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History: Cultural Exchanges in the Medieval Period Essay


During the medieval period, international trade brought wealth and prosperity to societies. Merchants traversed the world to sell different types of goods to people that needed them. Gilbert and Reynolds (3) say ancient merchants traded in wood from England, spices from Asia, salt and wine from France, and slaves from Africa. The trade boom made the merchants wealthy and empowered rulers around the globe.

It also led to the growth of trade towns and the exchange of cultures across different trade routes (people often fought for control of this trade because they understood its significance to the development of local communities) (Hezser 434).

Based on an appreciation of the contribution of international trade to the growth and development of the medieval world, this paper explores the role of spice, salt, sugar, and silk as important trade commodities of the medieval period. Furthermore, through a different lens of analysis, this paper explores the existence and ramifications of cultural exchanges in the medieval period.

Role of Trade Commodities

Silk: During the medieval period, silk was an important luxury item that represented class and wealth. The ruling class, therefore, used it as a status symbol.

Loved for its rarity and beauty, merchants transported silk to textile factories that used it as a raw material to produce clothing items for the rich (Norris and Evan-Moor Educational Publishers 70). Besides being a raw material for the textile industry, medieval Europe also used silk as a currency. This way, silk was an important commodity for international trade.

Salt: Like silk, salt was also an important trade item of the medieval period. Unlike today, salt was a rare commodity in the ancient world. People mostly valued it for its preservative value (preserving food). Some societies even used it as a currency. For example, Roman soldiers received salt as payment for their salaries.

Similarly, merchants traded salt in exchange for slaves (hence the term, “someone was not worth his salt”). Some historical excerpts say part of modern civilization also emerged from the salt trade (Norris and Evan-Moor Educational Publishers 71). Its significance to ancient trade, therefore, shows that salt was an important trade commodity.

Sugar: Like silk and salt, sugar was an important trade commodity in the Atlantic triangle trade. Before the mass production of sugar started, the commodity was a high-value product in Britain and America.

Gilbert and Reynolds (93) say by the late 19th century, sugar was an important dietary food. Unlike silk, which merchants sold to the ruling class, all social classes consumed sugar. Its importance to ancient trade comes from its significance to the growth of the industrial revolution in Britain. Particularly, sugar was important in financing the growth of the industrial revolution.

Spices: Spice was an important trade commodity in the medieval period because of its colorful grains. People used spices to color food, embalm the dead, and produce perfumes. Furthermore, like salt, people also used spice to preserve food. Some used it to manufacture and improve traditional medicine.

These uses made spice a highly valued commodity for most societies. The existence of the spice trade is arguably the most iconic historic event because it led to the discovery of continents (such as America) and the start of the modern age (Hezser 331).

Cultural Exchange

What is Cultural Exchange?

Cultural exchange is the process of bringing two or more people/communities together to interact and exchange information regarding their lifestyles and backgrounds. The main aim of cultural exchange is to make people develop a common understanding of their social behaviors. As outlined below, cultural exchange existed in medieval trade.

Why Cultural Exchange Occurred

Cultural exchange was a vivid tenet of ancient trade. It occurred because traders needed to establish business contacts in foreign lands. Merchants, therefore, found it important to establish a common culture with their trading partners to communicate easily with them.

Some found it important to embrace cultural exchange because they needed to make foreign communities understand their lifestyles and culture (Hezser 436). Particularly, they wanted foreign communities to embrace their culture so that they could establish ties with them.

Individual Role of Merchants as Cultural Carriers

Merchants participated in cultural exchange because they wanted to establish commercial interests with their trading partners. Although their role was to establish common ties with trading communities (to foster economic growth), their international trade networks provided the infrastructure for cultural exchange.

For example, missionaries used merchant routes to travel around the world and spread Christianity. Some Muslim merchants also used their international trade networks to spread their culture, architecture, religion, dressing, and the likes. This analysis shows that ancient traders played a huge role in fostering cultural exchange within the medieval period.

Place of Syncretism in Understanding Cultural Exchanges

The concept of syncretism played a huge role in understanding how cultural exchange occurred in the ancient world. Notably, the concept means the combination of two (or more) different cultures.

Within the medieval period, syncretism helped to create possible cultural compromises among different communities (usually with varying cultures). Particularly, it provided traders with an opportunity to establish their beliefs and values in foreign lands. Its acceptance also created an opportunity for people to accept expansive cultures.

Cultural Exchange Examples

Different types of cultural exchanges occurred in the ancient trade period. Notably, cultural exchanges occurred in different parts of the world. For example, Arab and Persian traders often interacted with the coastal people of East Africa, in the 7th and 8th centuries.

The establishment of the Swahili language is an example of the cultural exchange that occurred within this period because it marked the infusion of Arab and Bantu (the language of East Africa’s coastal inhabitant) languages (Collins and Burns 104). Today, Swahili is the predominant language used by residents of East Africa (not just the coastal areas).

Furthermore, it unifies people from different countries, including Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Rwanda (Collins and Burns 104). The offshoots of this cultural exchange also exist in the religious affiliation of East Africa’s coastal inhabitants to Islam (because of the religious influences of Muslim traders).

Moreover, East Africa’s coastal buildings today use Arabic architecture (also sourced from Arab traders who lived in East Africa’s coast during the 7th and 8th centuries) (Collins and Burns 104).

The slave trade boom also highlights a notable period in the history of world trade where cultural exchange occurred between European imperialists and African slaves. African slaves comprised the largest group of laborers that Arab traders transported during the medieval period. Their settlement in foreign lands led to the emergence and growth of the Creole culture (Curtin 58).

Typically, historians use the Creole culture to symbolize a group of locals who have foreign ancestry. This type of cultural exchange occurred when African and European immigrants settled in Spanish colonies. Evidence of the Creole culture also exists in America today.

Notably, Louisiana State has an ancient history of Creole dominance. In Louisiana, Creoles refer to people of mixed ancestry (mostly Spanish and French ancestry). Some people consider Creoles to include people of African, Spanish, and French ancestry.

Merchant Diaspora Communities and their Roles in Cultural Exchange

Merchant Diaspora communities referred to a group of traders living in foreign lands where they sold or sourced trade commodities. A classic example of a merchant Diaspora community is the Assyrian merchants who settled in the Anatolian peninsula (Curtin 68).

They mainly resided in this region to sell their products to local communities. Such groups of people are partial residents of their domiciles because they resided in foreign lands to trade. However, their influences did not only exist within the confines of international trade because they also played a huge role in the spread of cultures and ideologies in different parts of the world.


After weighing the findings of this paper, it is crucial to mention that ancient trade played a huge role in defining ancient societies. Silk, sugar, salt, and spices were the notable goods of trade. Their demand and supply defined trade routes and created social networks between people and communities.

Through the same networks, the cultural exchange occurred, and new languages emerged (the emergence of the Swahili language is a perfect example of such an exchange). Based on the spread and the importance of international trade in the medieval period, it is crucial to say its existence largely shaped the economic and social landscapes of affected communities.

Works Cited

Collins, Robert, and J. Burns. A History of Sub-Saharan Africa, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Print.

Curtin, Philip. Cross-Cultural Trade in World History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Print.

Gilbert, Erik, and J. Reynolds. Trading Tastes: Commodity and Cultural Exchange to 1750, New York: Pearson / Prentice Hall, 2006. Print.

Hezser, Catherine. Jewish Travel in Antiquity, Tubingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2011. Print.

Norris, John, and Evan-Moor Educational Publishers. History Pockets: Ancient Civilizations, Grades 1-3, Los Angeles: Evan-Moor, 2003. Print.

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"History: Cultural Exchanges in the Medieval Period." IvyPanda, 18 Mar. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/history-cultural-exchanges-in-the-medieval-period/.

1. IvyPanda. "History: Cultural Exchanges in the Medieval Period." March 18, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/history-cultural-exchanges-in-the-medieval-period/.


IvyPanda. "History: Cultural Exchanges in the Medieval Period." March 18, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/history-cultural-exchanges-in-the-medieval-period/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "History: Cultural Exchanges in the Medieval Period." March 18, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/history-cultural-exchanges-in-the-medieval-period/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'History: Cultural Exchanges in the Medieval Period'. 18 March.

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