Iris Origo
The Merchant of Prato

One fundamental question still remains unanswered: which of all these ventures brought in the profits that made Datini a rich man? Professor Melis's detailed analysis of Datini's cloth-making company in Prato shows, as we have said, that his profits there came to only just under 9 per cent—a figure confirmed by the data about several other Tuscan cloth-making companies. Undoubtedly a similar examination of the account-books and correspondence of Datini's other companies would throw much light on his profits in other fields, but the information at present available is too fragmentary for generalizations to be of any value. The company which Francesco founded in Florence with Domenico di Cambio for the veil-trade (manufactured in Perugia and sold in Avignon) seems to have brought in about 21 per cent. But for many of his other companies we have nothing but a large number of—as yet—unanalysed figures.

The truth is, indeed, chat the whole question of medieval trade-profits is still somewhat obscure. Professor Renouard, in his brilliant study of the commercial and banking companies of the Popes in the fourteenth century, has surmised that 'the activities of these companies in certain regions must necessarily add up to a chronic deficit'. How, he asks, could any cargo of wheat or cloth sailing from the western Mediterranean to the Levant ever equal the value of one of silks and spices in the opposite direction? (We must remember that the cargo of a single galley of spices to Venice from the Levant could be worth as much as two hundred thousand ducats.)

We may, however, hazard a surmise that Datini made his fortune, not so much by a series of brilliant coups, as by an infinitely patient accumulation of small profits—an avoidance of dangers, quite as much as a seizing of opportunities. Moreover, it is not difficult to see why he succeeded—unlike so many of his contemporaries—in avoiding bankruptcy. The great trading-companies of the first half of the century—and, to a slightly lesser extent, ofhis own time—had taken part in every field of human enterprise: trade, industry, banking, and politics. The immense prestige and power that these merchants attained rested almost wholly upon credit: there is a startling disproportion between the capital at their disposal, and the yearly turnover of their various enterprises. Moreover, it was hardly possible for them to keep out of politics: they could not well deny a loan to a foreign prince who could at any moment expel them from his dominions, or refuse to pay the mercenary troops called in by their own city to defend its walls. Thus they were the first to suffer from the repercussions of political or military disasters; one could almost say that the greater and more powerful a company was, the more certainly was it doomed to failure.

A man like Datini could, and did, avoid these perils. Though Ser Lapo Mazzei and Domenico di Cambio were astounded by his daring, he was in truth a very prudent man. His little trading-companies, unlike the greater ones, kept out of politics. He made no loans to kings or prelates; he helped to finance no wars; he even—no easy matter at that time—had no share in party strife at home. The only credit he granted was to solid merchants like himself, to other trading-companies like his own. Thus, while he never attained a position equal to that of the heads of the great companies of his time—the Alberti or the Soderini, the Malabayla or the Guinigi—he was affected only indirectly, as any merchant must be, by politics and wars; he kept his vessel sailing through every storm.

  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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Through Eden took their solitary way.