Globalisation began when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, or when the sorry remnants of Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet limped into port after completing the first circumnavigation of the globe. These, at least, are the stories we usually tell ourselves, part of a Eurocentric view that Valerie Hansen’s The Year 1000 does much to correct.
What was different about the year 1000 that justifies calling it the start of globalisation? At first glance, there is little that was novel: traders had been travelling the Silk Road between China and Europe for over a thousand years, and already in the first century AD the naturalist Pliny was complaining about the drain on the Roman Empire from the silver going east. Yet, as Hansen explains, the years around 1000 saw an increase in the global population, which for the first time reached 250 million (in Europe the growing populace was sustained by such unglamorous advances as the windmill and the horse-drawn plough). More people meant more commerce, and a thickening network of trading connections helped bring previously separate spheres closer together. As evidence of this, Hansen points to the 11th-century tomb of the Princess of Chen in China, which contains amber beads from the Baltic, rock crystals from Sumatra and glass vessels from Syria; she also writes about a guild of merchants from southeast India called the Five Hundred, whose members travelled to Persia in search of elephants, horses and pearls.