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Conferences

The Floating State: Trade Embargoes and the Rise of a New Venetian State

Neptune offering gifts to Venice - Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Neptune offering gifts to Venice - Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Neptune offering gifts to Venice – Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

CONFERENCES: The Floating State: Trade Embargoes and the Rise of a New Venetian State

Georg Christ (University of Manchester)

Paper given at King’s College, London on September 30, 2014

Now that school is back in full swing, I have the opportunity to attend some fantastic medieval papers. This paper was given by Georg Christ and examined embargoes and state formation in the late medieval and early modern period in Venice. The enforcement of taxes by the government is often a problem and the capacity to raise taxes and the capacity to project power to the outside are the main two issues of this discussion. Modern scholars often equate the Middle Ages as a state of political anarchy until the early modern period but this was not the case, in fact, it was far from it; the Middle Ages had a complex system of state formation.

There is a strong focus on the ability of the state to tax and also emphasis on its ability to mobilize a modern army. State formation models often focus on three things: suppression of the nobility, imposing taxes and mobilizing armies. What is often not given as much consideration are customs and dues, Navies, and cities. Christ stated, “There is a certain unease about cities among state formationists and how these cities fit into the models”. 

Christ’s hypothesis is that embargoes were used as a tool to predate on/control and redistribute economic resources in a political entity’s wider sphere of interest and influence. However, the term embargo is problematic because it is an anachronism and didn’t exist in its modern connotation during the Middle Ages. Christ examined papal embargoes (Crusade, Ferrara), where Venice had to relinquish direct control over to the city of Ferrara and goods circulated between the Adriatic and Milan/Alpine passes without touching Venice.

Papal embargoes were part of Crusading policies to prevent trading with Islamic states. However, so long as the Crusader States existed, embargoes were not at the forefront because in order to maintain the Crusaders States, they had to be able to receive supplies from their Muslim neighbours. Once the last crusader outpost at Acre fell in 1291 embargoes became more total and were placed on military and strategic goods. If the embargo is imposed by the Pope, it’s total. This hurt Venice greatly. In 1480, Venice picked a fight with the papacy over the control of Ferrara and a second embargo was imposed on Venice. Venice had to sit down with the papal side to find a compromise after a heavy double embargo. This resulted in Venice being forced to back off Ferrara. They were permitted to continue trading but going forward, all trade had to be conducted under papal auspices.

Medieval Venice
Medieval Venice

The Myth of Venice

The myth was formulated in approximately 1308 AD. The myth states that in 1177 AD, during the Investiture Conflict, there was a meeting between the Emperor and Pope in Venice with the Pope winning the power struggle and the Doge mediating. In turn for the Doge’s assistance in the meeting, Venice was rewarded with rule over the Adriatic. The message behind this myth? That Venice is informally above the empire and papacy, a she-Pope, an empress of the sea, and given rule over the Adriatic. This is a common idea used to heal internal and external wounds.

How was the embargo against Venice enforced? 

Fighting embargo breakers was lucrative business, because part of the sequestered goods went into the pockets of the office holders, often one or two offices. A percentage also went to the Royal Navy. As a result, many people wanted to get a piece of the pie from the confiscation of contraband goods. People attempted to cope with and circumvent these embargoes. Smuggling occurred via minor ports through galleys, since the cogs were to big to enter some ports. Venice legitimized its defiance of papal embargoes by using anti-papal treatises like that of Sassoferrato. They justify their papal embargo breaking by stating the interests of the commonwealth and reiterating the myth of Venice.

In conclusion, embargoes, although almost impossible to enforce completely during the Middle Ages, were a tool to control and redistribute economic resources in a political entity’s wider sphere of interest and influence. Embargoes (endured as well as inflicted) changed the rules of the game and gave a new chance to reallocate resources. Embargoes provide justification for predation, expansionism, imperialism and identity and as a result, an embargo is a power agent of state formation.



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