Mozarabic exports

Spanish Andalusia got involved in Europe’s international markets in completely new ways. In the early Middle Ages, trade operated mostly through fairs. Near to major highways, rivers and harbors, certain places had a traditional time during the year when people could expect to find international merchants set up. Fairs generally lasted three days, but could last up to three weeks. An international trader just needed to know which Catholic saints’ days were reserved by which fairgrounds in order to plan an itinerary. The big fairs were wholesale markets; local traders bought in bulk and sold locally, perhaps reselling at smaller fairs or taking things by donkey pack into the rural areas.

Andalusia shipped a lot of dried fruit such as plums, figs, and dates. As possible without spoilage, they also shipped citrus fruit: lemons, limes, and oranges. They also traded preserved olives and oil, probably in jars: as noted before, the simple English word “jar” is actually the clay pot al-jarrah.

But the first major Arabic influence on international markets was with the exportation of al-qutun: cotton. The cotton plant itself was from northern India, but it grew well in Egypt and other parts of the Islamic empire, including Spain. Cotton was first exported in raw form, unspun.

Its early use was in quilting, but not usually blankets as we may imagine. Cotton quilting was for winter coats and for armor. It was especially important in the time of mail armor, or chain mail as we usually call it. Plate armor was late medieval; for most of the period, armor meant mail. A mail shirt minimized sword and spear cuts in battle, but it was heavy and it chafed the skin badly. Wool or linen cloth with cotton padding helped a lot. Early horse armor, too, was mainly quilted cloth.

Our word “mattress” seems to come from Arabic al-matrah, a sleeping mat. This suggests the next use of cotton: stuffing sleeping mats. Arabic culture generally used mats and carpets more than northern Europeans did, perhaps from Bedouin tent culture in which carpets covered sand and rock. Cotton was an expensive import at first, and it’s not likely that many mattresses were stuffed with it when straw would do just as well. Carpets, as covering for floors, didn’t make it to England until the 1200s when King Edward I married a Spanish princess who brought her own set of carpets to cover wood and tile floors, astonishing the court. (Carpets didn’t become normal until much later, after the Middle Ages.)

Arabic traders mostly carried fabric and things related to it: leather, dyes, decorations. Sometimes the names tell us the history: Cordovan leather was from Cordoba; muslin was woven cotton from Mosul; thickly woven silk from Damascus was known as damask. A woven-stripe cloth called tabby also took its name from Arabic, as did taffeta (Persian originally) and mohair; and it’s possible that “gauze” was a French adaptation of al-qazz, Arabic for silk. The words “sequin” and “sash” are also Arabic.

English got a few color words from the Mozarabic dye trade. Arab conquerors of Persia traded lapis lazuli, the bright blue stone found only in Iran. Its place of origin became its name in Arabic: lazaward. Coming to fairs in France, its name eventually became the color of bright blue, but the L was treated like a definite article in French. So the word became l’azure and then azure in English. The best red dye came from insects that fed on the kermes oak tree in Spain, and from this came the English word crimson.

Eventually, by the late Middle Ages, Spain traded in merino wool too. Northern Europe had plenty of wool, but Spanish breeders had created a very hardy sheep that needed little water and could walk long distances. The merino’s skin and wool were distinctly different, providing an extremely fine, soft yarn.

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