sometimes over thousands of kilometres, by increasingly well organised merchants. The cheapest goods were shipped by sea, while high-value merchandise, which weighed less, was transported by land.

Commercial activities were concentrated in three regions.

First, in the county of Champagne, where fairs began to flourish in the mid-12th century. The Champagne fairs became a bustling trading centre for products from all over Europe: English wool, Flemish cloth and Italian fabrics, wines from France, grain, metals, etc.

The second region encompassed the merchant towns of the North Sea and the Baltic. They quickly organised into a large association known as the Hanseatic League, which gave them better control over the flow of trade. These towns were hubs for trade in fish, furs, amber, and walrus ivory, all of which were in great demand in the southern European markets.

Finally, the Italian communes also became increasingly important over the 12th century.

The merchants of Venice, Pisa and Genoa took advantage of the crusades to set up trading posts in the major ports of the southern Mediterranean. They gradually monopolised the trade in goods from the East: silk from Persia and China, spices from India, and sugar from Cyprus. These luxury products permeated the West and made the fortune of the Italian communes – particularly Venice, which became the great commercial power of the 14th and 15th centuries.

The Italians were not the only ones to form powerful trade networks. Jewish merchants were also present; the diaspora enabled them to exchange letters, advice and information from Andalusia to the Maghreb, and from Alexandria to Croatia. They played a prominent role in the trade of slaves and gold brought from sub-Saharan Africa by Muslim traders.