Trade: Interaction Among Peoples

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Trade: Interaction Among Peoples


Contact . There certainly was contact by medieval traders with peoples of different lands. By the late ninth century the Vikings met Inuits in Greenland and North America, Celts in Ireland, and Angles and Saxons in Mer-cia, Northumbria, and East Anglia. Traders from the cities of Genoa and Pisa had met the Muslims in violent clashes at sea by the year 1000. The German princes’ victory over the Danes at Bornhöven (1227) opened the way for south-coast Baltic merchants to dominate trade in Scandinavia. In the late thirteenth century the Venetians Marco Polo, his father, Niccolo, and his uncle Maffeo reached Mongolian China and became personally acquainted with one of the emperors, Kublai Khan.

Muslims . The Muslims, believers of the prophet Muhammed’s religion, carried on trade in Europe as well as in Africa, China, and Central Russia, especially from 750 until 1055, under the family of caliphs called the Abbasids. The Arabs were traditionally traders who crossed the deserts in caravans or large groups. When the people of the North African highlands, the Berbers, became Muslims, they too became part of the great network of Islamic merchants. Using copper ingots and cowry shells as currency, Berbers traded for ivory, skins, slaves, salt, and gold, which made their way into the Islamic Spanish markets. Arab culture encouraged agriculture and manufacturing, especially of silk and linen cloth, pottery, enamels, and fine metalwork; and Muslim cities, including those in Spain from the 700s onward, were filled with fine trade goods: cloth, rugs, leather goods, and many others.

European Encounters . In a practical sense medieval traders encountered different peoples and different lands within close range of one another and perhaps of their own homes. The cities of medieval England, France, and Germany have been described as isolated islands of urban life amid the great rural sea of villages, manors, forests, swamps, and wasteland. Indeed, many a city in the Middle Ages was so different from the surrounding countryside as to be a different land, if not a distinct landmass. In addition to the urban-rural differences, regional geographic ones were marked. Northern Europe was different from southern Europe, and again, when by 1300 ships were coming from the Mediterranean to reach North Sea port cities, such as Bruges, one could speak of “new lands” being opened beyond “old borders.” Suitability for the extraction or production of some goods in one area alone made it distinctive from the merchant’s perspective, since its goods could be sold as special in other areas not suited to their production. Flourishing trade between two geographical areas, such as Britain and Flanders, exporting and importing raw wool respectively, almost defined their being different lands. Merchants’ calls for tariffs, or taxes placed on imported goods, reinforced this perception, since the premise behind tariffs is that the goods that are being sold for less have arrived for trade from “other lands” and that a limit on them through taxation would help the manufacturers and traders of “this land.”

Differences . The reality of the differences among lands and peoples was for the medieval trader a double-edged sword. On the positive side, the revival of trade in Europe provided an exciting, lucrative outlet for adventurous merchants. There were always some who wanted to learn more than the skills of trade; they also wanted to understand the world in which they lived. Aside, however, from the personal pleasure some merchants derived from travel to exotic places, learning of new goods to be bought from afar was the principle, stimulating reward of new contacts, as, for example, for European traders in visiting the Middle East or the Polos’ discovering the extensive inland-waterway mercantile activity of thirteenth-century China. To European merchants, the riches of Byzantium were ample suggestion that exchanges over ever longer distances worked well and that traders should establish more connections in the disparate lands of the Far East. For some traders, such as those of Venice, interaction among peoples from different lands was a foregone eventuality. Since their coastal city had no land, the Venetians were forced to make their living on the sea. Gradually, Venetian sailors began to trade all along the Mediterranean coasts. Indeed, the first important European trading cities, Venice, Genoa, Pisa, and Florence, along with London, Paris, and Marseilles, all expanded largely because their traders sought out novel and rare goods from lands separated by water. Northern Italian merchants had rendered Eastern silks, sugar, and spices (pepper, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon) luxury items by the eleventh century, and although these products were more common by the thirteenth century, they still brought in enormous profits. The exploits of the Swedish Vikings, also called Varangians, represent another trading success story. The Vikings were traders, warriors, and farmers in Scandinavia who left their homes and traveled widely between the ninth and the eleventh centuries. Travel along the Russian rivers that led them to settle among the Slavs and along Russia’s Baltic coast made them part of the fruitful long-distance trade between the diverse spheres of the Baltic Sea and the Islamic world.

Black Death . As positive as were the sellable goods distant lands afforded, they also offered a “hidden” export or two. The worst of the Middle Ages came in the winter of 1347–1348, when a Genoese ship returned to Italy from the east, via the Crimea, to the southern Italian port of Messina. The cargo that came ashore brought with it rats carrying a terrible disease known as the Black Death. It was the bubonic plague, a type of plague carried by the fleas living on black rats, likely transported over trade caravan routes from China. When the ship returned to Genoa, it permitted the disease to spread to other Italian cities. Other ships brought the plague to Marseilles in southern France. Many medieval towns and especially the burgeoning cities saw their populations cut by one-third to one-half by this new trade import. It killed, at low estimates, between one-fifth and one-third (about twenty million) of Europe’s population by 1351.

Ship Travel . The other part of the relationship between disparate peoples and lands was, however, of a more sustained nature. Different lands were separated by distance, and distance between buyer and seller in any medieval exchange entailed risk. Wrecks of ships sailing to reach far-off ports caused great losses frequently enough to slow acceptance of the idea of investment in maritime trade. Until the thirteenth century, ship construction without watertight bulkheads or stern-post rudders made it a challenge to persuade investors they would receive their goods. Until the later Middle Ages the Viking ships were perhaps the safest and most versatile. Designed for both sailing and rowing, the low and narrow long-ships, or warships, were shallow enough to be rowed up rivers. Their cargo ships were higher and wider, designed to carry up to thirty-eight tons of cargo. Both types of boats could be dragged over the snow between rivers if necessary. By the year 1000, the cities of Genoa and Pisa had nonetheless built strong fleets of galleys, made the Mediterranean safe for their commerce, and reduced considerably the military dangers of maritime distance travel. By 1300, ships were successfully coming from the Mediterranean to reach northern European port cities.

Instability . A lack of political centrality also created problems for the medieval trader. People under different political regimes tended in the Middle Ages, and earlier, to fight rather than to trade peacefully. Political decentralization in Europe from invading tribes and wars had brought the destruction of Roman imperial commercial life. Trade had not surprisingly almost completely disappeared during the turmoil, but the road system that had been so beneficial to it also virtually disappeared. From the point when Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious, shared his inheritance of 814 with his three sons, Europe was to be made up of a patchwork of small kingdoms or other political entities, ruled by kings, princes, or dukes. Even in the East, constant warfare imposed a heavy strain on Byzantium’s ability to remain a rich trading power.

Impact . Medieval merchants thought unifying different lands and peoples under a few strong political and fiscal entities was the best way to establish the necessary pan-European infrastructure for trade. In early medieval France each kingdom was supposed to take care of its own roads and bridges, but local princes or nobles to whom the responsibility fell rarely did. Short-term movement was so limited by bad roads and transport that merchants began to need much better forms of transportation. Roads and bridge maintenance continued throughout the Middle Ages to be a matter of different approaches, adapted to local conditions, but general improvement in the forms of merchants’ transportation was essentially seen as a matter for a central authority to oversee. Medieval merchants also wanted marine and land armed forces they could count on to protect them and their property as well as the general purchasing citizenry, wherever they traveled. To simplify their lives and save their profits, merchants sought to avoid exchanging the currencies of many different regions at the hands of the money changers by encouraging monarchs to centralize the minting of money and to punish those who made counterfeit coinage. They also wanted the harmonizing of the merchant taxes of the many different lands they passed through.

Codes in Law . Sensing that adherence to law might well be a precondition to the growth of trade, merchants also favored a political power that could bring back the rule of law and set up a code of laws for everyone in the land, the larger in size the better. Once the Viking kings established firm control of their lands, trade flourished there, as did agriculture. It was obvious to medieval merchants, whose travel gave them many points of comparison, that local princes or nobles applied local rules in a sporadic and often capricious way. Both arbitrary and narrow customary ways of coping regionally were seen to be ill suited to growth in trade and expansion of towns. Merchants favored the eventual administration by an enlightened noble of ever greater swatches of territory and the establishment of some sort of pan-European administration. Although nothing close to a central government ever materialized again in the Middle Ages after ninth-century Carolingian France, rules inspired by the rediscovery of Roman law in the late eleventh century spread throughout Europe. A rather common stock of procedures and concepts emerged, the jus commune as it came to be known, which gave continental Europe a strong sense of legal unity and merchants their own section of “international” law.

Hanseatic League . Some groups of merchants simply took matters of creating a hospitable environment for trade within different lands into their own hands. Initially in order to protect themselves from attacks by pirates, sea merchants of several young and vigorous commercial cities along the Baltic and North Seas formed the Hanseatic League (1250–1669). To strengthen their safety in trading, this group of cities banded together for their mutual protection

and set up trading associations, called hanse. The league of about eighty cities, including Hamburg, Bremen, Cologne, Danzig, and Lübeck as its center, in northern Germany, went on to draw up rules for internal cooperation. The League built permanent warehouses in such cities as London and maintained its own armed forces. Once the League was tightly formed, merchants could safely and profitably ship their goods. By keeping warships for protection, it got rid of the pirates in the North Sea, and by the late Middle Ages its maritime army, strong enough to protect its members, was also powerful enough, under threat of war, to force other cities, feudal nobles, and even kings to grant League traders favorable treatment. Birger Jarl of Sweden, for example, gave trading privileges to the League upon his conquest of Finland. In fact, so dominated was Baltic and North Sea trade by the Hanseatic League that Lübeck could prosper alone from shipping continental goods across the Baltic Sea to Scandinavia. As the Hanseatic cities came to dominate northern Europe, the trade route from Italy to the north moved east. This situation meant not only that the League came to watch over the land routes now between Germany and Italy, but also that the Duchy of Champagne was no longer on the main north-south trade route, which spelled one of the reasons for the end of the Champagne Fair cycle.

Importance of Trade . Observing also that peace was a precondition to the growth of trade, merchants in the Middle Ages favored it as well. Although later medieval merchants were not historians and were probably mainly concerned about the safer passage and consistent markets that peace between different peoples and lands made possible, indeed it was, in the early Middle Ages, local stability that had brought agricultural productivity, which in turn had brought the surplus of goods requisite for trade to flourish. Following the devastating fall of Rome, farmers no longer produced enough food to sell. Their villages were simply local communities trying desperately to provide the necessities for their inhabitants. With more peaceful local conditions, however, by around 900, buying and selling slowly began to develop with lords’ selling their new agricultural surplus at a profit. With market sites fostered by feudal nobles, it was natural for old towns to begin to grow again and new ones to form, all to become centers of trade from which many a medieval merchant would profit.

Facilitation of Trade . As the work of Marco Polo reflects in its descriptions of the improbable wonders of China, most buyers were blissfully naive about what the merchant could accomplish in the difficult trade environment of the Middle Ages. That traders at the end of the Middle Ages were incomparably richer than their counterparts at its beginning is proof positive, however, that they more than met the challenges of distance and political instability that different lands and different peoples presented. Medieval cities became the homes of men of great wealth or capital who had made their fortunes in trade. Long before the Middle Ages had ended, merchants and former merchants, the bankers, of the medieval towns rivaled feudal nobles, princes, and even kings in wealth. Not all the credit for their successes can be given to medieval traders alone, however. By the late Middle Ages the civil society of the Christian Church and the increased power of the European kings had helped Europe recover markedly from centuries of invasions, lawlessness, and economic breakdown. Increasing law and order had encouraged new economic activity, which had made Europe prosperous and strong, and experiences such as the Crusades had taught Christians that it was safer and more profitable to trade with those of another place and faith than to fight with them. Nonetheless, if the nobility had done much to create an economically viable world of the Middle Ages out of the wreckage of the Roman world, the merchant had done his part to begin shaping the modern world out of the Middle Ages.


G. G. Coulton, comp., Social Life in Britain from the Conquest to the Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1918).

Odd Langholm, Economics in the Medieval Schools. Wealth, Exchange, Value, Money and Usury according to the Paris Theological Tradition, 1200–1350 (Leiden & New York: E. J. Brill, 1992).

Robert S. Lopez and Irving W. Raymond, Medieval Trade in the Mediterranean World: Illustrative Documents Translated with Introductions and Notes (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955).

Henri Pirenne, Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade, translated by Frank D. Halsey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955).

Susan Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe, 900—1300 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).