- Threads of Global Desire: Silk in the Pre-Modern World ed. by Dagmar Schäfer, Giorgio Riello, and Luca Molà, and: Cowrie Shells and Cowrie Money: A Global History by Bin Yang
These two excellent, very different books represent two ways that commodities serve world history; as mobile media facilitating expansive social and spatial connectivity, as in the case of cowries, or any monetary implement in market exchange; or as objects of value, moving through markets, as sites for investment that increase the value of objects that settle in diverse social settings where people transform things locally in physical form and cultural meaning, as in the case of silk. Both books track premodern travels of their chosen commodity. In that context, both deploy the idea of "global," but not in the planetary sense that is common today; rather, in the sense that these mobile commodity spaces have no boundaries and expand over time.
Both books work inside worlds of premodern markets that become more global with early-modern European seaborne empires. The books form opposite views of the early-modern scene. Anchored in Europe, Threads of Global Desire portrays "global exchange" as being wrought by Europe's connection with East Asia, where silk originated and traveled [End Page 805] west to be developed in Europe, thus to become global. By contrast, anchored in Asia, Cowrie Shells and Cowrie Money argues strongly that centuries of commercial expansion in Afro-Asia, using Asia's unique cowrie currency, financed early-modern globalization, which led to the end of history for the world of cowries in nineteenth century modernity.
Threads of Global Desire is a beautiful book, with elaborate color photos of silk fabrics and fashions. It admirably inaugurates the Pasold Research Fund series on "Text, Dress and Fashion History." Building on rich traditions of economic history, it is mostly concerned with silk-based social and economic activity in sericulture and silk thread commerce and in silk fabric design, trade, manufacture, fashion, and consumption. It has thirteen densely detailed, annotated chapters—for which the glossary is extremely useful—on silk in sixteenth to eighteenth century Ming China, Ottoman territories, Dutch and English East India Company commerce, England, France, New Spain, Pennsylvania, and Japan, all wrapped in a "global and comparative" context with a concluding chapter by Giorgio Riello.
"Threads" in the title indicates the commodity that stars in the book: silk threads traveling commercial pathways across Eurasia and woven into a wide variety of fabrics, carpets, ribbons, and bows, even as the diet of the silkworm larvae-caterpillar of the Bombyx mori moth, feeding solely on leaves of mulberry trees, kept almost all silk raw material production in China (and India), where it remains to this day. Four chapters trace commerce on trade routes and in centers in Europe, in Ottoman territories, and connecting Europe and the Americas to Asian markets; but mapping out "the world of silk" is not the goal of this book; rather, its main goal is to elaborate the importance of silk in a range of places connected by trade and to describe in detail productive activities and innovations that generate and sustain domestic markets for silk.
The chapters show how the multiplicity of silk products and silk technologies increased as the range of markets and scale of local consumption increased along with the profitability of silk, attracting greedy state authorities and diverse local innovators, including humble Quaker women in rural Pennsylvania. The detailed account of local innovation and expansive marketing is most impressive. The full scale and diversity of the world of silk is not described, as the book barely touches the Persianate world and South Asia, that is, vast regions of silk and silk-mixed carpet production, use, and marketing, and of luxurious silk saris, from Kashan and Bukhara to Bangalore and Kanchipuram.
The central "global" theme in this...