This post is part of a series that aims to provide a background on the history of the Silk Road.
Since its recorded origins around 1200 BC, the Silk Road reached the peak of its successfulness in terms of volumes of trade during the Pax Mongolica, and slowly declined after that. Genghis Khan’s unifying conquests in Central Asia during the 13th century fostered a period of unprecedented political stability in the region, which confirmed its role as an intermediary connecting Europe to Asia.
Historians have argued that following this idyllic period, the Silk Road’s lustre was challenged by two major trends in the 15th and 16th century: the ascent of maritime trade and the collapse of political security. On the one hand, maritime trade became more accessible due to the opening of new routes and the advent of new technologies. Maritime trade rapidly substituted a large portion of overland trade by dramatically lowering transport costs. On the other hand, the political stability of Central Asia faltered as, contrary to its predecessors, the Ming dynasty failed to impose its military presence in the region. In turn, as James Milward of Georgetown University explains: “Timurid princes and rump Mongol rulers in Central Asia were indeed a fractious lot, and with no imperial overlord to secure the routes, trade was hazardous”. In Europe, the situation was equally bleak. Trade was in fact confined by the perils generated by the Hundred Years’ War and by the Bubonic Plague.
Additionally, when looking specifically at the trade of silk-related goods, from the 13th century onwards, European merchants accessed the secrets surrounding the production and refining procedures of this luxurious textile. In fact, Chinese dynasties had carefully guarded their monopoly for centuries to maintain this valuable source of revenue. Nonetheless, following multiple marriages between the ruling families of China and Central Asia, the secret slowly escaped its homeland, and eventually reached European shores, thus fostering the rise of a flourishing industry in Italy and France. In turn, the relevance of Chinese and Central Asian manufacturers faced an inevitable decline. Paradoxically, history will eventually face the reversal of this process for a wider array of industries.