History Books

Getting Business Going

In 1978, Barbara Tuchman published A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century. Writing toward the end of a century that was itself not short of calamities, Tuchman saw her chosen period as an unquestionably darker time, beset by medical ignorance and aristocratic oppression. Whatever else might have remained la mÍme chose, time had done much to eliminate those ills, and the tone of A Distant Mirror is one of minor-key hallelujah, extolling the end of bad old ways. By chance, I happened to be rereading it when Peter Spufford's new Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe (Thames & Hudson, 2003) arrived. Mr Spufford sounds no hallelujahs, but his sympathetic and engaging discussion of medieval consumers (most of them members of the aristocracy that Tuchman found so useless) of the products that they wanted to buy, and of the merchants who supplied them, could not contrast more sharply with Tuchman's dirge.

It is a sign of how deeply Western thinking has been impressed by the ideals of the European aristocracy that business history is still a novelty. Aristocrats may cherish luxuries, but they don't like paying for them, and of course without payment there is no business, only extortion. Aristocratic history, which until recently was the preferred mode, focuses on stirring deeds of chivalry and daring (as an old Bing Crosby song puts it), and discounts the grubby toil of merchants and artisans. Because business was not a highly-regarded activity, records were not carefully preserved over the centuries, except in the odd case of men like Francesco Datini, the 'merchant of Prato,' who, childless, left his entire estate to a religious foundation that so piously entombed his accounts and correspondence that Datini is a sort of mercantile Tutankhamen. But now that business seems to be only slightly less close to the center of human intercourse than family life, historians have swung their attention round to its medieval origins. For its origins are medieval. There has always been commerce of some kind, but the core instruments and institutions of modern business trace back no further than the end of the Dark Age. Letters of credit, double-entry bookkeeping, and the holding company are medieval inventions. It was during the 'long' thirteenth century (stretching roughly from the 1170s to the onset of the Black Death in 1346), moreover, that a division of labor began to articulate the conduct of business. Hitherto, merchants bought goods where they were produced and then carried them to the point of sale; hereafter, sedentary capitalists, shippers, and agents in place worked together, relying on instruments of credit and insurance policies that will not be unfamiliar to any modern reader. 

In keeping with his subject, Mr Spufford's book reads more like a report than a history. The longest chapters are resumes of trade in manufactured goods and raw commodities respectively, and these are supplemented by overviews of consumer demand, trade routes, shipping, and imbalances in trade. We learn a great deal about the cloth trade, which spanned both the luxury and the bulk markets and which for the most part was an entirely intra-European industry. The trade in spices, for example, was only in its last relays a European affair: in the medieval period, Asian merchants brought these expensive commodities from Southeast Asia to the Mediterranean ports such as Alexandria. 

Nevertheless the popular picture of medieval European commerce as predominantly consisting of trade in spices must be corrected. By the beginning of the fifteenth century the Venetian share of the spices brought into Europe probably amounted to three-quarters of the whole. The remainder was divided among Genoese, Catalans, and merchants from Marseilles and Ragusa. Nearly two-thirds of the culinary spices brought into Venice was ordinary pepper, used in small quantities in many noble households throughout Europe, particularly with salted meat. Like ginger, also widely used in Europe, in even smaller quantities,  pepper was grown along the western coasts of south India and Sri Lanka. ... European merchants generally stopped short at the ports of the Mediterranean. When it was possible for them to penetrate Asia, from the mid-thirteenth century to the mid fourteenth and again, for a short while, around 1400, they mostly only went as far as Persia. If they did travel further, they were more interested in the long steppe journey to China for silk, than in going to India. Those few western merchants that we know about who did go to India did so for precious stones rather than spices. Culinary spices may have been valuable enough to warrant travel by galley, but unlike silk or precious stones they were still not costly enough to warrant the expense of carriage overland.310

Tuchman's book, a more conventional narrative, uses the life of a long-forgotten nobleman as an organizing principle. Enguerrand VII de Coucy was such a great figure in the French aristocracy that he disdained the title of Duke or Count - Sieur did just fine. His estate soon passed into the French crown, and he himself was an ancestor of Henri IV. If he's forgotten, that's probably because he was not a troublemaker. Valiant in war and honorable in peace, Coucy seems always to have made the right decisions and supported the right people - or at least to have worked strenuously for the reconciliation of mortal enemies. Froissart admired him. But he remains a cipher, and one suspects that Tuchman focused on Coucy as a way of holding her nose, so thoroughly uncongenial does she find most of the other members of his class. While not responsible for all the period's evils, they certainly made all of them worse, largely by imposing heavy taxes in order to pay for their endless and pointless wars, which also brought devastation on the countryside. War was the raison d'etre of the ruling class; for all that the Middle Ages are said to be an age of faith, they were certainly not an age of Christian peace. Churchmen, scholars and merchants might condemn war all they liked, but the governing ethos despised peace.

And yet it's clear from both of these books that even by the fourteenth century the power of the aristocracy was, if not yet on the wane, then certainly doomed. The cohesive bonds of fealty yielded irresistibly to the temptations of power and lucre; knightly honor would end in the fratricidal feud between Burgundians and Armagnacs at the beginning of the fifteenth century. The alliance between crown and counting house that produced the modern centralized state would not crystallize until the very late fifteenth century, but it was already apparent a century earlier that these two parties had a common interest in the suppression of aristocratic liberties, which tended everywhere to produce complication and disorder. The crown's pursuit of the two monopolies that guarantee the modern state, over violence and taxation, was no less desired by business interests. (Eventually the business interests would swallow the crown itself, marking the ongoing transition to representative democracy that will not be complete until the power of business interests themselves have been curbed through campaign-finance regulation.)

The last quarter of Tuchman's book is particularly depressing. Bad as the Black Death had been, wiping out roughly a third of Europe's population, the end of the century managed to be even darker, and it culminated in a number of catastrophes, including the deposition of Richard II and the battle of Nicopolis, in which Coucy was for the first time captured as a prisoner of war. (He would die in captivity.) The papacy fell into the disgrace of schism, and religious heresy, hitherto a matter of radically austere minorities, confined for the most part to Southern Europe, began to appear in more widespread, grass-roots movements in the North, a development that would result in the Reformation. Tuchman's picture presents a society that is falling apart. Mr Spufford's in contrast, shows a world being born.

The main question that bubbled up again and again as I read Power and Profit was this: why did it take so long for the business world of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to mature into the world we know now? The short answer is that business had to wait for the technological innovations of the industrial revolution, but this only displaces the question: why did the industrial revolution take so long? The answer, I think, lies in the contempt with which the merely practical was held. Medieval 'science,' largely a rehash of recovered bits of Aristotle, filtered through Arab glosses, was almost wholly divorced from the medieval technology that built the cathedrals, invented the windmill and the camshaft, and mastered the compass. Practical improvements and innovations developed in the teeth of a hostile mindset that even the Reformation did not shake. Another factor is the twinned revolution in political life, the Reformation and the development of the modern centralized state. These overhauls unquestionably attracted and engaged the focus of the best and the brightest during the two centuries following 1450, and would climax in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 that settled both. Not coincidentally, the middle of the seventeenth century witnessed the dawn of the scientific revolution that would begin to yield practical, technological results in the following century. In many ways, therefore, what we call the Renaissance was actually a hiatus in the march of European progress.

It would not be a stretch to read Power and Profit as a travelogue. In Mr Spufford's period, merchants and diplomats were the only regular travelers (although there were always pilgrims on the road), and the cost of transportation was far more important to merchants than it was to courtiers. The convenience of Europe's numerous rivers was offset by the mountain barrier of the Alps, and the attractions of ocean shipping fluctuated with improvements in marine technology and the depredations of piracy. The rigors that attract young men today to trek through the Alaskan wilderness were far more easily experienced seven hundred years ago. And although Power and Profit emphasizes continuities in the course of Western business, I am not sorry to benefit from vast improvements in hotel-keeping. 

Different customers were treated differently, and the accommodation provided varied according to social status. One of the salacious mid-fifteenth-century stories in the Burgundian Cent Nouvelle Nouvelles makes it clear that even noble customers would not get a room to themselves, although they would probably have a bed to themselves. The only element of privacy was that women might have their beds in a different chamber from men, and that superior beds would be curtained. Poorer travellers had to sleep several to a bed with total strangers. In 1385, an inn at Arezzo which had four beds and a mattress put up 180 overnight guests in nineteen days. On the busiest night the four beds were shared by fifteen travellers. It was hardly surprising that they were frequently shared by bed bugs as well. ... There were clearly as many qualities of inn in late medieval Europe as there are modern hotels. 204-5

If you say so, Mr Spufford.

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