Friday, 27 November 2020

Some Arabic and Persian accounts of the export of tin from Cornwall to Egypt and Iran in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries

The aim of the following piece is simply to share some interesting accounts of the tin-trade in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, particularly one written in Arabic and another in Persian. Taken together, these two accounts suggest that tin from southwestern England (i.e. Cornwall and Devon) was exported via southern France to both Egypt and ultimately Iran in this period, with it being used by potters in the latter area to make tin-opacified ceramic glazes.

A tin-glazed vase made in 14th-century Persia, now in The Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro; click the image for a larger view (image: Caitlin Green).

The first account to be considered here is a short but intriguing section from the early fourteenth-century Taqwīm al-buldān, 'Survey of the countries' (1321), of Abū l-Fidāʾ, a Syrian prince of the Ayyūbid family, which offers both a general description of England and a short but intriguing section detailing the export of tin from England to Alexandria, Egypt, via southern France. The section that deals generally with England is explicitly derived from the earlier work of Ibn Saʿīd al-Maghribī, who was born born near Granada in 1213, lived for a time in Egypt, and died in 1286, and runs as follows: 
And the islands of Britain are eleven islands. Of the famous islands is the island of England (Inkiltarah). Ibn Saʿīd said: And the ruler of this island is called al-Inkitār in the History of Salāḥ ad-Dīn (Saladin) in the wars of ʿAkkā (Acre). His capital in this island is the city of Lundras (London). He continued: And the length of this island from south to north, with a slight inclination, is 430 miles. Its width in the middle is about 200 miles. He continued: And in this island are mines of gold, silver, copper, and tin. There are no vines because of the sharpness of the frost. Its inhabitants bring the precious metals of these mines to the land of France, and exchange them for wine. The ruler of France has plentiful gold and silver from that source. In their country (sc. England) is made the fine scarlet wool of their sheep, which is fine like silk. They place coverings over the animals, to protect them from rain, sun, and dust. In spite of the wealth of al-Inkitār and the extent of his kingdom, he admits the sovereignty of al-Faransīs (the French king), and when there is an assembly, he performs his service by presenting before (the ruler of France) a vessel of food, by ancient custom.(1)

The mention here of mines that produce tin is noteworthy. The tenth-century Persian Ḥudūd al-ʿĀlam, written for a prince of Gūzgan in northern Afghanistan in c. 982, intriguingly describes Britain as an 'emporium' (bārgāh) of Spain (Andalus) and also makes mention of 'numerous mountains, rivers, villages, and different mines' in Britain, but doesn't specify the nature of these mines, unlike Ibn Saʿīd and Abū l-Fidāʾ.(2) Interestingly, the above description of the specific characteristics of the mines of England seems to have been picked up fairly rapidly by other authors aside from Abū l-Fidāʾ. For example, its influence can be seen in the Jāmiʿ al-tawārīkh of Rashīd al-Dīn (completed in Īlkhānate-era Iran, c. 1307–16), and in Banākatī's derivative Rawżat ūli’l-albāb, written in 1317 at Banākaṯ, Transoxiana (in present-day Tajikistan, Central Asia), although their description is expanded slightly to say that in Anglater—England—there are 'many remarkable mountains, innumerable mines of gold, silver, copper, tin, and iron, and different kinds of fruit.'(3

After the above general description of England, Abū l-Fidāʾ offers brief discussions of Ireland and of another Atlantic island where gyrfalcons and polar bears are said to be found (the former reportedly being popular with the Sultan of Egypt and the latter being said to have skin that is soft to the touch). Later on, however, he returns to the question of the export of metals from England when discussing Toulouse, France, in another section that is explicitly derived from the work of Ibn Saʿīd al-Maghribī:

Ibn Said said: And to the east of Bordeaux is the city of Toulouse... The river (sc. Garonne) is south of it, and ships from the Encircling Ocean ascend it, with tin and copper, which they bring from the island of England and the island of Ireland. It is carried on pack-animals to Narbonne, and taken from there on the ships of the Franks to Alexandria.(4)

Needless to say, this statement is undoubtedly interesting, offering, as it does, good evidence for the long-distance export of tin from southwestern England during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The first half of the route described here is certainly an ancient one, bearing a striking similarity to the tin route described by Diodorus Siculus in the first century BC (probably drawing on the lost account of Pytheas, a fourth-century BC traveller from Marseille). He says that those who dwell in southwestern Britain 'work the tin into pieces' and sell it to merchants who 'carry it from there across the Straits of Galatia or Gaul; and finally, making their way on foot through Gaul for some thirty days, they bring their wares on horseback to the mouth of the river Rhone'. Although the route described by the above Arabic account is slightly more detailed than that recorded by Diodorus, and obviously has an additional stage from France to Egypt, the coincidence is notable, and a find of a sixth-century cruciform brooch from eastern England in south-eastern France near to Castelnaudary, Aude (about midway along the route from Toulouse to the Mediterranean), arguably offers some confirmation that the same overland route from England to the Mediterranean was indeed in use in the intervening period too.(5)

A fourteenth-century, tin-glazed jug decorated with lustre and cobalt, made at Ray, Iran, and now in the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro; click the image for a larger view (image: Caitlin Green).

The second, Persian account of the medieval tin trade is less specific about the source of the tin than this, but is nonetheless important. In particular, it offers us some idea of where a portion, at least, of the tin from southwestern England was transported to after it reached thirteenth-/fourteenth-century Egypt, as well as the purposes to which it might be put. The account itself is from a treatise on ceramics by Abū l-Qāsim Qāshānī of Kashan, Iran, that was written in c. 1300–01, based on the date of the earliest, autograph manuscript. This treatise mentions the importation of tin to Iran from Western Europe or Farangistān, a name strictly meaning the land of the Franks (the French) that was applied generally to Western Europe north of the Iberian Peninsula: 

The vessels, ingredients and materials which serve as raw materials for these people [manufacturers of tiles and other ceramic objects] are many... One of these is the form of tin called raṣāṣ. Its mines are known in many places. The first is that from Farangistān. In Farangistān it is cast in the form of pieces and stamped with a Farangī stamp as prevention against adulteration...(6)

The account then goes on to list two other sources of tin, one to the north of Iran (in the middle Volga area of modern Russia) and another to the east in 'China' (possibly Malaysia), before including details on how such tin could be used in the making of white and turquoise ceramic glazes.(7) Suffice to say, in the present context this account is of considerable interest. The tin from Farangistān mentioned here must have almost certainly originated in southwestern England, based on both what we know of tin production in this era and the above Arabic account of Abū l-Fidāʾ/Ibn Saʿīd al-Maghribī, with its reference to French merchants transporting English tin to Alexandria. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the tin from the middle Volga in Russia may also have ultimately come from England too, as there were no medieval native sources of tin in that region and tin does, in fact, seem to have been imported into Russia from England via Germany earlier in the medieval period.(8

Two fragments of mina'i bowls probably made in the city of Kashan in the early thirteenth century, both featuring a tin-opacified glaze, now in the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro; click the image for a larger view. The left bowl, TRURI 900.479, seems to show a young prince sitting cross-legged, whilst the right bowl, TRURI 900.478, shows a male equestrian figure (image: Caitlin Green).

In consequence, it can be said that the two main accounts under consideration here seem, when taken together, to suggest that tin from Cornwall and Devon was very probably making its way across to Iran in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, where it was used to create tin-opacified white and turquoise ceramic glazes by manufacturers of pottery and tiles. In this context, it is worth observing that Cornish or Devonshire tin was definitely used for a similar purpose in sixteenth-century Italy, and Anna McSweeney has recently argued that it was probably used for making opaque ceramic glazes in medieval Iberia too.(9) So, for example, in 1417 a potter named Hacen Muça was paid by a French merchant from Montpellier, Joan Lorenç, in lead, tin and cobalt to undertake work that he was to deliver to the port of Valencia in two months, presumably using tin obtained by this French merchant from southwestern England, and in 1325 another contract specifies that the potter Mahomet Bensuleyman and another saracen from Manises, eastern Spain, would be paid in advance with lead and tin for the kiln loads that they were to supply.(10

Whether earlier Islamic ceramics using tin-opacified glazes similarly depended on tin from southwestern England is a matter of speculation, but it is interesting to observe that the earliest such glazes seem to have their origins in Egypt in the eighth century AD, which is perhaps suggestive, given that tin seems to have been known as 'the Brittanic metal' in Egypt only a century earlier.(11) Finally, it should be noted that the tin imported into Iran from medieval England was almost certainly used for purposes other than the creation of ceramic glazes. Tin was, for example, a key ingredient in both the making of bronze vessels and the creation of tin opacifiers for glass; assuming, as seems reasonable, that Abū l-Qāsim's observations on the sources of tin hold for other uses of this metal as well, then tin from southwestern England/Farangistān is likely to have played a part in the creation of metal and glasswork as well as ceramics in thirteenth-/fourteenth-century Iran.

A mina'i ware jug with seated figures and sketches, made in Central Iran in the late 12th or early 13th century, earthenware with polychrome enamels and gold over a turquoise glaze; now in Cincinnati Art Museum (image: Wikimedia Commons).


1.     D. N. Dunlop, 'The British Isles according to medieval Arabic authors', Islamic Quarterly, 4 (1957), 11–28 at pp. 24–5 (my emphasis); M. Reinaud, Géographie d'Aboulféda, 2 vols (Paris: A L'Imprimerie Nationale, 1848), vol. 2, pp. 265–6. Note also the reference to 'fine scarlet wool... which is fine like silk'; the fame of English wool and the regard in which it was held in medieval Europe is well-known, but this reference and two further ones in the early fourteenth century from Rashīd al-Dīn and Banākatī to 'exceedingly fine scarlet cloth' from England imply that the fame of English wool products reached well beyond Europe and even so far as Central Asia in the early fourteenth century. 

2.     See further now C. Green, 'Britain, the Byzantine Empire, and the concept of an Anglo-Saxon ‘Heptarchy’: Harun ibn Yahya’s ninth-century Arabic description of Britain', in Global Perspectives on Early Medieval Britain, eds. K. L. Jolly & B. Brooks (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, forthcoming); Ḥudūd al-‘Ālam, ‘The Regions of the World’ – A Persian Geography 372 A.H. – 982 A.D., ed. and trans. V. V. Minorsky (London, 1970), chp 4 (p. 59) and chp 42 (p. 158).

3.     Dunlop, 'British Isles', p. 26.

4.     Dunlop, 'British Isles', p. 25; Reinaud, Géographie d'Aboulféda, p. 307. See D. G. König, Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West: Tracing the Emergence of Medieval Europe (Oxford, 2015), p. 279, for Ibn Saʿīd al-Maghribī's own text of this section; note, he says that the tin and copper is taken by ships from Narbonne to Alexandria, but isn't explicit as to the ships used. 

5.     R. Penhallurick, Tin in Antiquity (London: Institute of Metals, 1986), pp. 141–2; B. Cunliffe, The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek (London: Penguin, 2001), pp. 57, 76, 79–80; J. Hatcher, English Tin Production and Trade Before 1550 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), p. 24; C. R. Green, 'The Anglo-Saxons abroad? Some early Anglo-Saxon finds from France and East Africa', blog post, 7 May 2016, online at

6.     J. W. Allan, 'Abū'l-Qāsim's treatise on ceramics', Iran, 11 (1976), 111–20 at 111, 112 and 120. Note, underlined passages are found only in the later of two manuscripts of this treatise, dating from the sixteenth century, whilst those unmarked are found in the manuscript of 1300–01. On Farangistān/Firanja/Ifrand̲j̲a, see B. Lewis and J. F. P. Hopkins, 'Ifrand̲j', in Encyclopedia of Islam, Second Edition, ed. Bearman et al., consulted online on 25 November 2020,, and P. M. Cobb, The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades (Oxford, 2014), pp. 15–19; on the entire Iberian Peninsula being known to geographers as al-Andalus, see A. G. Sanjuán, 'Al-Andalus, etymology and name', in Encyclopaedia of Islam, THREE, ed. K. Fleet, G. Krämer, D. Matringe, J. Nawas, and E. Rowson (Leiden, 2018), consulted online on 26 November 2020,

7.     See further on tin-opacified glazes in the Islamic world and their origins and spread, M. Matin, 'Tin-based opacifiers in archaeological glass and ceramic glazes: a review and new perspectives', Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, 11 (2019), 1155–67, especially pp. 1161–2; M. Tite et al., 'Revisiting the beginnings of tin-opacified Islamic glazes', Journal of Archaeological Science, 57 (2015), 80–91; E. Salinas, 'From tin- to antimony-based yellow opacifiers in the early Islamic Egyptian glazes: Regional influences and ruling dynasties', Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 26 (2019), 101923; and E. Salinas et al., 'Polychrome glazed ware production in Tunisia during the Fatimid-Zirid period: New data on the question of the introduction of tin glazes in western Islamic lands', Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 34.A (2020), 102632.

8.     A. McSweeney, 'The tin trade and medieval ceramics: tracing the sources of tin and its influence on Mediterranean ceramics production', Al-Masāq: Journal of the Medieval Mediterranean, 23 (2011), 155–69 at pp. 165, 166; Allan, 'Abū'l-Qāsim's treatise on ceramics', pp. 112, 118.

9.     McSweeney, 'The tin trade', especially pp. 164–9.

10.     McSweeney, 'The tin trade', p. 168.

11.     Penhallurick, Tin in Antiquity, pp. 10, 237; Matin, 'Tin-based opacifiers'; Tite et al., 'Revisiting the beginnings'; Salinas, 'From tin- to antimony-based yellow opacifiers'; E. Salinas et al., 'Polychrome glazed ware'.

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