Middle ages

European trade routes of the Middle ages. Source
European trade routes of the Middle ages. Source
Medival Sardinia, which later would have great importance in the history of sea-silk is first mentioned in the early Middle Ages. Pope Leo IV (790-855) asked the judges of Sardinia to the send him pinnikon (or pinnino) (Zanetti 1964). Bellieni (1973) believes that pinnino was a common name for lana marina, which, he assumes, has two different meanings: clothes made from Sardinian bird feathers «... pinne di uccelli acquatici, come oche, cigni, anatre...» – or sea-silk.

Bird feathers are also mentioned in another context. Arab sources speak of a precious cloth, named suf al-bahr, buqalamun, abu qalamûn: «... it was usually compared with peacock feathers and with the plumage of a Nile wader bird, the Sultan fowl (Prophyrio porphyrio), which seemed to change the colour of its feathers continuously» (Baker 1991). Could it be sea-silk (Baker 1995)? Many are convinced that it is sea-silk (Pellat 1950), Idris 1962, Lombard 1978, Djelloul 1995). Brunschvig (1947) agrees also, but only for suf bahri and, additionally, wabar al-samak. For Serjeant (1972), suf al-bahr is sea-silk, abu kalamun, however, would be the name of the noble pen shell. Halm (2003), in his book on the Fatimids in Egypt, cites the Persian Naser-e Hosrou from the 11th century: «In dieser Stadt Tinnis webt man das buqalamun, das es sonst nirgends auf der Welt gibt. Es ist dies ein farbenprächtiges Gewebe, das zu jeder Tageszeit eine andere Tönung zeigt. Diesen Stoff exportiert man aus Tinnis nach dem Okzident wie nach dem Orient. Ich habe gehört, dass ein Kaiser von Byzanz einmal dem Herrscher von Ägypten vorschlug, er möge hundert Städte seines Reiches nehmen und ihm dafür Tinnis geben; der Sultan aber lehnte ab. Was jenen aber an der Stadt interessierte, war das Leinen und das buqalamun.»

These are linguistic questions that remain to be clarified.


Hebrew translation of Maimonides, 1467. Cod. Heb. 37. The Royal Library Copenhagen. Source
Hebrew translation of Maimonides, 1467. Cod. Heb. 37. The Royal Library Copenhagen. Source
The Jewish decisor (jurist/legal scholar) Maimonides (1138-1204) mentions in his writings textiles under the terms «sea creature» and «wool that grows in the sea». Jewish textile researchers assume that this could well be sea-silk (Nahum ben Yehuda, personal communication).

Hebrew writings of the 9th to 13th century show that sea-silk might have been present in the Jewish world. The Cairo Genizah is a repository in a synagogue used for religious texts and documents no more in use. They tell of a special textile material: «In addition to the main textiles... some minor fibers are mentioned in the Geniza records... A fanciful material was 'sea wool', made of threads produced by a large marine mollusk, which have a golden luster and take on various colors during the day. Known in Italy from Roman times to the present day, it was counted by the Muslims as one of the marvels of 'the West', and the Umayyad rulers of Spain used to forbid its export. In a large order for precious textiles we find also one for two covers of sea wool, each twenty-four cubits long and woven together with green and red silk.» (Goitein 1967).




The oldest sea-silk object

The oldest presently surviving object from sea-silk dates from the late Middle Ages. It is a knitted cap that was found in 1978 during archaeological excavations in St. Denis near Paris. Further discoveries found at the same place date this object to the 14th century.