Paper trail uncovers rich history of Middle East

There’s good, present-day reason to study the economic history of the medieval Middle East – and that would be today’s economic realities in the region.

“There is currently no up-to-date economic history of the medieval Middle East informed by the new economic theories and methodologies in economic history,” Maya Shatzmiller explained. “Economists, economic historians and the general public cannot understand past and present Islamic societies without it.”

During the past 30 years, the History professor has painstakingly pored through economic data, administrative accounts, legal documents, cultivation and taxation ledgers used by administrations and individuals throughout the Middle East and North Africa – spanning 7th to 13th centuries – tracking economic indicators such as commodity prices, cost of living, national income and wages.

(Data from the Measuring the Medieval Islamic Economy project is available online.)

Shatzmiller’s recent essay, The Adoption of Paper in the Middle-East, explores the region’s economic history during that era. Unlike the prevailing outlook in her field, it depicts an economic history of medieval Islamic societies that shows a booming, vibrant economy, with sustained economic growth and higher standards of living.

And one of the main themes of her work – humble and unassuming paper.

“Paper’s effect on medieval Islamic economy was nothing short of groundbreaking,” said Shatzmiller, the world’s leading economic historian of pre-modern Middle East and the 2018 Hellmuth Prize for Achievement in Research.

“Paper documents boosted literacy, made long-distance trade and economic transactions easier and helped enforce law across vast distances by writing down laws and court documents.”

Many believe the root cause of Islamic extremism to be the Middle East’s failure, since medieval times, to achieve economic growth and lift people out of poverty – a situation they believe, worsened by Islam. Some economic historians speculate Islam is economically inefficient and the Middle East is, therefore, doomed to live in perpetual underdevelopment.

Shatzmiller’s work is helping change that perception.

Her research on the economic achievements of the medieval Middle East will be crucial to challenging a 21st-Century society grappling with its understanding of Islam. A significant portion of the population believes Islam to be historically intolerant and the Middle East being in eternal, perpetual conflict.

“Unlike medieval Europe, Medieval Islamic society was an ethnic mix that was tolerant of diversity, and had high incomes and standards of living,” Shatzmiller said.

It also meant a booming economy. Shatzmiller found that in Baghdad, for instance, people bought imported spices, precious stones, fancy foods, and exotic animals from every corner of the world.

“High standards of living meant that goods, including fine garments and writing material like expensive papyri, were constantly in demand,” she explained.

In response, farmers began to plant textile crops like flax to meet the demand for fine garments like linen. It proved to be a fateful decision.

By the beginning of the 11th Century, Arabs had perfected making paper exclusively out of linen rags. Linen’s raw material, flax, was more abundant than papyrus plants. Paper-making became cheaper resulting in the price of books declining sharply in the 11th and 12th centuries.

“The ease with which paper documents travelled guaranteed better business for merchants, tighter bureaucratic control, and increase in literacy,” Shatzmiller said.

It also helped the medieval Middle East build bridges with Europe by translating ancient Greek philosophical texts and sharing and transmitting discoveries in medicine and mathematics. Many historians consider this infusion of knowledge into Western Europe as the precursor of Renaissance and the scientific revolution.

Beneath it all, as Shatzmiller has discovered, was a diverse, religiously tolerant medieval Middle Eastern society that harnessed technological innovations and shared it with the world.