Genoa: The Cog in the New Medieval Economy

View of Genoa by Christoforo de Grassi (after a drawing of 1481)

By Nicholas Walton

View of Genoa by Christoforo de Grassi (after a drawing of 1481)
View of Genoa by Christoforo de Grassi (after a drawing of 1481)

Some are born into greatness and others have greatness thrust upon them. Genoa was forced into greatness by an unpromising birthright that at the turn of the millennium consisted of little more than rocks, sea and Muslim slave raiders. From this, the city state of Genoa rose to become a merchant-pirate superpower, Venice’s warring twin, and a vital cog in the medieval economy that dragged Europe firmly out of the Dark Ages.

Genoa is at the centre of Liguria, a disarmingly remote area that sits right next to some of the most connected and dynamic places in southern Europe – the Po valley, Milan, Turin and southern France. It is remote because of simple geography, shielded from the rest of Italy by the sea and a wall of mountains that rises up from a seaboard stretching from Monaco to the Tuscan borders, before falling sharply and giving way to the fertile, mosquito-infested plains to the north. This remoteness meant that for centuries, through Roman rule and the involvement of the Ostrogoths and Byzantines, Genoa was left largely to its own devices as a provincial outpost that at best was on a sea lane to somewhere else. It was also a poor region, without the tides or shallow seas to sustain much of a fishing industry, and with resources like the timber from its chestnut trees trapped high up on the slopes without navigable rivers to get them to the coast.


Genoa’s fortunes began to change in the 10th century, thanks to catalysing slave raids from Muslim raiders who were beginning to infest the shores of the western Mediterranean. At first they had seemed to ignore Liguria entirely, and a settlement had been established at Fraxinetum in Provence, but by the 930s they were heading along the coast and looking for booty in Liguria. One squadron of ships was intercepted and defeated by a Byzantine fleet, while a Fatamid fleet attacked in 934. Shortly after, Genoa was itself sacked, with a thousand women dragged away into slavery.

The Genoese in their hitherto sleepy outpost were confronted with a choice: retreat into the safety and poverty of their mountains, or come out fighting. They chose to fight, to take on the ways of the sea, and to define themselves as a maritime Christian warrior state. They had much to call on, including their own seafaring tradition, and ironically the benefit of their own isolated geography, in an enviably protected position that sat at the very northern tip of the Tyrrhenian Sea.


The early priorities of Genoa were to secure a grain supply to make up for the lack of agricultural land at home, combat the raids that had forced them out of their fastness, and plug into the emerging Christian world of 11th century Europe. For the first they looked to Sardinia, which provided them with sheep, slaves and salt as well as grain, and those commodities led them to look for wider trading opportunities. In turn this led them to develop innovative ways to pay for their trading enterprises, with clever techniques that allowed ship operators and financers to collaborate and spread risks and rewards. Not only did this provide the investment necessary for Genoa’s rapidly expanding trade ambitions; it drew even Genoese with small amounts of cash into the new trading economy.

The second priority – to combat the Muslim raids – led them to develop naval capabilities built around galley warfare. They joined forces with another emerging power, Pisa, driving a Muslim warlord called Mujahid out of Sardinia in 1016 and going as far as attacking a Muslim state in Tunisia in 1087. In doing so Genoa became a considerable power in its own right, able to project its naval capabilities in support of its trading interests across the entire Mediterranean basin and ultimately up into the Black Sea.

Fresco by Lazzaro Tavarone at the Palazzo Cattaneo Adorno, depicting the Genoese crossbowmen during the storming of Jerusalem.
Fresco by Lazzaro Tavarone at the Palazzo Cattaneo Adorno, depicting the Genoese crossbowmen during the storming of Jerusalem.

The third priority – to plug into that emerging Christian world of the 11th century – led to heavy involvement in the Crusader movement. Again this complemented the wider currents of Genoese ambition, giving them claims to trading stations on the coast of the Levant and Holy Land. It turned Genoa into a true power, with trading interests that plugged directly into the trade routes of the East, and important commodities such as pepper. Its importance to the early Crusaders was shown by the generosity of King Baldwin of Jerusalem, who gave Genoa piazzas in the Holy City and Jaffa, and a third of both Acre and Caesarea (along with the offer of a third of Cairo, should Genoa help to conquer that city next). Meanwhile, Genoese churches began to fill up with the religious keepsakes of the Crusades – relics such as cuttings from the hair of the Virgin Mary, the bones of saints and the Platto di San Giovanni, thought to be the plate upon which John the Baptist’s head was served to Herod.

This was a time when a new economy was being created after the centuries-long dislocation that followed the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Trading nations like Genoa and Venice extended their tentacles across the Mediterranean, forging markets for products such as Flemish woollen cloth, Eastern spices, Italian manufactures, and – inevitably – lots of slaves. The woollen trade actually led to certain instances of Genoese imperial expansion: demand for alum, a fixative and cleansing agent, was behind Benedetto Zaccaria claiming several territories on the coast of Asia Minor (including the island of Chios) for Genoa. There was even a growing economy based upon religious tourism (or, more devoutly, pilgrimages). Christians paid handsomely for safe passage to Jerusalem, and Muslims (such as one Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Jubayr from Gibraltar) to Mecca. Safe passage was a relative term, of course, and many did not need the money for a return voyage.


This explosive growth is the foundation for Genoa’s still-vibrant medieval centre, still (I understand) the largest in Europe. This physical manifestation of the city state’s years as a medieval superpower is riddled with tiny alleyways called vicoli, even now home to as much life – transsexual prostitutes and violin makers, tripe sellers and priests – as in the twelfth century. Towers rose up, allowing eminent families to battle each other across the rooftops (most were knocked down by the authorities in an effort to prevent the perpetual state of neighbourhood warfare – although the Embriachi family’s tower was allowed to remain as a reward for their leading role in the Crusades). Facilities such as the Ospitale della Commenda di San Giovanni di Prè were established, to cater for pilgrims passing through the port. And bit by bit, Genoa built its power and its reputation as a cut throat competitor, a merchant pirate superpower at the centre of the medieval economy that knew the price and value of everything, with a flexible approach to property rights and extreme violence.

The zenith of Genoese importance to the new medieval economy is best demonstrated by its leading role in the event that brought medieval Europe to its knees.

Genoa’s rivalry with Venice over the western terminuses of Eastern trading routes had taken both city states up the coast of the Holy Land and Asia Minor and beyond Constantinople into the Black Sea. Venice had a reputation for specialising in finer, high value products such as spices, while Genoa was well known for bringing furs, slaves and grain from stations in what is now Crimea and the Ukrainian coast. The Mongol conquests had united the Orient with Central Asia, and the Silk Road trade was flourishing. In 1266 the Mongol leaders of the Golden Horde ceded Caffa to the Genoese and Tana to both the Genoese and Venetians. Warehouses and fortifications were built, slaves and commodities changed hands, and fortunes were made. Europe’s medieval economy plugged even deeper into Eurasian trade routes thousands of miles long.


This, however, was disrupted in the early 14th century when the Kipchak Khanate converted to Islam. In 1343 its Khan, Zanibeck, cut the caravan links to China, and tried to evict the Christians from their outposts. They were thrown out of Tana on the Sea of Azov, but hung on in Caffa. As they besieged the city for a second time in 1346, many of the Mongol soldiers began to die from a strange and pestilential disease. They were suffering from an outbreak of the bubonic plague.

The plague was far from unknown in Europe. The Justinian pandemic saw it sweep in from Egypt in 541, and fourteen more waves followed before 767. What was different now was that Europe was far more integrated into the wider economy of the known (and barely known) world – in modern terms it was globalised. For the plague to reach and spread across Europe was now far easier, provided it found a foothold in the Genoese ships that linked the nodes of the medieval world in their ships.

Unfortunately for many tens of millions of Europeans, that is exactly what happened. The folk tale version has it that the Mongols catapulted infected bodies into Caffa in an early version of biological warfare. However, this is unlikely to have spread the disease as victims would have become far less infectious once dead. Flea carrying rats, finding their own way through the fortifications, were the far more mundane culprit. The besieged Genoese themselves started falling ill with this revolting disease, and when some escape by ship, they took the plague with them.

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A map showing the spread of the Black Death is also a simple map showing how the medieval economy was interlinked. The Genoese fled first to Constantinople, then through Reggio di Calabria before reaching their home port of Genoa. Others took the plague on from these three ports to other European cities, which were launch pads for yet another wave of infection, through Italian manufacturing cities, the great markets of northern Europe and agricultural and farming centres. The new Europe was an interconnected economic network, and the Genoese – who had done so much to nurture and forge those linkages, as well as profit from them – were the initial carriers of the great plague that would do so much to revolutionalise what remained. It is a fitting epitaph for the golden years of a merchant pirate city state with a reputation for valuing human flesh and wellbeing far less than a handful of shiny coins.


Nicholas Walton is a former BBC correspondent who recently released his book, Genoa ‘La Superba’: The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower. This article take a look at Genoa’s pirate past, slavery, its rise as a merchant power and its role in bringing the Black Death to Europe.


  • Genoa ‘La Superba’: the rise and fall of a merchant pirate superpower – Nicholas Walton, Hurst 2015
  • The great sea: a human history of the Mediterranean – David Abulafia, Allen Lane 2011
  • The Black Death 1346-1353: the complete history – Ole J Benedictow, The Boydell Press 2004
  • “The middle sea: a history of the Mediterranean – John Julius Norwich, Chatto and Windus 2006
  • Genoa and the Genoese: 958-1528 – Steven A Epstein, The University of North Carolina Press 1996

Click here to visit Nicholas Walton’s website

Follow Nicholas Walton on Twitter: @npw99