Eric Christiansen

When the consumer was king

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Peter Spufford

Thames & Hudson, pp. 432, £

Books as glossy as this are seldom as good as this. It is a sort of economic miracle in itself: fat, quarto-size, packed with illustrations, maps and plans, wide-margined, legibly typeset, efficiently proof-read, Hong Kong printed and priced under £25 hardback. It would almost be worth buying if it were a politician's memoirs or a cookery book. The difficulty is to explain that late mediaeval commercial history can be worth reading about at any price, even with the assurance that this is the distillation of a life's work by a much-admired master of the subject.

Professor Spufford is the currency pundit. Should you ever wish to know how many stivers you got for your groat, or morabitins for your dobla, or weisspfennige for your rheingulden at Michaelmas 1373 you would turn to his Handbook of Mediaeval Exchange unflinchingly. Fluctuation in the relative values even of the rarest coinages sounds like, and is, a dry and technical matter; but Spufford's enthusiasm goes far beyond it, deep into the feel, smell and location of trade, transport, production and shopping. Rivers, roads and markets run through his head, and he rolls out the glories of taffeta, velvet and white samite and their cleverly imitated substitutes as if he were in the business. He has driven what remains of the old routes, even in central Europe, in a van, hunting down the few boom-town relics of the Middle Ages. Not much is left of such places, unless they went into steep economic decline, like Avignon, which fell asleep after the popes stopped living there; or Aigues Mortes, the French king's gateway to the Mediterranean, from which the tide ebbed and never returned. Away from the towns there is more to see, especially in this country: wool-churches, market-halls, clothiers' houses survived from the diffused and small-scale enterprises by which some Englishmen did well out of gaps in the continental market. But why, after all, should anyone want to read about the antique business culture which lay behind the bridges with chapels, the votive windows glimmering with commercial heraldry and consecrated trade-marks?

In the past, it was studied by some as the means by which mediaeval people became bourgeois, or at least less mediaeval than before. One aspect of social friction within Italian and other cities, class-conflict, and the multifarious money-grubbing of the whole West were fused and labelled as social mobility by those whom Spufford calls 'historians whose class-consciousness has run to excess'. Others hold that this period, 1250-1500, was one in which everyone was handicapped by the non-discovery of the Americas, the printing-press and really effective cannon; held back by a faltering economy, stagnant population and endemic plague, waiting for the leap into a more dynamic world made possible by American resources and Renaissance know-how. To read Spufford is to be persuaded that both these views are utterly false.

The opportunities and challenges presented by the retreat from the Ottomans in the east and the ravaging of the New World in the west had long been anticipated. The quick responses were no accident. New sources of bullion, cultivable land, and luxuries had continually been discovered and exploited since the 12th century, in central and eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. The application of mathematics, mechanics, engineering and navigation to commercial profit was commonplace in Christendom long before Columbus. Paper manufacture had vastly increased the circulation of books in the 13th century, and it was then that large trading and money-lending companies were formed with the scope if not the status of modern multinationals. New roads, bridges, canals and ships unified a continent increasingly diverse and fragmented in terms of politics; for the first time, the pursuit of commercial profit became a defining characteristic of Christendom, and so a much-debated spiritual problem.

The motor was not mass demand but the conspicuous consumption and status symbolism of courts, castles, the more comfortable monasteries and the richer city fathers. Even the second biggest city, Paris, went into sharp decline as soon as the court moved away, in 1422, just as Avignon had soon become the Babylon of the West when the pope moved there a century earlier. The consumer was king, but the king was by far the biggest consumer, where kings reigned - along with a few hundred high-living nobles, their incomes safe from most forms of state taxation. The frantic acquisition and distribution of goods by traders like Datini (Iris Origo's 'Merchant of Prato') was for the good of these few above all. The trickle-down effect was visible, but sluggish. Even in the lucrative cloth trade, it seems that the only available ready-made articles were breeches, or hose from Bruges; most peasants spun and cut and sewed their own tunics and hoods. The more characteristic manufacture of the period was what we call Early Renaissance art: expensive ingenuity for the richest perfectionists, already surfeited with imported luxury but greedy for more. The economic problem for the trader was not how to promote the welfare of the huge army of producers, but to find producers with the skills to please these consumers.

Nowadays, global enterprise seems to kill local competition. In this period, it had the opposite effect. The merchants brought in commodities from the Islamic world and beyond, and local imitations quickly came to life, cheaper and sometimes better. By 1400 carpets, tapestries, silk, cottons, ivories, majolica pottery, soap and sweets were made and sold in the West, and sometimes exported to their original sources in the East. The merchants and their noble friends had inadvertently set something in motion which is still in motion, inflated almost out of recognition. Sir John Harvey-Jones is quoted on the dust cover, where he declares that 'most of my commercial inspirations and bright ideas were merely following the paths set by our predecessors', presumably by those mediaeval ones described in the book. According to Spufford, trade has to reach a critical volume before it can be organised by a division of labour between merchants in head offices, leg-men getting the goods from A to B, and agents at the far end of the roads purchasing, spying and reporting. Whether it was this division which really got the European business culture going, or whether it was the other one, between specialists in the many processes of cloth production and metal manufacture, the date at which it happened in the so-called Blue Banana of populous towns and villages running from Bruges to Rome was nearer 1200 than 1500. This descriptive book sets out the evidence with infectious zeal, and its buyers are fortunate that it includes so many buildings and objects and pictures which still whet the appetite.