The Economic Revolution



EVERY cultural flowering finds root and nourishment in an expansion of commerce and industry. Moslem seizure of eastern and southern Mediterranean ports and trade, Moslem, Viking, and Magyar raids, political disorder under the successors of Charlemagne, had driven European economic and mental life to nadir in the ninth and tenth centuries. The feudal protection and reorganization of agriculture, the taming of Norse pirates into Norman peasants and merchants, the repulse and conversion of the Huns, the recapture of the Mediterranean by Italian trade, the reopening of the Levant by the Crusades, and the awakening contact of the West with the more advanced civilizations of Islam and Byzantium, provided in the twelfth century the opportunity and stimulus for the recovery of Europe, and supplied the material means for the cultural blossoming of the twelfth century and the medieval meridian of the thirteenth. For society, as well as for an individual, primum est edere, deinde philosophari—eating must come before philosophy, wealth before art.

The first step in the economic revival was the removal of restraints on internal trade. Shortsighted governments had levied a hundred charges upon the transport and sale of goods—for entering ports, crossing bridges, using roads or rivers or canals, offering goods for purchase at markets or fairs. Feudal barons felt justified in exacting tolls on wares passing through their domains, as states do now; and some of them gave real protection and service to merchants by armed escorts and convenient hospitality.* But the result of state and feudal interference was sixty-two toll stations on the Rhine, seventy-four on the Loire, thirty-five on the Elbe, seventy-seven on the Danube …; a merchant paid sixty per cent of his cargo to carry it along the Rhine.1 Feudal wars, undisciplined soldiery, robber barons, and pirates on rivers and seas, made roads and waterways a martial risk to merchants and travelers. The Truce and Peace of God helped land commerce by proclaiming relatively safe periods for travel; and the growing power of the kings diminished robbery, established uniform measures and weights, limited and regulated tolls, and removed tolls altogether from certain roads and markets in the time of the great fairs.

Fairs were the life of medieval trade. Pedlars, of course, carried small wares from door to door, artisans sold their products in their shops, market days gathered sellers and buyers in the towns; barons sheltered markets near their castles, churches allowed them in their yards, kings housed them in halles or stores in the capitals. But wholesale and international trade centered in the regional fairs periodically held at London and Stourbridge in England, at Paris, Lyons, Reims, and the Champagne in France, at Lille, Ypres, Douai, and Bruges in Flanders, at Cologne, Frankfort, Leipzig, and Lübeck in Germany, at Geneva in Switzerland, at Novgorod in Russia…. The most famous and popular of these fairs took place in the county of Champagne at Lagny in January, at Bar-sur-Aube in Lent, at Provins in May and September, at Troyes in September and November. Each of these six fairs lasted six or seven weeks, so that in sequence they provided an international market through most of the year; they were conveniently located to bring the products and merchants of France, the Lowlands, and the Rhine Valley into contact with those of Provence, Spain, Italy, Africa, and the East; altogether they constituted a major source of French wealth and power in the twelfth century. Originating as early as the fifth century in Troyes, they declined when Philip IV (1285–1314), having taken Champagne from its enlightened counts, taxed and regulated the fairs into penury. In the thirteenth century they gave place to maritime commerce and ports.

Shipbuilding and navigation had slowly improved since Roman days. Hundreds of coastal cities had good lighthouses; many—like Constantinople, Venice, Genoa, Marseille, Barcelona—had commodious docks. Vessels were usually small, with half a deck or none, and carrying some thirty tons; so limited, they could ascend rivers far inland; hence towns like Narbonne, Bordeaux, Nantes, Rouen, Bruges, Bremen, though some distance from the sea, were accessible to ocean-going ships, and became flourishing ports. Some Mediterranean vessels were larger, carrying 600 tons and 1500 passengers;2 Venice gave Louis IX a ship 108 feet long, manned by 110 men. The ancient galley was still the regular type, with high ornamental poop, one or two masts and sails, and a low hull for two or three banks of oars—which might total 200. Most oarsmen were free enlisted men; galley slaves were rare in the Middle Ages.3 The art of tacking before the wind, known in the sixth century, developed leisurely until the twelfth, when—mostly on Italian ships —fore and aft rigs were added to the old square sail;4 but the chief motive power still remained in the oars. The compass, of doubtful origin,* appeared in Christian navigation about 1200; Sicilian mariners made it available in rough waters by resting the magnetic needle on a movable pivot;5 even so another century passed before mariners (the Norse excepted) dared leave sight of land and steer a straight course across open sea. From November 11 to February 22 ocean voyages were exceptional; they were forbidden to ships of the Hanseatic League; and most Mediterranean or Black Sea shipping halted in that period. Sea travel was as slow as in antiquity; from Marseille to Acre took fifteen days. Voyages were not recommended for health; piracies and shipwrecks were numerous, and the sturdiest stomachs were upset. Froissart tells how Sir Hervé de Léon took fifteen days tossing between Southampton and Harfleur, and “was so troubled that he had never health afterward.”6 As poor compensation, fares were low; sixpence paid for a Channel crossing in the fourteenth century; and proportionate costs for freight and long voyages gave water transport an advantage that in the thirteenth century transformed the political map of Europe.

The Christian reconquest of Sardinia (1022), Sicily (1090), and Corsica (1091) from the Saracens opened the Straits of Messina and the central Mediterranean to European shipping; and the victories of the First Crusade regained all but the southern ports of that sea. So unshackled, commerce bound Europe into a widening web of trade routes, and connected it not only with Christians in Asia, but with Islamic Africa and Asia, even with India and the Far East. Goods from China or India came through Turkestan, Persia, and Syria to Syrian or Palestinian ports; or through Mongolia to the Caspian and the Volga; or by boat to the Persian Gulf, up the Tigris or Euphrates, and over mountains and deserts to the Black Sea, or the Caspian, or the Mediterranean; or by the Red Sea through canals or caravans to Cairo and Alexandria. From the Moslem ports of Africa trade—mostly Christian in the thirteenth century—fanned outward to Asia Minor and Byzantium; to Cyprus, Rhodes, and Crete; to Salonika, the Piraeus, Corinth, and Patras; to Sicily, Italy, France, and Spain. Constantinople added her luxury products to the stream of goods, and fed the traffic up the Danube and the Dnieper to Central Europe, Russia, and the Baltic states. Venice, Pisa, and Genoa captured the westward Byzantine trade, and fought like savages for the Christian mastery of the sea.

Strategically placed between the East and West athwart the Mediterranean, with ports facing in three directions upon that sea, and with northern cities commanding the passes of the Alps, Italy was geographically bound to profit most from the trade of Europe with Byzantium, Palestine, and Islam. On the Adriatic stood Venice, Ravenna, Rimini, Ancona, Bari, Brindisi, Taranto; on the south, Crotone; along her west coast Reggio, Salerno, Amalfi, Naples, Ostia, Pisa, and Lucca carried a rich commerce, and Florence, the banker, pulled the financial strings; the Arno and the Po took some of the trade inland to Padua, Ferrara, Cremona, Piacenza, and Pavia; Rome drew the tithes and fees of European piety to her shrines; Siena and Bologna stood at the generative crossing of great interior roads; Milan, Como, Brescia, Verona, and Venice gathered into their laps the fruits of the trade that moved over the Alps to and from the Danube and the Rhine. Genoa dominated the Tyrrhenian Sea as Venice ruled the Adriatic; her merchant fleet numbered 200 vessels manned by 20,000 men; her trading ports reached from Corsica to Trebizond. Like Venice and Pisa, Genoa traded freely with Islam: Venice with Egypt, Pisa with Tunisia, Genoa with Moorish Africa and Spain. Many of them sold arms to the Saracens during the Crusades. Powerful popes like Innocent III denounced all traffic with the Moslems, but gold ran thicker than faith or blood, and the “blasphemous trade” went on.7

Her wars with Venice weakened Genoa, and the ports of southern France and western Spain reached out for a share of Mediterranean commerce. Marseille, stagnant during the Moslem ascendancy, recaptured for a time her old pre-eminence; but nearby Montpellier, stimulated by her polyglot population and culture of Gauls, Moslems, and Jews, rivaled Marseille in the twelfth century as a southern gateway of France. Barcelona profited from the old Jewish mercantile families that remained after its reconquest from Islam; there and at Valencia Christian Spain, blocked by the Pyrenees, found contact with the Mediterranean world. Cadiz, Bordeaux, La Rochelle, and Nantes sent their ships along the Atlantic coasts to Rouen, London, and Bruges; Genoa in the thirteenth century, Venice in 1317, sent vessels through Gibraltar to all these Atlantic ports; by 1300 trade over the Alps diminished, and Atlantic commerce began to lift the Atlantic nations to that leadership which Columbus would ensure.

France grew rich on her rivers, liquid strands of unifying trade; the Rhone, Garonne, Loire, Saône, Seine, Oise, and Moselle fructified her commerce as well as her fields. Britain could not yet rival her; but the Cinque (Five) Ports on the Channel welcomed foreign ships and goods; and the Thames at London was already in the twelfth century bordered with a continuous line of docks, where exports of cloth, wool, and tin paid for spices from Arabia, silks from China, furs from Russia, and wines from France. Busier still—busier than any other northern port—was Bruges, commercial capital and outlet of a Flanders rich in both agriculture and industry. There, as in Venice and Genoa, the east-west crossed the north-south axis of European trade. Situated near the North Sea coast opposite England, it imported English wool to be woven by Flemish or French looms; sufficiently inland to give safe harbor, it attracted the fleets of Genoa, Venice, and western France, and allowed them to reallocate their wares along a hundred routes to minor ports. As ocean transport became safer and cheaper, overland commerce declined, and Bruges succeeded to the Champagne fairs as the northern focus of European trade. Heavy river traffic on the Meuse, the Scheldt, and the Rhine brought to Bruges the goods of western Germany and eastern France for export to Russia, Scandinavia, England, and Spain. Other towns were nourished by that river trade: Valenciennes, Cambrai, Tournai, Ghent, and Antwerp on the Scheldt; Dinant, Liege, and Maestricht on the Meuse.

Bruges was the chief western member of the Hanseatic League. To promote international co-operation against external competition, to arrange congenial association for merchants stationed away from home, to protect themselves from pirates, highwaymen, fluctuating currencies, defaulting debtors, tax collectors, and feudal tolls, the commercial towns of northern Europe formed in the twelfth century various alliances, which the Germans called hanses—i.e., unions or guilds. London, Bruges, Ypres, Troyes, and twenty other cities formed the “London Hanse.” Lübeck, which had been founded in 1158 as an outpost of German war and trade with Scandinavia, entered into a similar union with Hamburg (1210) and Bruges (1252).* Gradually other cities joined—Danzig, Bremen, Novgorod, Dorpat, Magdeburg, Thorn, Berlin, Visby, Stockholm, Bergen, London; at its height in the fourteenth century the League bound fifty-two towns. It held the mouths of all the great rivers—Rhine, Weser, Elbe, Oder, Vistula—that brought the products of Central Europe to the North or Baltic Sea; it controlled the trade of northern Europe from Rouen to Novgorod. For a long time it monopolized the herring fisheries of the Baltic, and the trade of the Continent with England. It established courts for the settlement of disputes among its members, defended its members against lawsuits from without, and at times waged war as an independent power. It made laws regulating the commercial operations, even the moral conduct, of its member cities and men; it protected its merchants from arbitrary legislation, taxes, and fines; it enforced boycotts against offending cities; it punished default, dishonesty, or the purchase of stolen goods. It established a “factory” or trading post in each member city, kept its merchants under its own German laws wherever they went, and forbade them to marry foreigners.

The Hanseatic League was for a century an agency of civilization. It cleared the Baltic and North Seas of pirates, dredged and straightened waterways, charted currents and tides, marked off channels, built lighthouses, ports, and canals, established and codified maritime law, and in general substituted order for chaos in northern European trade. By organizing the mercantile class into powerful associations, it protected the bourgeoisie against the barons, and promoted the liberation of cities from feudal control. It sued the king of France for League goods ruined by his troops, and forced the king of England to pay for Masses to redeem from purgatory the souls of Hanseatic merchants drowned by Englishmen.8 It spread German commerce, language, and culture eastward into Prussia, Livonia, and Estonia, and made great cities of Königsberg, Libau, Memel, and Riga. It controlled the prices and qualities of goods traded in by its members, and established such a reputation for integrity that the name Easterlings (Men from the East), which the English gave them, was adopted by the English as meaning sterling worth, and was in this form attached to silver or pound as meaning trustworthy or real.

But in time the Hanse became an oppressor as well as a defender. It limited too tyrannically the independence of its constituents; forced cities into memberships by boycotts or violence; fought its competitors by fair means or foul; it was not above hiring pirates to injure a rival’s trade. It organized its own armies, and set itself up as a state within many states. It did what it could to oppress and suppress the artisan class from which it derived its wares; all laborers, and many others, came to fear and hate it as the most powerful of all monopolies ever engaged in the restraint of trade. When the workers of England revolted in 1381, they pursued all the Hanseatics even into church sanctuaries, and murdered all those who could not say “bread and cheese” with a pure English accent.9

About 1160 the Hanse seized the Swedish island of Gotland, and developed Visby as a base and bastion for the Baltic trade. Decade by decade it extended its control over the commerce and politics of Denmark, Poland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. In thirteenth-century Russia, reported Adam of Bremen, Hanseatic merchants “are as plentiful as dung … and strive as hard to get a marten skin as if it were everlasting salvation.”10 They fixed their seat at Novgorod on the Volkhov, lived there as an armed merchant garrison, used St. Peter’s Church as a warehouse, stacked wine casks around its altar, guarded these stores like ferocious dogs, and fulfilled all the outward observances of religious piety.11

Not content, the League turned its thoughts to controlling the trade of the Rhine. Cologne, which had formed a hanse of its own, was forced into subordination. But farther south the Hanseatic was stopped by the Rhenish League, formed in 12 54 by Cologne, Mainz, Speyer, Worms, Strasbourg, and Basel. Still farther south Augsburg, Ulm, and Nuremberg handled the trade that came up from Italy; to this day one may see in Venice the Fondaco de’ Tedeschi, their depot on the Grand Canal. Regensburg and Vienna stood at the western end of the great Danube artery that took the products of inland Germany through Salonika into the Aegean, or through the Black Sea to Constantinople, Russia, Islam, and the East. So European trade came full circle, and the web of medieval commerce was complete.

What sort of men were the merchants who sent their goods along these routes amid the suspicious faces, strange tongues, and jealous creeds of a dozen lands? They came from many peoples and countries, but a great number of them were Syrians, Jews, Armenians, or Greeks. They were seldom such businessmen as we know today, safe and sedentary behind a desk in their own city. Usually they moved with their goods; often they traveled great distances to buy cheaply where the products they wanted abounded, and returned to sell dear where their goods were rare. Normally they sold, as well as bought, wholesale—en gros, said the French. The English translated en gros into grosser, and used this first form of the word grocer to mean one who sold spices in bulk.12Merchants were adventurers, explorers, knights of the caravan, armed with daggers and bribes, ready for highwaymen, pirates, and a thousand tribulations.

The variety of laws and the multiplicity of jurisdictions were perhaps the worst of their harassments, and the progressive formulation of an international law of commerce and navigation was one of their major achievements. If a merchant traveled by land he was subject to a new court, and perhaps different laws, at every feudal domain; if his wares were spilled upon the road, the local lord could claim them. If his ship was stranded it belonged by the “law of wreck” to the landlord upon whose shores it fell; a Breton lord boasted that a dangerous rock on his coast was the most precious stone in his crown.13 For centuries the merchants fought this abuse; in the twelfth they began to secure its abrogation. Meanwhile the international Jewish traders had accumulated for their own use a code of mercantile law; these regulations became the foundation of the law merchant of the eleventh century.14 This ius mercatorum grew year by year through the ordinances issued by lords or kings for the protection of merchants or visitors from foreign states. Special courts were established to administer the law merchant; and significantly these courts disregarded such old forms of evidence or trial as torture, duel, or ordeal.

As early as the sixth century in the laws of the Visigoths, foreign merchants had received the right, in disputes affecting only themselves, to be judged by delegates from their own countries; so began that consular system by which a trading nation maintained abroad “consuls,” counselors, to protect and aid their nationals. Genoa established such a consulate at Acre in 1180; French cities followed suit in the twelfth century. Agreements among nations—even between Christian and Moslem states—for such consular rights were among the best medieval contributions to international law.

A measure of maritime law had survived from antiquity; it never ceased among the enlightened merchants of Rhodes; and one of the oldest maritime codes was the Code des Rhodiens of 1167. The Lois d’Oléron were issued at the end of the twelfth century by an island off Bordeaux to govern the wine trade, and were adopted by France, Flanders, and England. The Hanseatic League published a detailed code of maritime regulations for its members: precautions to be taken for the safety of passengers and cargo, obligations of rescuer and rescued, duties and wages of captains and crews, and conditions under which a merchant vessel might or should become a man-of-war. Penalties in these codes were severe, but apparently severity was necessary to establish traditions and habits of nautical discipline and reliability. The Middle Ages disciplined men for ten centuries in order that modern men might for four centuries be free.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!