By Heidi Sherman
Medieval Clothing and Textiles, Volume 4 (2008)
Introduction: In the mid-nineteenth century, Imperial Russia’s exports of flax and hemp, the primary materials for canvas sails and rope, exceeded the value of its grain exports. Generally of lesser quality than the vegetal fibers of northwestern Europe and therefore undesirable for fine linen and hemp cloth, Russia’s abundantly harvested fibers were an inexpensive resource for the material needs of the expanding navies and merchant marines of Western Europe and the United States. Accordingly, the importance of Russian fibers, particularly flax, in the modern period has received attention,albeit limited,from both Western and Russian historians. Less familiar are the medieval origins of the Russian flax trade and, especially, the role that flax has exercised among the Russian peasantry. In 1956, as part of a study that examined flax from antiquity to the modern period, the Soviet botanist I.A. Sizov surveyed the limited number of medieval Russian accounts, demonstrating that flax had been a primary commercial commodity for Russia’s international and domestic economy from the eleventh century. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Hanseatic League exported thousands of bales of flax each year from its administrative offices (kontor) in Novgorod and Livonia. Admittedly, statistics for medieval trade are lacking, but the sources suggest that the flax trade produced revenues for Russia second only to its famously lucrative fur trade.