How should one run a business? For Christine de Pizan, the famous medieval French writer, those that lived by trade had to follow a simple set of rules.
Christine de Pizan (1364 – c. 1430) is one of those unique figures from the Middle Ages who showed how the period was changing in new and interesting ways. Born in Italy, but having grown up in Paris, she received a very good education. At the age of 25, when she had been widowed and had three young children to support, Christine turned to writing to earn an income. At the beginning she might have been viewed as novelty, but soon Christine proved that she was formidable intellectual. Her most famous works include The City of Ladies and her poem eulogizing Joan of Arc.
Around the years 1404-407 she wrote The Book of the Body Politic for Prince Louis, the heir to the French throne – the work falls into the genre of “mirror for princes” that was popular in the Middle Ages – a guide to politics and how rulers should behave and govern. In this work Christine offers advice on a range of topics, like justice and education, adding in various examples from ancient times to prove her points. One of the more unique parts of her book is that Christine also details how common people should behave, including merchants.
One usually does not find much attention paid to merchants and business in the works aimed at the upper class of medieval society, and what could be found was often very negative. As one historian put it, the merchant was “considered a parasite and a sinner, barely tolerated for his questionable contribution to society’s output.”
However, for Christine de Pizan the merchant was a vital part of society, and one whose work should be respected. She notes that “there is no important citizen in any city who is not involved with trade, however, they are not considered thereby less noble. So Venice, Genoa, and other places have the most rich and powerful merchants who seek out goods of all kinds, which they distribute all over the world.”
She adds that business and trade are good not only for those who take part in it, but for the rest of society too:
For it is very good for a country and of great value to a prince and to the common polity when a city has trade and an abundance of merchants. This is why cities on the sea or major rivers are commonly rich and large, because of the goods that are brought by merchants from far away to be delivered there.
Christine goes on to list some of the qualities a merchant should have:
These people ought to be well advised in their deeds, honest in their labor, truthful in their words, clever in what they do, because they have to know how to buy and resell things at such a price as not to lose money, and ought to be well informed about whether there are enough goods and where they are going short and when to buy and when to sell – otherwise their business will be gone.
Those who practice such business also should follow some simple rules, according to Christine, which centres around honesty:
They ought to be honest in their work, that is that they ought not, under the threat of damnation and awful punishment of the body, treat their goods with any tricks to make them seem better than they are in order to deceive people so that they might be more expensive or more quickly sold, because every trade is punished when there is fraud in one. And those that practice deception ought not to be called merchants but rather deceivers and evil doers. Above all, merchants should be truthful in words and promises, accustomed to speaking and keeping the truth in words and promises so that a simple promise by a merchant will be believed as certain as by a contract. And those that keep their promises and are always found honest should prefer to suffer damage rather than fail to keep an agreement, which is a very good and honest custom, and it would please God, if others in France and elsewhere would do the same. Although there may be some that do wrong, I hold that by the mercy of God, there are those who are good, honest, and true. May God keep them rich, honourable and worthy of trust!
Finally, the medieval writer adds a few lines about appropriate behaviour as well as how much money a merchant should donate to charity:
these people ought to be of fair and honest life without pomp or arrogance and ought to serve God in courage and reverence and give alms generously from what God has given then, as one finds among those who give a tenth of their goods to the poor and who found many chapels, places of prayer, and hospital for the poor.
Christine de Pizan’s book also offers her thoughts about knights, craftsmen and even “simple labourers” – you can read the rest of The Book of the Body Politic through Kate Langdon Forhan’s translation, which was published by Cambridge University Press in 1994.