Marking Water: Piracy and Property in the Pre-Modern West

Marking Water: Piracy and Property in the Pre-Modern West

By Emily Sohmer Tai

Seascapes, Littoral Cultures, and Trans-Oceanic Exchanges (Conference held February 12 through 15, 2003, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.)

Introduction: In his classic work of interpretive sociology, Economy and Society, Max Weber defined the modern state as “a compulsory organization with a territorial basis.” Weber’s conceptualization of what constitutes a modern state has important implications for the ways in which statist legitimacy is generally perceived: to be politically enfranchised, a people must exercise an absolute political authority, or sovereignty, over the body of land they inhabit. Discourse around the political entity, or polity,” is thus fundamentally embedded in the concretized notion of what Becker has called the western European “territorial state.” Weber’s definition nevertheless implies that the state is an improvised and artificial construct, rather than an organic one, insofar as it is suggested that the state is sustained only by what Weber subsequently indicates is a monopoly over the means of force.

Weber’s definition of a state articulates what I will argue is a key factor in shaping the antagonism between land and sea that this congress has proposed to explore: the way in which water submerges the territorial parameters of sovereignty. In this essay, I will discuss a phenomenon that exposes both the political and economic dimensions of this antagonism: maritime theft, or piracy. While the ostensible objective of maritime predation is economic gain, I will argue that maritime theft should also be understood in the context of this antagonism between land and sea as competitive interaction between political interests that seek to territorialize the sea, and commercial interests that resist this project of territorialization. Thus, maritime theft should be understood as contention not merely over material resources, but for what I will call political capital: political advantage that may be utilized either to reinforce or to challenge territorial order.

My conclusions will be drawn primarily from the interaction of western Europeans in the Mediterranean basin between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, the area that has constituted the main focus of my research. The utility of the medieval Mediterranean as a spatial and temporal frame appears to have been largely overlooked in studies of world piracy. Rather, most have focused upon the contingent definition of piracy as privately-motivated maritime theft in the context of imperial systems from antiquity to the present.

An examination of maritime theft in the medieval Mediterranean nevertheless presents what I will suggest is a modest case for “bringing” medieval Europe “back in” to the broader enterprise of studying world history.

The unique parameters that exposed the operation of contingency in the definition of medieval maritime theft lay in the conditions of its practice among the various lordships, civic republics, and monarchies that adapted the legal formulations of the Roman imperium and the classical civitas to claim title to polity in medieval Europe. On the one hand, medieval jurists echoed the formulations of classical Roman law in terming the pirate hostis humani generis: “enemy to all mankind.” Statutes enacted in the Genoese and Venetian colonies of Pera and Cataro duplicated legislation promulgated at these maritime republics in assigning capital penalties to individuals who robbed indiscriminately at sea, those I will term pirates. The piracy these sea-robbers practiced was distinct, however, from selective maritime theft, conducted at the behest of a sovereign polity against merchant shipping flying the standard of that monarch or civic republic’s political and economic rivals. In medieval statutes, this practice is alternately termed ire ad pirraticam—to sail or go as a pirate—and ire in cursum—going “in cursum,” from which may be derived a verb, corsairing, and a noun for those who undertook it, corsairs.

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