The Commerce of the German Alpine Passes During the Early Middle Ages
By J. Wesley Hoffmann
The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 31:6 (1923)
Introduction: Wth the decline of Rome and the rise of the German tribes to power, the volume of commerce was diminished and its organization suffered inevitable changes. To the Germans, values were predominantly land values. The unit of the new agrarian society was the manor, and each manor strove to be self-sufficient in so far as that was possible. Under such conditions commerce was bound to decline.
But even the dominance of “naturalwirtschaft” could not form an impenetrable barrier to trade. After all, few manors were absolutely self-supporting. With the variation of soil, climate, and season from region to region, it was inevitable that manors should produce a surplus of some articles which the proprietor should be anxious to sell or exchange. The lands of the lords were often scattered, and the transportation of the feudal income to the central manor of the lord, while it was hardly commerce itself, might easily become such when the goods involved were sold at the lord’s market.
In addition to the inability of the manor to be self-sufficient, the human desire for luxuries, foreign goods, such as fine clothing, highly decorated weapons, and exceptional foods, especially foreign wines and spices, tended to keep commerce alive. The church, although it was soon firmly established in the north, retained its ritual, which was oriental and Roman in origin, and continued to look to Rome and the East for at least a part of its equipment. Finally the constant travel of armies, churchmen, and pilgrims tended to prevent total localization and to keep alive a certain amount of trade.
Top Image: The Italian Alps. Photo by josef.stuefer / Flickr