Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles in Trade: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America Biennial Symposium, September 14–16, 1990, Washington, DC


Copyright © 1990 by the author(s).



Silk, trade and politics were common spokes in an intricate wheel, propelling Mediterranean influence towards the West. At a time when Western Europe lacked the ability to manufacture silk cloth, Eastern silken stuffs were eagerly sought for secular and ecclesiastical purposes. Byzantium in particular, in return for silks, demanded Western military and naval aid, and her silk trade concessions bore the hallmark of powerful political bargaining counters. The survival of more than one thousand silks in church treasuries of Western Europe, provides unspoken insights into the complex impact of Mediterranean silk trade on the West before 1200 A.D. The purpose of this paper is to explore the broader ramifications of these remarkable influences.

The Mediterranean silk trade spanned economic, political, cultural and religious divides between East and West:
- Its economic impact was reflected by the breadth, scale and regularity of distribution of the silks on the Western market.
- Its political impact was demonstrated by the existance of a 'diplomatic silk trade' allied to a policy of special silk trade concessions in exchange for military or naval aid.
- Its cultural impact was evident in the uses of silks in Western society.
- Its religious impact was crystallised in the widespread and parallel uses of the silks in the Byzantine and the Latin Church.

The economic and political influences were inextricably linked, and these together with the ensuing social and religious influences were spurred along by Western courts eager to rival their Eastern counterparts.

It was not surprising that before the establishment of Latin silk weaving centres under Roger of Sicily at Palermo in 1147, the West should seek large numbers of patterned silks through silk trade with the Mediterranean (Weigand, 1935). Only the survival of large numbers of silks illustrates just how widespread was their distribution across Western Europe (Muthesius 1982 and forthcoming) (Map 1). Over a hundred centres were receiving silks from the Mediterranean region at varying times between the fourth and the twelfth century.