Unknown Author, historical artefact.— MEDIAEVAL TRADE AND COMMERCE

This text is copied from ‘The New Illustrated Universal Reference Book [Odhams Press]’ or ‘The Book of a Million Facts’, seemingly published in 1933. (Authors/editors unknown).

I will give more precise details of the reference book I am copying from in future parts of this series of posts. And I will try to discover who was involved in  compiling this book I am studying:


The Towns.—It would be hard indeed to over-estimate the importance of the towns in the social and commercial life of the Middle Ages, after the Roman cities had become obliterated. At first they were simply fortified places of refuge, like the “burhs” founded by the English King Alfred (871-901) where flocks and herds could be driven and kept in safety from raiders and robbers. As time passed, these settlements became permanent, the earthen ramparts were replaced by city walls(At Wareham, in Dorset, these earthen ramparts are still clearly visible), and towns began to assume life of their own. By the eleventh century they were seeking concessions and charters from their feudal lords; by the twelfth the cities of Lombardy, were strong enough to oppose the Emperor’s schemes, and even the powerful Frederick Barbarossa (1152-1190) was glad to make peace with the “Lombard League” in 1183 after many years of war with the rebellious “communes.”

As towns grew in size and importance, so did trade grow and flourish, and this in its turn helped the development of towns situated on the chief trade routes and waterways, or possessing good natural harbours. The towns began to grow rich, and so attracted the unwelcome and covetous attention of neighbouring landowners. To protect themselves against against the exactions of king, baron, or prelate, the towns formed alliances, or leagues, for mutual protection against aggression and violence.

The most famous of these was the Hanseatic League, an association which included all the most important North German cities, with Lübeck at their head, and established factories and depots in many more. At the height of its power, the Hanseatic League had more than eighty member, and was strong enough to force the Danish king to recognize its rights and privileges by the Treaty of Stralsund (1370).

Apart from some of the Italian cities, and the “Free Imperial Cities” of Germany, most of the towns were very small, but each had its own merchant guild and its guild hall where the wardens would meet and regulate the affairs of the town as far as buying and selling were concerned. “Non-guildsmen” were jealously excluded, or exposed to such high tolls for permission to buy and sell that it was not worth while for a stranger to make the attempt.

As trade developed and became specialized, each “mystery” or craft formed it’s own guild, the “craft-guild,” with its threefold membership of apprentices, journeymen and master craftsmen, gradually superseded the older merchant guild. Every detail of trade was regulated, and offenders were rigorously punished, generally with great appropriateness—the vendor of bad wine being forced to drink it or to have it poured over his head. Elaborate rules were devised to keep up the standard of workmanship, and cheating or slovenly work was considered a slur upon the whole craft.


The Theory of Just Price.—Prices were regulated in a sincere attempt to find an ideal price—the “just price”—which would be equally fair to both buyer and seller. Buying up goods on the way to the market and then selling it at profit (“forestalling”), or retailing at a profit from a large stock bought as a speculation (“engrossing”), or holding back goods until the price should rise (“regrating”)—all were serious offences. Lending at interest was forbidden by the Church; usury was left to the Jews, or to Christians careless of their salvation. All these restrictions tended to hamper trade, and the difficulties and dangers of transport were more than formidable, yet the towns flourished: guild halls and warehouses and churches were built by the guildsmen, and endure to-day as witnesses to their prosperity.

Fairs and Markets.—Only at fair time, and to a lesser degree on market days, were these restrictions relaxed. The right to hold a market was eagerly sought, for it would mean a steady income from the tolls paid by stall-holders, as well as fines from wrongdoers. Surplus products from neighbouring manors would be sent to the market towns once or twice a week, and there exchanged for goods brought from a distance, five cheeses for a bag of nails, and so forth.

Some towns had the right to hold fairs once or twice a year, and thither would flock men of all nations intent upon selling or exchanging the commodities produced by their own districts. In the days of Justinian (527-555) merchants from every country attended the fairs of Thessalonica and Byzantium, but by the twelfth century, by far the most imortant fairs in Europe were those of Champagne. There were other great fairs at Aix la Chapelle, Frankfurt and Constance, in the Netherlands at Ypres and Bruges, in France at St. Denis, in England at Stourbridge, at Venice, Bari, Seville, and a little later on at Novgorod in Russia—the greatest of all.

In Champagne the fairs followed one another almost continuously from January to October, each lasting between sixteen and fifty days. The most important were held at Provins and Troyes, which enjoyed the privilege of holding two each year. The Count of Champagne encouraged and welcomed merchants, and gave them his promise of safe-conduct. He appointed, too, officials known as “gardes des foires” to maintain order by night and day and to collect tolls and prevent theft.

Merchandise of every kind was piled upon the wooden stalls—cloth from Flanders and England and Italy, silk from Lucca or Provence, furs and amber and timber from the north, wines form Greece, leatherwork from Cordova, carpets form Turkestan, jewellery from Byzantium. The fair ground was the meeting point of East and West; it was here that the new and vigorous society of the north came into contact with the orientalized southerners. It was said that fifty languages and dialects could be heard at the same time, and men of all races jostled each other and bought and sold and gambled and enjoyed themselves.

The money-changers had to accept and count and assess a multiplicity of coins, for currency was liable to be debased by any ruler temporarily short of funds, and every ruler had a fancy for issuing a new coinage. As money was scarce as it was varied, bills were often used since they were safer and less bulky. These would be settled at the close of the fairs. Some merchants arranged for supplies to be paid out to them by means of bills on the various stages of their journey; this saved them the embarrassment of carrying heavy money bags, and safeguarded them against robbery and prevented them from gambling their capital away in wayside inns before reaching the fair-ground. It gave, too, an impetus to the new art of banking; the first bank was founded in Venice in 1156, and soon Florence and Pisa became the leading cities in banking.

The fair of Troyes dates back to the fifth century, but it was in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries that the fairs of Champagne were at their height; after this their importance began to decline, largely owing to the effects of the Crusades, and the opening of fresh markets.

Mediaeval Trade Routes.—Common sense urged those in charge of valuable merchandise to organize themselves into caravans or strings of packhorses with armed guards. Robbers abounded; no road was safe by night and few by day, and in addition to the ordinary perils of the road form avalanches, precipices, flooded rivers and tempests, the landowners through whose territory the merchants were obliged to pass would try to exact enormous and oppressive tolls as the price of safe-conduct. Some were unscrupulous enough to seize and imprison the merchants till they parted with their goods as the price of their lives, the robber barons looking on the merchants as easy prey.

From the Far East, from India and the Spice Islands and Cathay (or China), precious drugs and spices were brought to the Mediterranean ports of Alexandria, Antioch and Tyre, where they were bought by Venetian or Genoese merchants and re-shipped for Venice or Genoa. Carpets, silks, ivory and precious stones were to be bought there too, some of the merchandise transported overland on camels for many hundreds of miles, some brought across the Indian Ocean to Ormuz in the frail junks which so filled the Polo brothers with alarm that they refused to entrust themselves on board.

The Arab traders bartered their eastern goods for the products of north-western Europe, and the buyers sent the precious packages by sea to Marseilles and thence across France, or to Venice or Genoa and thence over the Alps to Central Europe. The ginger and cinnamon and nutmegs and spikenard, and diaphanous silks and embroideries, were loaded into bales which were fastened on to packhorses and so sent out upon their hazardous journey.

Crossing the Alps in mediaeval times was a dangerous and terrifying business. A Canterbury monk wrote to his sub-Prior in 1188 a description of his passage of the Great St. Bernard pass,(there was a hospice here for the benefit of pilgrims and other travellers founded by St. Bernard of Menthon, not to be confused with St. Bernard of Chairvaux), calling it “a place of torment . . . where the marble pavement of the stony ground is ice alone, and you cannot set down your foot safely . . . my beard was stiff with frost, and my breath congealed into a long icicle.” Another Englishman, Adam of Usk, had to be blindfolded by the guides lest he should see the horrors of the pass when he was making his way over the St. Gotthard. From Genoa the route lay over the Great St. Bernard or Mont Cenis pass and so to Lyons, but most of the Venetian merchandise was sent over the Brenner, and if it was not destined for the Champagne fairs, up the river Lech to Augsberg and Nuremberg.

Waterways were used to a great extent, particularly the three rivers, the Danube, the Rhine and the Rhone. Barcelona and Marseilles controlled most of the trade with northern Africa and the Balearic Islands, and they and the chief Italian cities held a monopoly of Mediterranean trade, just as the cities of the Hanseatic League controlled the North Sea and Baltic fisheries. Merchants from other nations, especially Bretons and Englishmen, tried to cut into these monopolies, but with little success until Brittany specialized in making sail cloth and England captured the whole of the Flemish market for her wool.

Merchants and Traders.—Stories of the marvels and incredible riches of the Far East had reached western ears from the lips of Arab traders, but until the middle of the thirteenth century no European had succeeded in visiting Cathay to see for himself if such wonders could really be. The missionary friar Carpini had been sent as an envoy to the Mongols in the year 1245, and in 1260 two Venetian jewel-merchants, Nicolo and Maffeo Polo, set out to visit the Great Khan’s court to see if they could open up markets for their goods and bring back some of these Eastern products.

In 1271 they set out a second time, taking with them Nicolo and son Marco, who afterwards wrote an amazing book about their travels, filled with sober truth which his contemporaries found incredible. They were received most kindly by the Great Khan, Kublai. MArco wrote afterwards in his nook that Kublai must have “the secret of the alchemists,” for he was able to produce money from paper. The Polos were much impressed by the bank-notes printed at Kublai’s orders, which passed as currency all over his realm.

Marco Polo was delighted to find in “Kinsai” (Hangchow) a beautiful city with lagoons and canals like his native Venice, and could “imagine himself in Paradise.” For seventeen years he remained in the Khan’s service, observing and taking notes, and never failing to take his opportunities for trading, for he was a true Venetian. At last, in 1295, the Polos returned, travel-stained, but triumphant. Marco told his true but astonishing stories with such emphasis that he won the nickname of “Il Milione,” and his book of travels received less credence than the atrocious exaggerations and “marvels” compiled by Sir John Mandeville early in the next century.

Some thirty t=years later an Arab trader named Ibn Batuta set out on pilgrimage to Mecca, making his way thither across North Africa form Tangier. He afterwards crossed Arabia, Persia, and India, and ultimately reached China, which he found “the pleasantest place on earth.” The Polos had pointed the way for Christians, and Ibn Batuta for Moslems, but by the middle of the fourteenth century wars and rumours of wars had the effect of closing trade routes to the Far East, and until the great geographical discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries offered alternative routes, direct communication with Cathay was closed.

For the remainder of the Middle Ages trade and commerce were turned back into the old channels. Acute rivalry between Venice and Genoa led at last to the triumph of Venice, who at the end if the period began to send a proud fleet of galleys sailing out through the straits of Gibraltar and up the coasts of Spain and France to England and Flanders. The North Sea herrings forsook their old haunts and took to new feeding grounds further west, and this meant the decay and ruin of those Hansa towns which depended upon fishing and the export of herrings for a livelihood. The wool trade increased in England, as did the wine-trade in France. In Flanders, Bruges began to become a serious rival to the Italian towns. The Florentine cloth trade, managed by the gilds of the Calimala and Arte de Lana, still had the reputation of keeping up the highest standard, but rivals were beginning to threaten it.

The Levant trade continued and increased; a Florentine merchant named Pegolotti wrote a valuable book of advice for merchants (in 1345), describing exports and imports, and how to pay and when to pay and how to bribe; it gives an excellent picture of the methods and aims of mediaeval trade, and it should be consulted by anyone interested in this subject.*


*  ”Cathay and the Way Thither”; Sir Henry Yule (Hakluyt Society), 2 vols. 1866. vol. ii. (Link: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.47191/page/n33 )

Office clerk.

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