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New Medieval Books: The Donkey and the Boat

The Donkey and the Boat: Reinterpreting the Mediterranean Economy, 950-1180

By Chris Wickham

Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0-19-885648-1

How did the economy of the medieval Mediterranean work? Who bought and sold goods, and how were they transported around this region? This book examines the various parts of the Mediterranean world from the 10th to 12th centuries, with chapters on Egypt, North Africa and Sicily, Byzantium, Iberia and Italy.


This book began with the intense dissatisfaction I felt with the traditional narratives of the ‘commercial revolution’ of the central middle ages in Europe and the Mediterranean, and above all of its origins. There is at least no doubt that a major economic change occurred. The period 950 / 1000 – 1300 / 1350 saw a considerable increase in agricultural production, in commercial exchange and markets, and in urbanization and urban production, both in north-west Europe and around the Mediterranean Sea, whether in Christian- or Muslim-ruled lands. (It did for that matter in some other parts of the world too, most obviously China, though the reasons for that coincidence in time are essentially chance.) But what caused it, and what its very nature was in different places, seem to me to be widely misunderstood, even in its most basic elements. Hence my dissatisfaction. What follows is an attempt to resolve the problems I found, as they relate, specifically, to the Mediterranean and the regions bordering it, in the period of the origins that ‘revolution’ up to 1180 or so.


Who is this book for?

There is a good chance that The Donkey and the Boat will be one of the most important books in medieval studies for 2023. It is a new theory of medieval economic history and does a lot to connect the various lands around the Mediterranean, whereas previous historians have emphasized a disconnect between these lands. Medieval historians and economic historians will want to read this book.

The author

Chris Wickham is an emeritus Professor of Medieval History at the University of Oxford and is a highly-regarded historian of the Middle Ages, having penned dozens of articles and books. Click here to view his Wikipedia page.


See also this lecture he gave in 2018 on ‘The Italian “Commercial Revolution”: An Archaeological Reading’:

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