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Nicola Di Cosmo, "The Pax Mongolica Reconsidered: Venice, the Golden Horde, and the Fourteenth-Century Crisis"

On November 6th, 2013 Nicola Di Cosmo gave the 2013 Yuri Bregel Lecture at Indiana University. Professor Nicola Di Cosmo is a noted specialist on the history of China and Inner Asia; since 2003 he has been the Henry Luce Foundation Professor of East Asian Studies in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. His research interests and contributions span the whole of Central Eurasia and range from the Xiongnu empire to that of the Manchus. His presentation for the Bregel Lecture series draws upon his ongoing research on Venetian and Genoese commercial activities in the Black Sea during the time of the Golden Horde and is entitled: “The Pax Mongolica Reconsidered: Venice, the Golden Horde, and the Fourteenth-Century Crisis”.

The Black Sea is an important site of research because it was the contact point for Mediterranean maritime trade and Mongolian overland trade and could be considered the “turn table” of Eurasia.  There are many different parties and actors who impacted Black Sea trade, but Professor Di Cosmo focused his talk on interactions between Venice and Genoa with the Golden Horde, up the 14th century crisis.  There are three major phases of the crisis. Phase I from 1260-1300 is characterized by Venice and Genoa aggressively trying to extend their Mediterranean routes into the Black Sea. Phase II from 1300 to the 1360s showed the importance of diplomatic relations between the Mediterranean and Mongolian authorities, as Venetian and Genoese traders desired independent and defensible bases that relied on treaties and permissions from the Mongolian khanates. In Phase III, after the 1360s/1370s, the Pax Mongolica collapsed and the Genoese and Venetian bases on the Black Sea retrenched to those positions, unable to continue the overland long-distance trade routes extending to China.

As a historian, there are many different causes to the end of this long-distance trade, but how does one gauge the relative impact that these different causes had?  During Professor Di Cosmo’s archival research, he focused on records of the many Mongol edicts that were translated into Latin and preserved.  Some of the most important of these edicts for the feasibility of this long-distance trade dealt with the protection of merchants.  Merchants who died while traveling to trade would have their goods recouped to family members, providing an important off-set to the large risk of traveling so far for so long.  These edicts also provided rules to resolve legal disputes.

Even with all of this administration and diplomatic oversight, long-distance overland trade through the Mongol Empire territories was still a fragile system.  With the collapse of the Pax Mongolica, Genoa and Venice were unable or uninterested in establishing independent continuous relations with all of the different polities along the overland routes, especially to China.  Instead, their trade was usually concentrated in family dynasties as opposed to the state procedures used by the Mongols.  The sphere of the state was critically important to investing money and soldiers in funding and maintaining trading bases, and after the fall of the Pax Mongolica Genoa and Venice chose to retrench themselves at their Black Sea trading ports for strategic as well as commercial interests. Venice and Genoa in the 1350s were at war with each other, so it was important for both sides to hold off threats away from their capital cities.

At the end of his talk, Professor Di Cosmo posited that if the long-distance overland route trade had survived after the fall of the Mongol Empire, would Christopher Columbus have felt the need for a maritime route and come to the Americas?


The Bregel Lecture series honors I.U. Professor Emeritus Yuri Bregel, and his many contributions to the study of Central and Inner Asian history and of Persian and Chaghatay Turkic historiography. Professor Bregel taught in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies from 1981 until 2000, serving also as Director of the Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies from 1986 to 1997, and as Director of the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center from 1989 to 1997.

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