The Gold Mines of Kremnica
- Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe by Peter Spufford
Thames and Hudson, 432 pp, £24.95, September 2002, ISBN 0 500 25118 5
In the fifth circle of Dante’s Paradiso, the poet and his guide Beatrice encounter the spirit of his Florentine Crusading ancestor Cacciaguida. Together they discourse on the contrasts between Florence as it is now and as Cacciaguida knew it, in the mid-12th century. The city then was only a fifth of its present compass, Cacciaguida tells them. Its population has since been swelled by a host of immigrants; the grandfather of one who now prospers changing coin (cambio) and doing commerce (merca), was, he says, a countryman begging his way about Semifonte. The citizens lived soberly and simply; Sardanapalus (the type of luxurious living) had not yet entered to teach them new, ostentatious and wasteful manners. There is a familiar ring to this denunciation of consumerism, with its nostalgia for a past of simpler, thriftier ways of living. What Dante could not see, but that those two key words, cambio and merca, betray, was that what he identified as moral degeneration was in reality the social consequence of a commercial revolution which, between his ancestor’s time and his own, had for Florentines irreversibly shifted the scale of the structures of mercantile exchange and the perceptions of the use of money. This commercial revolution, and the changes in the fabric of European commerce that it generated over the three centuries from 1200 to 1500, provide the themes for Peter Spufford’s splendid book.
Spufford’s magisterial study Money and Its Use in Medieval Europe (1988) laid the foundations for this larger project; it is the fruit of extensive further research, both in the archives and on the ground, following the routes along which the commerce it describes travelled. It’s a scholar’s book, in terms of the authority behind its interpretations; at the same time, it is written in such a way as to be easily accessible to the general reader. Spufford presents the results of complicated statistical calculations with a clarity and simplicity that makes their import immediately apparent even to those who (like me) normally find themselves tied in mental knots by the arithmetic of economic history. He combines with this an understanding of businessmen and a gift for using their observations, calculations and miscalculations, as their notes and letters record them, to bring life to his story. This is a story that is pre-eminently worth recording, because it is about the birth of the commercial world as we have since known it.
In contrast with the later, and more famous, Industrial Revolution, to which the mechanisation of production (and transport) was crucial, the medieval commercial revolution was consumer-led, Spufford stresses. Two developments had marked the hundred years or so preceding 12o0, the rough date he assigns for its take-off. There had been a rapid and very substantial increase in population (so there were more consumers, as was also true of the early days of the Industrial Revolution). At the same time, the dominant landowning elite had begun to insist on the discharge of a much higher proportion of the dues of their now more numerous agricultural tenants in the form of money rents, rather than labour or produce. This had two consequences. First, it substantially freed the greatest of the territorial aristocracy, the kings and princes, from the pressure to itinerate, to keep on the move between the castles and manors where the produce of their estates had been stored against their arrival, for consumption on the spot. They could now pay for supplies to be brought to them at favoured, usually urban residences, which became sedentary centres for their administrative operations and acted as a magnet to the nobles who held estates under them and came to attend on them in their courts. This led naturally towards a concentration of cash in these town centres, which in the 12th century were growing visibly into capital cities.
Paris is the classic example and Spufford devotes eloquent pages to describing the city’s 13th-century efflorescence as Europe’s prime centre of consumption. Avignon provides a telling counterpoint to that story: the town grew overnight in terms of population and commercial significance when the Popes took up residence there, but faded back into provincial insignificance when, after the Great Schism, they returned to Rome. The landed noblemen, great and less, who were drawn to Paris as a royal centre – and to other capitals such as London and Naples (and the cardinals who came to Avignon) – had, as their kings did, money at their disposal to improve their standards of living, to build themselves new palaces and town houses with ample amenities not just for themselves but for their servants, hangers-on and horses, too. Above all, they had money to spend on luxury goods, on fur-trimmed robes and rich silks, on jewels, plate and tapestries, on spiced cuisine and fine wines.