Sugar and Smallpox

Knitted socks from Egypt, ca. 400 AD. Made to wear with straw flip-flops

Well, it’s a relief to be getting into the ancient and medieval world as I write my way through ONE DAY EVERYWHERE. I’m more familiar with the time period, so I have a lot less anxiety about making serious unforced errors.

On the other hand, I know a lot more about these time periods, so I find it hard to know what to leave out – I want to try to squeeze everything on to the page, writing smaller and smaller!

That’s obviously not the right approach, so I keep going over it, trying to make the captions shorter but still easy to read – not so crammed with ideas that the kids won’t find it interesting.

Mold-blown glass from about 50 AD

On the first run-through, as I said in an earlier blog post, I seemed to be writing a lot about trade. On this second draft, I’m more focused on the manufacturing end of trade. Yes, trade makes countries richer, but you have to have something to sell.

Countries enter the market selling unprocessed things: furs, wood, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg. Then they sell people  into slavery.

They soon see that to be successful, you want to be selling processed things instead, so people start to make glass cups, steel sewing needles, knitted socks, knotted carpets, bronze statues, linen sheets, perfume, porcelain, wine, silk scarves, paper, lump sugar, medicines.

Women in China working in a silk workshop (about 1000 AD)

But who’s making all of those things? Well, the people you bought and enslaved, but also families at home. More and more people are slaving away in mines and factories. A lot of those people are women.

Or you could say, I’m more focused on the negatives this time. In addition to seeing how trade makes countries rich, I’m seeing how it makes families overworked and poor. And in addition, Early Medieval trade spreads first smallpox (in the 100s AD) and then bubonic plague (in the 500s AD) all over Eurasia, from Britain in the NW to Indonesia in the SE, and down across the Sahara with the camel caravans into central Africa, too.

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Quartz crystals from Georgia (USA), ca. 100 AD

What I haven’t found a way to show yet (but I will!) is that all this moving around also spread new ideas. Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the radical egalitarian movement of the Mazdakites all spread. Native Americans spread their religious ideas (quartz crystals, earth mounds) up and down the Mississippi Valley. Rich people used their wealth to educate their kids, and those kids came up with all sorts of new ideas:

Meanwhile, anonymous readers of Study Guides do their best to undermine my confidence by leaving comments like “How do you know any of this is true, anyway?” and “Sounds like nonsense to me!” But we don’t care. We hit delete and move along. We keep writing – the manuscript is due March 18th. (not the 14th, it turns out! Four bonus days!)


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