The Horrors of Ibiza 1400 AD

Yesterday I revised my views on David Abulafia’s book, The Great Sea. I’m not saying that it’s not boringly written, mind. But having completed nearly 400 pages of the 650, I begin to get used to the relentless crunching out of dates, names and trade goods. If nothing else, some of the more exotic sounding trade goods imported by the Merchant of Prato around 1400 had me busy googling; zedoary and galingale, anybody?


Considering the staggering wealth of information that Abulafia decided to convey within the confines of a single volume, I should not really blame the man for opting for the Laconic approach. Small wonder he felt forced to leave out all the embellishments, the good yarns if you will, and to concentrate purely on facts, economically presented. There is no space here for the human touch, nor a flash of humour or a vivid description illuminating the hazards faced by a merchant, let alone for stirring tales of the heroic deeds and spectacular pieces of villainy in which the history of Mediterranean is so rich. Now if only he set out to write a whole series of books instead of a single one, in the manner of Robert Merle’s Fortunes of France, over a lifetime! Obviously, Merle was writing a series of novels, not a series of history books but I’m referring to the principle. If Abulafia broke this book up, if, at the very least, he presented his material in five volumes instead of five dense parts (many of the chapters alone deserve a whole book to themselves) and if he spent a lifetime writing this series, serving up all this knowledge in more digestible portions, then he would have had the space and time to infuse a little bit of life into this vast timeline. And not only his readers would be having a nicer time but he’d be assured of employment for the next twenty years…

In the four hundred pages that I have read so far, there were only two instances of the human touch coming to the fore. The first one occurred relatively early in the book, and treated the journey of Wenamun, an Egyptian emissary from Karnak to the king of Byblos to buy timber in 1075 BC. Now talk about a journey on which everything went wrong (here’s a quirky comic book take on the story)…

The second one, which incidentally made me revise my opinion about the book, was a comment by one of the agents of the Merchant of Prato who had the (mis)fortune to be sent to Ibiza:

This land is unhealthy, the bread is bad, the wine is bad – God forgive me, nothing is good! I fear I shall leave my skin here.

You have to wonder what the summer nightclub capital of Europe must have been like six hundred years ago to draw this lament. 🙂 I think I will put this quote up on the wall in my office.

By the way, the Merchant of Prato, Francesco di Marco Datini by name, was apparently a true born bureaucrat (or is this just a euphemism for being a victim of OCD?): he preserved records of every piece of merchandise and kept every little bit of correspondence. About 150 thousand letters, says Abulafia, adding, “to the great advantage of the historians“. Yes! And most of us will never have the chance to peruse these letters; they wouldn’t let us ordinary mortals near such precious documents even if we had the time to read them. So how does it feel to be told about this, to have a one liner from one of these letters offered up for us and then… and then nothing, because the author has already moved on.

Mr Abulafia, I ask you: What have we readers done to be tortured like Tantalus?!…

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