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Journal of World History 10.1 (1999) 223-227

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Commodity and Exchange in the Mongol Empire: A Cultural History of Islamic Textiles. By Thomas T. Allsen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. xv + 137. $49.95 (cloth).
An Economic History of the Silk Industry, 1830-1930. By giovanni federico. Cambridge Studies in Modern Economic History, vol. 5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. xv + 259. $59.95 (cloth).

Along with other key technological innovations, such as farming, the neolithic people (most likely women) who invented weaving gave more to history than protective coverings for their families. The weavers' craft became more important as production and variety of textiles proliferated. Cloth has been used as a trade good as well as a medium of [End Page 223] exchange and payment of taxes and tribute. As textiles became more important, social and political identification based on the kind and fineness of textiles expanded and evolved. Archeologists have found the earliest textile samples in neolithic settlements in western Eurasia, from where the textile art most likely diffused to (or was reinvented in?) the other end of the Eurasian landmass in the east. Recent finds in 6,000-year-old sites in Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces of east-central China push back the dates and relocate the geographical origins of the first sericulture, traditionally credited to the concubine of the legendary "Yellow Emperor."

Clearly, textile production thrived in sedentary terminus regions but not among the mobile peoples of central Asia (see Jared Diamond,Guns, Germs, and Steel, p. 164, reviewed elsewhere in this issue). Movement of trade goods and peoples over this vast interior space began in the fourth millennium B.C.E., becoming regular and more extensive by the first millennium B.C.E. A nineteenth-century writer dubbed this ancient commercial route "the Silk Road" because of the significant role of textiles. Little attention has previously been given to the impact of silk on the nomadic societies of inner Asia, although this was important as the link for trade.

World historians are generally familiar with the movement of silks between the Han and Roman empires, but much less is taught of the movement of cotton and other textile production technology from west to east (see Kung Chao, Development of Cotton Textile Production in China [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977]). Furthermore, silks are usually labeled luxury trade items as opposed to necessity goods. This formula of luxury versus necessity trade has long provided the theoretical backbone for discussion of the emergence of "world/global/long distance" trade and market production. However, in Commodity and Exchange in the Mongol Empire, Thomas T. Allsen argues strongly that one people's luxury is another's necessity (p. 103).

Allsen's remarkable monograph, published in the Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization series (although it has little to do with Islamic civilization!) is at once narrowly focused in topic and wide-ranging in scope. Focused on Mongol political and social uses of a particular kind of silk brocade cloth (nasij), Allsen explores how Mongol rulers, once in control of sedentary regions as well as their familiar homelands on the steppe of inner Asia, supplied the demand for this cloth through booty, tribute, taxation, and court-sponsored production. In pursuit of his task, Allsen must examine the multi-ethnic nature of the vast empire constructed by Chinggis Qan and his heirs. In this process, the reader comes to appreciate the role that Mongol states played, not only [End Page 224] as conduits of cultural transmission but also as the stimulus for and end users of "silk road" products, whose volume significantly increased during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Although he poses central questions about the Mongols (e.g., how did they build their empire, and what of their legacy—Mongol yoke or Pax Mongolica?), Allsen does not answer them in the usual manner— that is, he describes neither the military genius of the Mongol armies nor their role in spreading...