Henri Pirenne
Medieval Cities

Just as the shipping of Venice and Amain and later that of Pisa and Genoa launched forth from the very beginning on long sea voyages, so did the merchants of the Continent lead their vagabond life over wide territories. It is quite clear that this was for them the sole means of realizing big profits. To get high prices it was necessary to seek afar the products which were there found in abundance, in order to be able to resell them later at a profit in places where their rarity increased their value. The more distant the journey of the merchant, the more profitable was it for him. And it is easily appreciated how the desire for gain was strong enough to counterbalance the hardships, the risks and the dangers of a wandering existence open to every hazard. Except during the winter, the merchant of the Middle Ages was continually on the road. English texts of the twelfth century picturesquely designated him under the name of piepowdrous—'dusty-foot.'

This rover, this vagabond of trade, by the strangeness of his manner of life must have, from the very first, astonished the agricultural society to all of the customs of which he went counter and in which no place was set aside for him. He brought mobility to the midst of people attached to the soil; he revealed, to a world faithful to tradition, and respectful of a hierarchy which fixed the role and the rank of each class, a shrewd and rationalist activity in which fortune, instead of being measured by social status, depended only on intelligence and energy. And so it is not surprising that he gave offense. The nobility never had anything but disdain for these upstarts come from no one knew where, and whose insolent good fortune they could not bear. They were infuriated to see them better supplied with money than themselves; they were humiliated by being obliged to have recourse, in time of trouble, to the purse of these newly rich. Save in Italy, where aristocratic families did not hesitate to augment their fortunes by having an interest in commercial operations in the capacity of money-lender, the prejudice that it was degrading to engage in business remained deep-rooted in the heart of the feudal caste up to the time of the French Revolution.

As to the clergy, their attitude in regard to merchants was still more unfavorable. In the eyes of the Church, commercial life was dangerous to the safety of the soul. 'The merchant,' says a text attributed to St. Jerome 'can please God only with difficulty.' Trade seemed to the canonists to be a form of usury. They condemned profit-seeking, which they confounded with avarice. Their doctrine of 'fair price' was meant to impose a renouncement of economic life and, in short, an asceticism incompatible with the natural development of the latter. Every form of speculation seemed to them a sin. And this severity was not entirely caused by the strict interpretation of Christian morality. Very likely, it should also be attributed to the conditions under which the Church existed. The subsistence of the Church, in fact, depended exclusively on that demesnial organization which, as has been seen above, was so foreign to the idea of enterprise and profit. If to this be added the ideal of poverty which Clunisian mysticism gave to religious fervor, it can be readily understood why the Church took a defiant and hostile attitude toward the commercial revival which must, from the very first, have seemed to it a thing of shame and a cause of anxiety.

We must admit, however, that this attitude was not without its benefits. It certainly resulted in preventing the passion for gain from spreading without limit; it protected, in a certain measure, the poor from the rich, debtors from creditors. The scourge of debts, which in Greek and Roman antiquity so sorely afflicted the people, was spared the social order of the Middle Ages, and it may well be that the Church contributed largely to that happy result. The universal prestige it enjoyed served as a moral check-rein. If it was not strong enough to subject the traders to the doctrine of 'fair price,' it was strong enough to restrain them from giving way entirely to greediness for profits. They were certainly very uneasy over the peril to which their way of living exposed their eternal salvation. The fear of the future life tormented their conscience. Many there were who, on their death beds, founded by their wills charitable institutions or appropriated a part of their wealth to reimburse sums unjustly acquired. The edifying end of Godric testifies to the inner conflict which must often have been waged in their souls, torn between the irresistible seductions of wealth and the austere prescriptions of religious morality which their profession obliged them, in spite of their veneration, to violate unceasingly.

The legal status of the merchants eventually gave them a thoroughly singular place in that society which they astonished in so many respects. By virtue of the wandering existence they led, they were everywhere regarded as foreigners. No one knew the origins of these eternal travellers. Certainly the majority among them were born of non-free parents, from whom they had early taken leave in order to launch upon adventures. But serfdom was not to be presumed: it had to be proven. The law necessarily treated as a free man one who could not be ascribed to a master. It therefore came about that it was necessary to treat the merchants, most of whom were without doubt the sons of serfs, as if they had always enjoyed freedom. In detaching themselves from their natal soil they had freed themselves in fact. In the midst of a social organization where the populace was attached to the land and where everyone was dependent upon a liege lord, they presented the strange picture of circulating everywhere without being claimed by anyone. They did not demand freedom; it was conceded to them because no one could prove that they did not already enjoy it. They acquired it, so to speak, by usage and limitation. In short, Just as agrarian civilization had made of the peasant a man whose normal state was servitude, trade made of the merchant a man whose normal condition was liberty. From that time on, in place of being subject to seignorial and demesnial jurisdiction, he was answerable only to public jurisdiction. Alone competent to try him were the tribunals which still kept, above the multitude of private courts, the old framework of the judicial constitution of the Frankish State.

Public authority at the same time took him under its protection. The local princes whose task it was to preserve, in their territories, peace and public order—to which pertained the policing of the highways and the safeguarding of travellers—extended their tutelage over the merchants. In doing so they did nothing more than to continue the tradition of the State, the powers of which they had usurped. In that agricultural empire of his, Charlemagne himself had given careful attention to the maintenance of the freedom of circulation. He had issued edicts in favor of pilgrims and traders, Jew or Christian, and the capitularies of his successors attest to the fact that they remained faithful to that policy. The emperors of the House of Saxony followed suit in Germany, and the kings of France, after they came into power, did likewise. The princes had, furthermore, every interest in attracting numerous merchants to their countries, whither they brought a new animation and where they augmented bountifully the revenues from the market-tolls. The counts early took active measures against highwaymen, watching over the good conduct of the fairs and the security of the routes of communication. In the eleventh century great progress had been made and the chroniclers state that there were regions where one could travel with a sack full of gold without running the risk of being despoiled. On its part, the Church punished highwaymen with excommunication, and the Truces of God, in which it took the initiative in the tenth century, protected the merchants in particular.

But it was not enough that merchants be placed under the safeguard and the jurisdiction of the public authority. The novelty of their profession had further consequences. It forced a law, made for a civilization based on agriculture, to become more flexible and to adapt itself to the fundamental needs which this novelty imposed upon it. Judicial procedure, with its rigid and traditional formalism, with its delays, with its methods of proof as primitive as the duel, with its abuse of the absolutory oath, with its 'ordeals' which left to chance the outcome of a trial, was for the merchants a perpetual nuisance. They needed a simpler legal system, more expeditious and more equitable. At the fairs and markets they elaborated among themselves a commercial code (jus mercatorum) of which the oldest traces may be noted by the beginning of the eleventh century.

  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.