A History of Business in Medieval Europe, 1200-1550 by Edwin S. Hunt, James Murray

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By Edwin S. Hunt, James Murray

A historical past of commercial in Medieval Europe, 1200-1550, demolishes the generally held view that the word "medieval business" is an oxymoron. The authors assessment the complete diversity of commercial in medieval western Europe, probing its Roman and Christian history to find the commercial and political forces that formed the association of agriculture, production, development, mining, transportation, and advertising. Then they take care of the responses of businessmen to the devastating plagues, famines, and war that beset Europe within the overdue heart a long time. Medieval businessmen's outstanding good fortune in dealing with this opposed new setting ready the way in which for the industrial enlargement of the 16th century.

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Even today, family businesses account for upwards of  percent of all business enterprises in the industrialized countries of western Europe and America;2 in the Middle Ages the percentages were probably even higher. But this fact obviously understates the complexity of today’s business environment, just as it fails to describe commercial reality in the Middle Ages. Already in the thirteenth century, the organization of business varied by trade and was evolving into more complex forms, as producers began to hire labor and forge associations to satisfy expanding markets and meet competition.

In Florence, finisher-merchants of imported grey goods from northern Europe formed the powerful and wealthy Calimala Guild, while finishers of locally manufactured cloth became subsumed into the equally powerful guild of the master weaver-drapers, the Lana (Wool) Guild. The final stage of the process, the marketing of the finished product, was controlled by the merchants who operated for profit. This final stage illustrates one important difference between Italian and northern cloth producers. Whereas in Italy cloth was sold along with other trade goods by merchants who acted as entrepreneurs, in France and Flanders the marketing of cloth was far more specialized.

Pirenne’s favorite example was the eleventh-century English merchant Saint Godric of Finchale, who began as a beachcomber collecting merchandise from shipwrecks, then became a merchant in his own right travelling with his wares from England to Flanders, Scotland, and Denmark. Godric ultimately made his fortune but turned his back on business in favor of voluntary poverty as a hermit. Historians since Pirenne have disputed the idea that the origins of the medieval merchant class can be traced exclusively to the poor and disposessed peasantry.

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