The Culture of the Medieval Merchant
By Roberto S. Lopez
Medieval and Renaissance Studies: Proceedings of the Southeastern Institute of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 8 (1979)
Introduction: Judge by the number of its representatives, if not by the distinction of its products, the culture of the merchant was one of the major components of the medieval intellectual stream. Its last noteworthy detractor, Werner Sombart, was properly rebuked in two classic essays by Henri Pirenne in 1929 and by Armando Sapori in 1937. In choosing it as my present subject, I have been moved not by a desire to plead for a cause that no longer needs a defender, but by wish to pursue some of the links which many be found between Seminar 2 (entitled ‘The Commercial Revolution of the Central Middle Ages in Europe’) and the other five seminars in this session of the Southeastern Institute of Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
Some connections are bound to be tenuous, some almost too obvious to mention. Love (seminar 2) penetrates every door, but it would be hard to prove that there was much connection between love and trade, except for the ill-famed oldest profession. Still it can be noted that the fin’amors of knights for noble ladies opened itself gradually to gentle-hearted merchants and merchants’ daughters in the dolce stil nuovo. Then, finally, a literary passport to love was generated indiscriminately to all women, virtuous or wicked, wealthy or poor, by Boccaccio, the son of a merchant and, in his early career, himself a reluctant merchant.
Again in the particularly belated English Renaissance (Seminar 6), there certainly are charming lines in lover letter by English burghers, but the merchant culture does not seem to have played an independent role. In fact, it might be interesting to compare the tendency to protracted insularity in English literature with the still more protracted insularity of English commercial techniques. None of the contracts the dominated Mediterranean trade and spread, in a modified form, to the Hanseatic world was adopted in medieval and Renaissance England. Its merchants tended to reject all that smacked of Roman law or of foreign customs, not without some inconvenience to their organization of partnership and credit, but, if we may accept Michael Postan’s spirited defense, with less serious loss of business efficiency than one might have expected.