Frankopan, Peter: The Silk Roads

The proposer had read this book when it came out in 2015 and had won much praise and awards.  He considered it one of the best world histories ever written. There are many of these but they are mostly ‘one damn thing after another’ to quote AJP Taylor’s view of history. This one was much superior. It is a popular, accessible work but based on up-to-date academic research.

Peter Frankopan is a Croat by background. He is Professor of Global History at Oxford and Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research. He has written a book on the First Crusade and has translated the diary of Anna Commenus.  He has worked on the history of the Mediterranean, Russia, Persia, Central Asia and Christian/Islam relations.

The major theme of the book as evidenced by the title is the importance of trade as a driver of history. War and religion have often been emphasized by historians.  Frankopan shows that trade and economic factors are often the most important drivers even when the justification is often religion or war. For example Frankopan emphasizes the importance of economic issues during the Crusades, including continued Christian /Islamic trading, and the important economic motives of Italian cities including the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Venetians.

His section on the Mongols was an excellent revision of the traditional view of the warlike Mongols emphasising how good they were as traders and administrators.

The book demonstrated that places on the Silk Roads were producers of goods as well dealers in trade.

That economics is a prime driver of history is not simple Marxism. It was a major theme of Scottish Enlightenment thinkers and writers such as Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson.

One of our number unable to be present had provided an excellent summary and analysis of the chapter on the C14th plague which we know as the Black Death. This is included as an annex to this note. In this context it is worth mentioning also Frankopan’s account of the devastating effects on the Roman/Byzantine Empire of the plague in the 540s when Justinian was making good progress to restore the whole Roman Empire. The role of climate change was recognised as a factor. The world was likely due another pandemic.

The book had another theme, namely that the British and Europeans have been too Eurocentric in their understanding of history.  The legacy of the study of Greek and Roman culture was a major cause. A recent survey showed that 2/3rds of historians in the UK researched only European history and many only British. This represented a decline from earlier times explained partly by the decline in study of languages.

As Frankopan shows, the coastal countries of Western Europe only became important after the discovery of America and the sea route to India ‘the greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind’ to quote Adam Smith, though perhaps he can also be accused of over Eurocentrism.

This mattered because the prevalent historical narrative influences present opinion. The extent of Anglo- centrism and Anglo-exceptionalism can be see most recently in the Brexit vote though the Brexiteers might not express it in those terms. An important message of the book was that the age of European and US dominance was ending and power returning to the countries of the Silk Roads. Global history needed to be taught, not just European.

There was general agreement that the book was a brilliant synthesis of material that filled in many gaps in the knowledge of members, even including those who had studied history. It was well written but covered so much material that it required steady careful reading. The statistics were impressive in scope and detail, e.g. on GDP in India compared to the West in C17th and oil production statistics in C20th.

Changes in goods sought after was well covered, from luxuries such as gold, silver and silk to oil. The quest for control of goods, eg oil in the last 150 years was well illustrated as a basis of conflict between Russia and Britain both in World War I and later. Future conflicts would likely continue to centre on natural resources, including energy and water, particularly as such resources were running out.

It was a remarkable analysis and synthesis of up-to-date academic research. Those members who had knowledge of various aspects of the history could find nothing with which to find fault. For example, although it was highly critical of the impact of European states, and later the USA, on other countries this was no longer a contentious but mainstream view. Man’s inhumanity to man was a constant theme throughout the historic period covered whichever group was in the ascendant.

The book was an important corrective to the prevailing Westerncentric history with which members had been taught. It was vital to understand the importance of the East over the centuries as Western dominance was giving way again to Eastern.

There were some criticisms of the book.

The maps were not very good given the wide-ranging subject area.

Initially the author stuck closely to his title but at times the Silk roads link became a little tenuous though he returned to the area in more recent times.

The role of women was insufficiently recognised. One of our members explained that business had traditionally been the province of Mongol women while the men were away fighting and he instanced a recent negotiation with a Mongolian business, of which he was aware, in which all the leading executives were female.

There was no acknowledgement of previous historians who had attempted a similar approach, e.g. Frederick Braudel’s ‘ Civilisation and Capitalism’, albeit with a narrower geographic and temporal focus.

Overall these were minor criticisms of what was an extremely impressive work.

Appendix: 

What an eye-opener! Written in beguilingly easy prose, this was endlessly interesting, despite the potentially weighty and academic nature of his subject.

I have learnt lots from it, particularly of course the importance of the East over the centuries. I was particularly struck by:

  • the material on European slavery,
  • the insights into the reality of the Crusades, which I understand is Frankopan’s original academic specialism,
  • the account of the development  of the Muslim Empire,
  • and the history of the Italian City States.

I guess this is popularising of solidly based academic studies, rather than original academic work, but there is nothing wrong with that.

I was intrigued by how he manages to hold my attention on subjects that would normally have me nodding after a few minutes. To study his writing techniques I looked more closely at a representative section, that on the Plague.

It starts with a well- turned surprise: “The most  important effect that the Mongol conquests had on the transformation of Europe, however,….[was] an outbreak of plague… The Mongols had not destroyed the world, but it seemed quite possible that the Black Death would.”

Then there is scientific analysis of how it spreads: “fleas vomiting bacilli into the bloodstream before feeding”.

Then there is the effect of climate change on flea numbers.

There follows a gruesome section about a Mongol army dying of plague in “thousands and thousands every day,” according to a commentator, but before withdrawing catapulting the corpses into the besieged city.

The trading highways now became lethal highways for transmitting the Black Death.

So many died in England that the Pope granted a plenary indulgence for confession of sins.

A contemporary source reckons scarcely a tenth of the population survived.

It reaches Mecca despite the Prophet promising plague would never reach the holy cities of Islam.

Another quote comes from a source, about dogs tearing at the corpses piled up against the mosques.

Taxpayers in one region of Egypt fell from 6,000 to 116.

Boccaccio claims 100,000 lost their lives in Florence.

There was a sense of impending apocalypse – raining frogs, snakes and lizards – giant hailstones killing people by the dozen.

Avoid sex and every fleshly lust with women urged a Swedish priest. Women must wear less revealing clothes said an English priest, as they were wearing short garments that “failed to conceal their arses or their private parts”.

Jews were considered to be the cause in Germany and vicious pogroms carried out.

An estimate suggests around 25 million dead out of a 75 million population.

Scientific work on other plagues suggests the key determinant is not the density of human population but the density of the rat population.

But – another surprise for the reader – the plague turned out to be the catalyst for profound social and economic change. The transformation provided an important pillar in the rise of the West. the shortage of labour empowered the peasantry against the propertied classes. Demand for luxury goods soared with wider spread of wealth and younger demographic, and European textile trade takes off.

Research on skeletal remains in graveyards shows that a rise in wealth led to better diet and health. The post- plague life expectancy was much higher.

Women got the chance to become wage earners, and marry later – check out the quote from advice to women by female Dutch poet. There was a developing work ethic in Northern Europe to counteract geographical position.

Hence, in this appendix, are quoted the main elements of this relatively short section  simply to demonstrate the tremendous range and skill of Frankopan. He blends scientific and economic analysis with striking contemporary quotations from literary, religious and other sources, all within a strong, compelling and very well informed narrative. Finally, he is always happy to spice things up with a liberal sprinkling of sex and violence!

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