Ever since the trade routes between the Mediterranean and the Far East had been established, silk was one of the most sought after commodities. Sericulture– silk production – was the domain of the Chinese, and they held a veritable monopoly on its production and distribution and had for thousands of years.
Since silk production was time-consuming and as the Chinese initially controlled distribution, silk was extremely valuable and equally expensive. At times it even rivaled or surpassed the market value of gold, at least in the Mediterranean and the West. As such, only emperors and the insanely wealthy could afford silk in any form, and for the Byzantines it often was used in diplomatic overtures with rulers in the West following the dissolution of the Western Empire.
As with any valuable commodity, the Chinese had a vested interest in maintaining control over production and distribution, as it meant higher prices and greater profits. (Not that silk was therefore any less expensive in China itself…) The secret of sericulture had apparently been so well guarded (Apple, Inc. would be proud) that Westerners had absolutely no idea how it was accomplished. It may very well have been that the Chinese also engaged in some misinformation. The Roman historian Pliny was under the impression that silk was obtained by removing the down from the leaves with the help of water…
How is silk made? It is produced by the Bombyx mori, a blind, flightless moth whose larvae excrete silk to form their protective cocoons. The ancestor of the Bombyx mori was able to fly and lived on the mulberry bush, but millenia of cultivation by the Chinese rendered the moth flightless and now this particular species exists only to breed, lay its eggs and die. In fact, the Bombyx mori would be unable to survive if it weren’t for constant human intervention.
The larvae are kept in a constant temperature, where they feed constantly on mulberry leaves until they increase in weight by over 10000 times. Once the larvae have reached the cocoon stage, they begin to excrete a silky substance which hardens when it comes into contact with air. They spin this substance around them until it completely covers them. From there the cocoons are left for a little over a week, and then they are baked or steamed to kill the pupa inside. The cocoon is then unwound, often yielding a strand of silk over 600 meters in length. The silk is then woven into whatever the end product will be.
As it is easy to see, sericulture was not a project to be undertaken without a great deal of infrastructure, training and supervision. It is also no wonder that such a delicate and ultimately profitable endeavor would be as closely guarded as it was. (The punishment for leaking trade secrets was death.)
Fast forward to the sixth century A.D. Justinian is emperor of the Byzantine Empire and is facing some economic difficulties, chief among them being the silk trade. Even though there was the aptly named ‘Silk Road’ leading from Byzantium to China, procuring silk was neither an easy nor a safe task. There were essentially three ways to get to China. First, one could take the overland route- the Silk Road- which led through deserts, over treacherous mountain ranges, and was rife with brigands ready to plunder the unsuspecting and very-much-alone caravan. The round-trip journey could also take the better part of a year, nine months at breakneck speed. The second option was to go by ship. However, this was nearly as dangerous, as sudden storms, inclement weather, trade embargoes and pirates could make this journey the last. It was also not significantly faster than the overland route.
The third way one could get to China was to go straight through Persia. However, at this time Persia essentially owned the silk trade industry from China. Coupled with the fact that Persia and Byzantium had been locked in what amounts to a Cold War for centuries, there was no love lost between these two powers. Due to Persia’s dominance over the silk trade, they could essentially make Constantinople pay out the arse for access to silk merchandise or permission to travel and trade along its trade routes.
As tensions between Persia and Byzantium rose, so would the prices of silk. Even though silk was (and always had been) expensive, people still wanted it and the demand never diminished in step with the rising of prices. As the silk trade industry constituted a large part of the Byzantine economy, the rising prices could lead to a sort of economic meltdown. Justinian attempted to mitigate this in several ways.
Firstly, he helped to establish new northern routes to China that bypassed Persia completely. Again, this was still a dangerous and time-consuming route, but it had the advantage of being free from Persian interference. (By this time sea routes were out of the question due to Persian dominance.)
Secondly, Justinian nationalized the silk trade industry, essentially giving the imperial government a monopoly. While this was a rather drastic measure, it did result in saving the silk trade industry from extinction. It wasn’t exactly viewed as such by many of the merchants, as price fixing by the imperial administration often had the effect of keeping the prices below the cost of procurement.
Lastly, Justinian decided to engage in some sixth-century industrial espionage. Getting silk from China was expensive- but what if Byzantium could make its own silk? Persia’s dominance in the silk trading industry would be mitigated, profits would be higher, and Byzantium could regain some of its former economic superiority.
As the story goes, Justinian was approached by some Nestorian monks who had just returned from India, claiming to know where to get the worms that made the silk, as well as the secret for sericulture. Justinian was intrigued, and rightly so. The ability to completely bypass Persia was too good to pass up. According to the account, Justinian sent the monks back to China on an imperial mission (although one might well assume that this black ops mission quite conveniently did not make it into an official records…) to get the worms and the sericulture secrets. According to the historian Procopius, the monks hid the cocoons in some hollow bamboo staves, as well mulberry bushes in some earthenware pots so as not to attract attention and risk detection. Procopius describes it in this way:
About the same time there came from India certain monks; and when they had satisfied Justinian Augustus that the Romans no longer should buy silk from the Persians, they promised the emperor in an interview that they would provide the materials for making silk so that never should the Romans seek business of this kind from their enemy the Persians, or from any other people whatsoever. They said that they were formerly in Serinda, which they call the region frequented by the people of the Indies, and there they learned perfectly the art of making silk. Moreover, to the emperor who plied them with many questions as to whether he might have the secret, the monks replied that certain worms were manufacturers of silk, nature itself forcing them to keep always at work; the worms could certainly not be brought here alive, but they could be grown easily and without difficulty; the eggs of single hatchings are innumerable; as soon as they are laid men cover them with dung and keep them warm for as long as it is necessary so that they produce insects. When they had announced these tidings, led on by liberal promises to the emperor to prove the fact, they returned to India. When they had brought the eggs to Byzantium, the method having been learned, as I have said, they changed them by metamorphosis into worms which feed on the leaves of mulberry. Thus began the art of making silk from that time on in the Roman Empire.
The mission was a resounding success, and sericulture was introduced into Byzantine society. Although it took years for the nascent silk industry to flourish, eventually it became a pivotal aspect of Byzantine economic output, especially in its trade with the West. While silk continued to be used as part of diplomatic gifts to Western rulers, the cost of silk from Byzantium was lower than importing it from China; thus, more and more people in the West had access to silk. It was still incredibly expensive, but those with money to throw around could now show off their opulence without having to wait on diplomatic recognition from the East.
Unfortunately, we are never told what became of the monks who participated in this black op. Did they receive the fruits of the ‘liberal promises’ given by Justinian, or did they just sort of conveniently ‘disappear,’ either to a remote monastery or to the bottom of the Bosporus?
We will probably never know.