Life in 13th Century Novgorod -- Trade


The great trading routes from Northern Europe to Byzantium and the Middle East ran through Novgorod and across Russia. The rivers were highways-the Dnieper, Dvina, Oka, Volkov, and Volga were linked by portages. As early as the 9th century, Viking-style ships were rowed, sailed, and hauled from the island trading station of Gotland on the Baltic Sea in the north, to the walls of Constantinople in the south. This route was especially important before the Crusades opened the Eastern Mediterranean to Christian merchants.(1) Constantinople became a major market for Russian goods including wax, honey, rye, salmon, flax, hemp, furs, and hides as well as slaves and possibly grain. In return the Rus' imported wine, silk, glassware, walnuts, amphorae, and jewelry.(2) All these goods made their way to Novgorod. Trade on diminished sharply after the Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204. Some trade continued on the route south from Novgorod, but it effectively ended with the Mongol conquests of 1238-40, when Kiev was burned.

Novgorod and the Rus' maintained contact with the Middle East and Arab world throughout the Middle Ages. Trade routes followed the Volga and Caspian Sea, ending in Samarkand, Bukhara, and Baghdad. Arab travelers left colorful accounts of the Rus'.(3) A system of weights and measures used in Russia can be traced back to Mesopotamia.(4) The Rus' exported furs, honey, wax, walrus tusks, wool, and linen to the Arabs. Spices, silk, Damask steel, horses, jewels, and rugs were imported in return. In Novgorod, hoards of coins have been excavated which originated in Bukhara, Samarkand, Ash-sharsh, Persia, Syria, and Iraq, as well as Byzantium. Also found were Iranian and Arabic pottery,(5) carnelian, and crystal beads.(6) The Middle Eastern trade routes remained open after the Mongol invasion. The Horde established post horse stations throughout its empire. While these were intended for military use, they benefited merchants as well. Two early emissaries from Western Europe to the Khan followed these paths.(7)

Novgorod, at the northern end of the river road, built its wealth upon trade. It launched its own ships and manufactured leather, metal, jewelry, and wood products for export. Novgorod was the most easterly member of the Hanseatic League, a medieval trade organization of seafaring city states along the Baltic and North Seas which reached as far as Spain and England. Contemporary trade treaties describe the treatment of merchants and means of settling disputes between German and Scandinavian traders and the Rus'. Novgorod imported metals such as iron, copper, tin, and lead; English and Flemish wool; linen; silk; needles; weapons; glassware; herring; wine; salt; and beer via the northern sea route.(8) The city also imported amber from the Baltic, as well as small amounts of high quality jewelry and game pieces from Western Europe.(9)

Novgorod forged an interior trade empire north and east into the Boreal forest, reaching across the Urals by the 13th century. Besides traveling by river in longships and dugouts, Novgorodians journeyed on horseback, by horse drawn sledge, and on skis. They extracted, sometimes by force, furs, honey, wax, timber, and slaves and exploited deposits of silver. The wealth generated by prosperous traders in the interior found its way back to Novgorod in the form of luxury goods.(10)

Trade gave Novgorod an awareness of the geography beyond its borders. Russians are noted in various period chronicles as traveling to Persia, Baghdad, and Byzantium, and islands in the Baltic. Russian levies were found in Mongolian armies in China, the Caucasus and Egypt.(11)Foreign merchants in Russia included Germans, Armenians, Greeks, and Volga Bulgars.


(1)Yearly expeditions of warfare and trade came from the mixed Slavic-Viking raids descending on the Byzantine Empire between 860 and 1043. Over time, warfare gave way to trade. The Byzantines eventually converted the Rus' to Christianity and deeply influenced their culture. Byzantium hired mercenaries from the north for its axe-wielding Varangian Guard. See Riasanovsky, p. 49.

(2)Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 118.

(3)Dmytryshyn, pp. 11-16.

(4)Riasanovsky, p. 49.

(5)Thompson, p. 96.

(6)Society for Medieval Archaeology, p. 199.

(7)Dmytryshyn, pp. 114-131.

(8)Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 118.

(9)Society for Medieval Archaeology, p. 199.

(10)Thompson, pp. 7, 8, 66, 96, 97.

(11)Vernadsky, Russia and the Mongols, pp. 87, 88, 163, 172.

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