Gateway to the Classics: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Van Loon
The Story of Mankind by  Hendrik Van Loon

Mediaeval Trade

How the Crusades Once More Made the Mediterranean a Busy Centre of Trade and How the Cities of the Italian Peninsula Became the Great Distributing Centre for the Commerce with Asia and Africa

T HERE were three good reasons why the Italian cities should have been the first to regain a position of great importance during the late Middle Ages. The Italian peninsula had been settled by Rome at a very early date. There had been more roads and more towns and more schools than anywhere else in Europe.


Mediaeval Trade

The barbarians had burned as lustily in Italy as elsewhere, but there had been so much to destroy that more had been able to survive. In the second place, the Pope lived in Italy and as the head of a vast political machine, which owned land and serfs and buildings and forests and rivers and conducted courts of law, he was in constant receipt of a great deal of money. The Papal authorities had to be paid in gold and silver as did the merchants and ship-owners of Venice and Genoa. The cows and the eggs and the horses and all the other agricultural products of the north and the west must be changed into actual cash before the debt could be paid in the distant city of Rome. This made Italy the one country where there was a comparative abundance of gold and silver. Finally, during the Crusades, the Italian cities had become the point of embarkation for the Crusaders and had profiteered to an almost unbelievable extent.

And after the Crusades had come to an end, these same Italian cities remained the distributing centres for those Oriental goods upon which the people of Europe had come to depend during the time they had spent in the near east.

Of these towns, few were as famous as Venice. Venice was a republic built upon a mud bank. Thither people from the mainland had fled during the invasions of the barbarians in the fourth century. Surrounded on all sides by the sea they had engaged in the business of salt-making. Salt had been very scarce during the Middle Ages, and the price had been high. For hundreds of years Venice had enjoyed a monopoly of this indispensable table commodity (I say indispensable, because people, like sheep, fall ill unless they get a certain amount of salt in their food). The people had used this monopoly to increase the power of their city. At times they had even dared to defy the power of the Popes. The town had grown rich and had begun to build ships, which engaged in trade with the Orient. During the Crusades, these ships were used to carry passengers to the Holy Land, and when the passengers could not pay for their tickets in cash, they were obliged to help the Venetians who were for ever increasing their colonies in the AEgean Sea, in Asia Minor and in Egypt.

By the end of the fourteenth century, the population had grown to two hundred thousand, which made Venice the biggest city of the Middle Ages. The people were without influence upon the government which was the private affair of a small number of rich merchant families. They elected a senate and a Doge (or Duke), but the actual rulers of the city were the members of the famous Council of Ten,—who maintained themselves with the help of a highly organised system of secret-service men and professional murderers, who kept watch upon all citizens and quietly removed those who might be dangerous to the safety of their high-handed and unscrupulous Committee of Public Safety.

The other extreme of government, a democracy of very turbulent habits, was to be found in Florence. This city controlled the main road from northern Europe to Rome and used the money which it had derived from this fortunate economic position to engage in manufacturing. The Florentines tried to follow the example of Athens. Noblemen, priests and members of the guilds all took part in the discussions of civic affairs. This led to great civic upheaval. People were forever being divided into political parties and these parties fought each other with intense bitterness and exiled their enemies and confiscated their possessions as soon as they had gained a victory in the council. After several centuries of this rule by organised mobs, the inevitable happened. A powerful family made itself master of the city and governed the town and the surrounding country after the fashion of the old Greek "tyrants." They were called the Medici. The earliest Medici had been physicians (medicus is Latin for physician, hence their name), but later they had turned banker. Their banks and their pawnshops were to be found in all the more important centres of trade. Even today our American pawn-shops display the three golden balls which were part of the coat of arms of the mighty house of the Medici, who became rulers of Florence and married their daughters to the kings of France and were buried in graves worthy of a Roman Caesar.

Then there was Genoa, the great rival of Venice, where the merchants specialised in trade with Tunis in Africa and the grain depots of the Black Sea. Then there were more than two hundred other cities, some large and some small, each a perfect commercial unit, all of them fighting their neighbours and rivals with the undying hatred of neighbours who are depriving each other of their profits.

Once the products of the Orient and Africa had been brought to these distributing centres, they must be prepared for the voyage to the west and the north.

Genoa carried her goods by water to Marseilles, from where they were reshipped to the cities along the Rhone, which in turn served as the market places of northern and western France.

Venice used the land route to northern Europe. This ancient road led across the Brenner pass, the old gateway for the barbarians who had invaded Italy. Past Innsbruck, the merchandise was carried to Basel. From there it drifted down the Rhine to the North Sea and England, or it was taken to Augsburg where the Fugger family (who were both bankers and manufacturers and who prospered greatly by "shaving" the coins with which they paid their workmen), looked after the further distribution to Nuremberg and Leipzig and the cities of the Baltic and to Wisby (on the Island of Gotland) which looked after the needs of the Northern Baltic and dealt directly with the Republic of Novgorod, the old commercial centre of Russia which was destroyed by Ivan the Terrible in the middle of the sixteenth century.


Great Novgorod

The little cities on the coast of north-western Europe had an interesting story of their own. The mediaeval world ate a great deal of fish. There were many fast days and then people were not permitted to eat meat. For those who lived away from the coast and from the rivers, this meant a diet of eggs or nothing at all. But early in the thirteenth century a Dutch fisherman had discovered a way of curing herring, so that it could be transported to distant points. The herring fisheries of the North Sea then became of great importance. But some time during the thirteenth century, this useful little fish (for reasons of its own) moved from the North Sea to the Baltic and the cities of that inland sea began to make money. All the world now sailed to the Baltic to catch herring and as that fish could only be caught during a few months each year (the rest of the time it spends in deep water, raising large families of little herrings) the ships would have been idle during the rest of the time unless they had found another occupation. They were then used to carry the wheat of northern and central Russia to southern and western Europe. On the return voyage they brought spices and silks and carpets and Oriental rugs from Venice and Genoa to Bruges and Hamburg and Bremen.

Out of such simple beginnings there developed an important system of international trade which reached from the manufacturing cities of Bruges and Ghent (where the almighty guilds fought pitched battles with the kings of France and England and established a labour tyranny which completely ruined both the employers and the workmen) to the Republic of Novgorod in northern Russia, which was a mighty city until Tsar Ivan, who distrusted all merchants, took the town and killed sixty thousand people in less than a month's time and reduced the survivors to beggary.

That they might protect themselves against pirates and excessive tolls and annoying legislation, the merchants of the north founded a protective league which was called the "Hansa." The Hansa, which had its headquarters in Lubeck, was a voluntary association of more than one hundred cities. The association maintained a navy of its own which patrolled the seas and fought and defeated the Kings of England and Denmark when they dared to interfere with the rights and the privileges of the mighty Hanseatic merchants.


The Hansa Ship

I wish that I had more space to tell you some of the wonderful stories of this strange commerce which was carried on across the high mountains and across the deep seas amidst such dangers that every voyage became a glorious adventure. But it would take several volumes and it cannot be done here.

Besides, I hope that I have told you enough about the Middle Ages to make you curious to read more in the excellent books of which I shall give you a list at the end of this volume.

The Middle Ages, as I have tried to show you, had been a period of very slow progress. The people who were in power believed that "progress" was a very undesirable invention of the Evil One and ought to be discouraged, and as they happened to occupy the seats of the mighty, it was easy to enforce their will upon the patient serfs and the illiterate knights. Here and there a few brave souls sometimes ventured forth into the forbidden region of science, but they fared badly and were considered lucky when they escaped with their lives and a jail sentence of twenty years.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the flood of international commerce swept over western Europe as the Nile had swept across the valley of ancient Egypt. It left behind a fertile sediment of prosperity. Prosperity meant leisure hours and these leisure hours gave both men and women a chance to buy manuscripts and take an interest in literature and art and music.

Then once more was the world filled with that divine curiosity which has elevated man from the ranks of those other mammals who are his distant cousins but who have remained dumb, and the cities, of whose growth and development I have told you in my last chapter, offered a safe shelter to these brave pioneers who dared to leave the very narrow domain of the established order of things.

They set to work. They opened the windows of their cloistered and studious cells. A flood of sunlight entered the dusty rooms and showed them the cobwebs which had gathered during the long period of semi-darkness.

They began to clean house. Next they cleaned their gardens.

Then they went out into the open fields, outside the crumbling town walls, and said, "This is a good world. We are glad that we live in it."

At that moment, the Middle Ages came to an end and a new world began.

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