Robert Lopez
The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages

Many craftsmen were slaves; many merchants lacked citizen rights; and in many of the innumerable Roman 'cities' agriculturists and officials were not only more influential and wealthy but also more numerous than the trading class. The Commercial Revolution did to the medieval city what the Industrial Revolution was to do to the entire European scene. It gradually shook the numeric, economic and political predominance of landowners and officials and made the market, instead of the public place or the cathedral squares, the main focus of urban life.

The term 'market' (from the Latin mercatum) may mean both a gathering of merchants and their gathering place. In the latter sense, the Romans used more commonly the term forum, and they ordinarily called a merchant negotiator, that is, business man. During the later Middle Ages 'market' and 'merchant' (mercator) gradually crowded out the older words, probably because in the barbarian period the withering of urban life had made permanent market places and resident business men superfluous in all but a few towns. There was not enough to do for traders to get together every day at the same place or wait for customers in a shop. The collapse of continuous trade, however, stressed the significance of periodical gatherings, and these would grow in numbers, size, and complexity wherever and whenever economic activities picked up. They ranged; from weekly or monthly encounters, where townspeople and country people of the immediate surroundings exchanged handfuls of local goods in the course of a few hours, to annual affairs, usually lasting several days, where customers from a larger area bought provisions for the whole year, sold any surplus they produced, and got hold of a few outlandish objects. At their lowest level, daily markets opened no more than a loophole in a wall of self-sufficiency: many transactions were carried out directly between the producer and the consumer, sometimes, by barter, and nobody had to spend the night away from home. Annual markets, usually called fairs after the feria (feast or holiday) to which they were linked, called for more complex arrangements. Any empty space might do for professional merchants to set up their stalls and pitch their tents (tienda still designates the shop in modern Spanish), but they would not come from afar unless they had some assurance of free and easy access, some advantages and conveniences during their stay, and, of course, a reasonable chance for profit.

Urban growth did not destroy the temporary markets, which had been ordinarily confined outside the walls or segregated in the yards of churches and castles, but eventually transferred the bulk of trade to what we might call the shopping and business sections of the town. Stately halls for sectional or specialized trade, covered plazas and arcaded alleys, long rows of craftsmen's houses with a shop open on the streetcame alive in a picturesque disorder of which we can still get an idea when we visit the suks and bazaars of certain Muslim towns, from Marrakesh to Istanbul, where industrial pollution has not yet replaced preindustrial dirt. The more important transactions of wholesale or luxury trade were carried out more discreetly in the office of a notary or a guild, the inner rooms of a merchant's mansion, the private quarters of a sea captain or the premises of a company of merchant bankers. Obviously not all towns attained the same size and complexity, but many of them fitted the statement of Chretien of Troyes, the famous French writer of the late twelfth century: 'One might well believe that in a city a fair is being held every day.' More proudly, a Florentine chronicler of the early fourteenth century pointed out that his city had no use for special markets or fairs: you could buy and sell any amount of anything at any time. He exaggerated but slightly: Florence at her medieval peak, with a busy population of better than 100,000 inhabitants, a mint output of 500,000 gold florins a year, a wool production of 80,000 pieces of cloth, a meat consumption of 4,000 oxen, 80,000 lambs and 30,000 pigs, a wine consumption of 25 million quarts, a fertile district ruled by her independent commune, and the largest business companies in the Christian world, hardly needed the stimulus of periodical marts.

In all but a very few urban centers, however, markets and fairs continued to play an important role. Some economic activities are essentially seasonal: the gathering of certain crops, the opening of snow and icebound routes, the sailing dates for large convoys of ships, the traditional time for shearing sheep, preparing cheese, or delivering cloth to the wholesaler determined spurts that could best be channeled into a fair. Travel took a long time, and a merchant would be encouraged to take a specific trip if he knew that he would reach an extraordinarily large number of his colleagues and an unusual variety of goods. Moreover, markets and fairs tied their fortune to special facilities and privileges not normally available on the spot. Not many towns outside northern and central Italy enjoyed full independence and still fewer controlled the country around them; ordinary trade, therefore, had to cope with all kinds of obstacles in the unfriendly context of a feudal government and an agrarian society. No doubt the interests of lords and farmers were not in everything different from those of towns and traders, nor was unrestricted commercial liberty the ideal of most towns. A compromise was always possible, but it would be more easily attained for the limited duration of a fair than for the entire year. Lords and towns alike would then be willing to interrupt any war, lower any toll and tax, waive the customary restrictions on the residence and activities of aliens, grant speedy and informal justice according to international commercial law, strike abundant coinage of good and uniform quality, recognize and enforce written or verbal obligations, renounce such obnoxious customs as aubaine (confiscation of the property of deceased aliens), ius naufragii (seizure of the goods, and sometimes of the survivors, of wrecked ships), and reprisal (forfeiture of the wares of all fellow citizens of a defaulting merchant). Even the greediest prince and the most protectionistic town usually realized that at least temporary concessions were needed to get a market going, and that a going market would bring money and supplies outlasting the suspension of normal burdens.

Still if the absolute volume of transactions in markets and fairs kept increasing as the Commercial Revolution progressed, their share of total trade inevitably diminished. Seasonal factors cannot be entirely eliminated, but a steadier demand will elicit a more evenly distributed offer; sailors and muleteers will prolong their operations under all but the most forbidding weather; and craftsmen will use stocks of raw material to spread their work throughout the year. By the late thirteenth century a Pisan manual of business, foresees only one slack month out of twelve, and the detailed notarial records of Genoa show no serious variation at any time of the year. Less successful cities on peripheral shores or in the countrified center of Europe are more sensitive to seasonal fluctuations, but a city that for a long series of years has attracted peasants to her weekly market and merchants to her annual fair will normally become a permanent nerve center of trade.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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