Byzantine insularity in the early Dark Ages

I’ve been browsing the introduction to Van der Vin’s book on medieval travellers to Constantinople, nearly all of whom visited after the 11th century.  It seems that the eastern empire became  very isolated from the west after the collapse of the western Roman empire.

The book contains the following interesting statement (p.4):

In the last few decennia scholars have tried to sketch the development of trade and shipping in the early middle ages on the evidence of the available historical, archeological and numismatic material [11].  The following conclusion which emerges from their work is important for the present study. It appears that up till the eleventh century trade and traffic were confined mainly to two large areas: the one around the Mediterranean Sea, the other within the territory of northwest Europe. Contacts between these two trade blocs were, however, limited in scope, and it is only in the course of the eleventh century that it is possible to see clear signs of the merging and mixing of the two spheres of influence … [12] … there was little or no direct contact between Byzantium and western Europe.

An important factor which prevented the formation of direct contacts between Greek territory and the West was the attitude of the Greeks themselves. The Byzantine world was very much an inward-looking one, where people showed no interest in what was going on in what the Byzantines saw as the ‘barbaric’ West. Thus no attempts were made from the Byzantine side to maintain contacts with western Europe. Moreover, the Greeks themselves hardly engaged in trade at all. In the mediterranean area trade, in the early middle ages, was almost entirely in the hands of Jews and ‘Syrians’ – a general name for anybody from the East.[14]These Syrians and Jews collected eastern products from certain harbours appointed by the Byzantine emperors, the most important of which was Constantinople, and arranged for their transport and their sale in  western Europe. In the fifth to seventh centuries there were colonies of these Levantine merchants in all the large towns around the Mediterranean Sea: in harbours such as Marseilles, Narbonne, Aries, Genoa, Naples and Palermo, but they can also be found in towns further inland, such as Lyons and Vienne, and even Orleans and Paris.[15]

From these places oriental and Byzantine products, including slaves, furs and luxury articles, were distributed throughout France, England and Germany. …

In the above it has always been assumed that any contacts between Greece and Constantinople with the West would in any case involve a voyage, long or short, by ship.

The shortest sea route was the crossing from a harbour in southern Italy to one of the Ionian islands, or to the west coast of Greece. However abhorrent the idea of a sea journey, there was simply no alternative, as the overland route straight across the Balkans, the area where the Byzantine empire bordered on the rest of Europe, was impassable until the eleventh century.

The unsafe state of the Balkans, which was largely due to still uncivilized Serbian and Bulgarian tribes, made traffic through that area impossible. This may be clearly seen from the maps in ‘The Northern Seas’ where Lewis shows the major trade routes of Europe … up to 1100 the Balkans are traversed by not a single continuous route.[18][1]

The lack of security throughout Europe was also a factor, where local barons and robbers — not necessarily different people — made travel difficult by land.  Van der Vin comments that the crusades ironically improved security in western Europe:

The Crusades started by Pope Urban II in 1096, also contributed to greater peace in western Europe; one of their results was that because many noblemen went off to the Holy Land many existing feuds either faded into the background or else were fought out outside Europe.

In the 11th century the land route across the Balkans did reopen, partly because of the conversion of the Bulgars and Hungarians, and partly because of the increased power of the empire in that region after the campaigns of emperors such as Basil II (976-1025).

We take ease of transport for granted.  But it did not exist in most periods of history.  The isolation of the Greek east at various periods is a factor we tend not to consider.

  1. [1]11. J.N.L. Baker, Medieval Trade Routes, London, 1954;  F. Vercauteren, Etude sur les civitates de la Belgique seconde, Brussels, 1934, pp. 445 ss; R.S. Lopez, ‘Silk Industry in the Byzantine Empire’, Speculum 20 (1945), pp. 1-42. With some hesitation I also mention here A.R. Lewis, The Northern Seas. Shipping and Commerce in Northern Europe, A.D. 300- 1100, Princeton, 1958. This work contains a great deal of material, but is so carelessly written that its data can hardly be used without first being checked.
    12. Lewis, Northern Seas, p. 455.
    14. L. Brehier, ‘Les colonies d’orientaux en Occident au  commencement du moyen-age’, Byzantinische Zeitschrift 12  (1903), pp. 1-39;  J. Ebersolt, Orient et Occident. Recherches sur les  influences byzantines et orientales en France avant les Croisades, Paris-Bruxelles, 1928;  M.J. de Goeje, ‘Internationaal handelsverkeer in de Middeleeuwen’, Verslagen en mededeelingen der koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen (afd. letterkunde), 4e serie, 9 (1909), pp. 245-69;  P. Lambrechts, ‘le Commerce des “Syriens” en Gaule du Haut Empire a l’epoque merovingienne’, l’Antiquite classique, 6 (1937), pp. 35-61.
    15. Brehier, op. cit., pp. 11-6.
    18. Lewis, Northern Seas, Maps: 1, circa A.D. 300 (p. 33); 2. circa A.D. 650 (p. 148); 3. circa A.D. 820 (p. 205); 4. circa A.D. 985 (p. 369); 5. circa A.D. 1100 (p. 475).

3 thoughts on “Byzantine insularity in the early Dark Ages

  1. There is an article at Βυζαντινα Αναλεκτα, the magazine on Byzantine studies run by the Greek National Research Center from the 1970’s which claims that Porphyrogennitos, who otherwise was very important for the survival of ancient letters, actually censored early Byzantine chroniclers and historians to reduce to the point of elimination of contacts with the West. It claims (and I would dare say it was convincing but I am not a Byzantinist) that it purposefully done as part of his policy of not interfering with the ruling powers of the West which at the time were friendly.

  2. Thank you, Ikokki, as ever, for an interesting and unusual viewpoint on this. I’ve looked at a few pages of this via Google Translate, and it’s interesting. I’m not sure I follow the argument, tho.

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