Avorio d’ogni ragione: the supply of elephant ivory to northern Europe in the Gothic era

Avorio d’ogni ragione: the supply of elephant ivory to northern Europe in the Gothic era

By Sarah M. Guérin

Journal of Medieval History, Volume 36, Issue 2 (2010)

Abstract: This article accounts for the hitherto unexplained increase in the availability of ivory in mid-thirteenth-century France through an alteration in the medieval trade routes that brought elephant tusks from Africa to northern Europe. A newly-opened passage through the Straits of Gibraltar allowed a small amount of luxury goods to be shipped together with bulk materials necessary to the flourishing textile industries of northern Europe.

Introduction: An ivory statuette of the Virgin and Child from the mid-thirteenth century, known as the Barroux Virgin, stands 52 cm tall. The great size of the piece and its existence itself pose an important question for scholars of Gothic ivories: why, after a scarcity of elephant ivory in northern Europe during the twelfth century, was there sudden access to such large tusks around 1240? For the art of ivory carving to occur, the raw material itself must be present. Yetthe full impactof this simple truth has not been sufficiently absorbed into the scholarship on French Gothic ivories. Although many have notedthat there was a dearth of the material in northern Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries followed by a surfeit in the fourteenth century, the cause of the in flux of elephant ivory in France in themid-thirteenth century has not been identified or explained. What can account for the renewed appearance of ivory in Europe? A shift in the last portion of the extensive trade routes that carried elephant tusks 16,000 km over land and sea brought tusks to the markets of northern France in great number. Mapping the complex networks of political and mercantile relationships stretching from the interior of south-east Africa, through the Indian Ocean, via the Red Sea, into the Mediterranean and finally to northern Europe illustrates the interconnectedness of global economies in the thirteenth century and sketches a framework with which to understand ivory as a commodity in thirteenth-century France.

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