Photo by julian mora on Unsplash
The origins of silk dating back to circa 3000 BC were outlined in a previous blog. Over 3 millennia, sericulture was developed into a highly organised, well-protected and profitable industry in Ancient China, with standardised qualities and widths, yielding an important tax revenue for the Empire.
Its use spread from royalty to the nobility and eventually to all subjects, in order to increase this lucrative source of funding for the authorities. Production was developed to include household goods and luxury paper.
Fierce protective measures kept production within the confines of the Empire for thousands of years. Eventually, economic forces encouraged trading outside China but searches at borders and punitive punishment, including summary execution, prevented the smuggling of the silkworm or cocoons.
The Bombyx Mori or Mulberry Silk Worm
Trading was established along a route originally known as The Persian Empire Royal Road, which became known as The Silk Route, after its most famous commodity. Eventually the route covered some 4350 miles, with staging posts to allow merchants to rest or hand over to fresh caravans.
The Silk Road was a trading route for a wide variety of goods other than silk, including hemp, porcelain, tea, spices, medicines, jewellery and even slaves. It was not only a commercial channel. It became a conduit for culture, diplomacy, religion and sadly, disease. The Black Death or bubonic plague, is said to have travelled its path, originating in China in 1346 and reaching Sicily and the rest of Europe some months later.
Inevitably, with more fluid interchange, the secrets of sericulture and its vital components (the bombyx mori worm and its source of nourishment, the mulberry tree) were smuggled out of the Empire. Stories abound of Japanese merchants kidnapping Chinese women, who were then forced to teach their captors their secrets or the Byzantine monks who hid silk worms and mulberry leaves inside their hollowed-out canes.
Korea was reputedly the first country to start its own production, in 200 BC, through migrant workers from China. Japan , India and Persia followed a century or so later and the Byzantines a couple of hundred years after that. The Byzantines were intrepid sailors and traders thus hastening the spread of the fabled fabric and its mysteries.
The Arabs, in their conquering zeal to spread Islam across the world, invaded Persia in the 7th Century capturing and further spreading the secrets of silk across north Africa, Sicily and Spain. Andalucia became a great centre for silk production in the 10th century.
Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See, Seville, Spain. Photo by Henrique Ferreira on Unsplash
And so the secrets of silk and its production gradually spread across continents, through migration, trading and invasion. In addition to the ever-extending reaches of the Silk Route, the Crusaders brought home the valuable textile, creating an appetite for the luxurious and beautiful fabric in their homelands. Thus did silk and sericulture reach Western Europe.
Learn about the history of silk in Western Europe in a forthcoming blog.