contributor.author: Ian Blanchard

title.none: Hunt and Murray, A History of Business in Medieval Europe, 1200-1550 (Prof. Ian Blanchard)

identifier.other: baj9928.0202.001 02.02.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Ian Blanchard, University of Edinburgh, ian.blanchard@ukonline.co.uk

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Hunt, Edwin and James Murray. A History of Business in Medieval Europe, 1200-1550. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. v, 274. $17.95. ISBN: 0-512-49923-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.02.01

Hunt, Edwin and James Murray. A History of Business in Medieval Europe, 1200-1550. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. v, 274. $17.95. ISBN: 0-512-49923-2.

Reviewed by:

Ian Blanchard
University of Edinburgh
ian.blanchard@ukonline.co.uk

It must be said at the outset that the reviewer will NOT be recommending this textbook to his students. Ignoring Eileen Power's classic declaration that "there is no greater heresy concerning the Middle Ages than that they were unchanging," the authors have belatedly revived the old institutional historiography of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century "German School of Economics" to provide the structure for their book. The reader is presented with a series of institutional archetypes said to be characteristic of the "Middle Ages." A portrayal of the "medieval" manor is followed by descriptions of markets, fairs, towns and guilds. "Medieval" industries are highlighted. Textiles, construction and mining and metallurgy receive particular attention. Transportation, fishing and brewing and printing is also described. The forms of merchant organisation are outlined. The greater part of the book is thus made up of descriptive accounts of "medieval" economic institutions, which are presented as characteristic of that extended time-period stretching from the seventh to the fifteenth centuries. Only in the aftermath of the Black Death are these institutions seen as changing as businessmen, in coping with an increasingly hostile environment, reaped "a harvest of adversity" creating new forms of "capitalist" organisation that prepared the way for the economic expansion of the sixteenth century.

The authors' descriptive accounts of these medieval institutional forms are extremely patchy in quality. Best are the discussions concerning topics about which they have a particular expertise. Chapter 5, "Business gets bigger--the Super Company phenomenon" provides a good précis of Hunt's The Medieval Super-companies (1994). Similarly the discussion of financial and accounting instruments used in mercantile circles (chapter 3, §2, pages 54-67) benefits greatly from Murray's doctoral research on the topic Notarial Instruments in Flanders, 1280-1452. The authors' dependence elsewhere on a very limited range of secondary studies, however, has rather unfortunate results. Even where they rely on such excellent studies as Unger's recent article on the Dutch herring fishery, a failure to explore the works of Bailey, Heath or Fox amongst many others, prevents them from contextualising the developments outlined therein. They thereby overlook the essential complementarity of this and other forms of fishing activity. Similar problems beset the authors' treatment of the "medieval" textile industry. The argument presented in this book suggests that in the twelfth century "most textile production in western Europe was still accomplished by rural or urban family-based crafts for domestic or local consumption." A "growing appetite for competitively priced ready-made goods in the burgeoning cities and increasing export demand for fine quality cloth," however, is said to have given "rise to the industrialisation of the process in certain regions." By the late-thirteenth century production in these regions -- the Low Countries, southern France, northern Italy and England -- and trade through their raw material supply systems had grown to such a size that they were encompassed with the commercial networks of the great Italian merchant-banking houses. Confronted with the market dislocations of the late Middle Ages and competition from an emergent English manufactory, these traditional production centres of the late thirteenth century are presented as "being forced to retreat to the high-quality end of the trade". Their treatment of the later medieval textile industry benefits greatly from the authors' use of Munro's excellent volume of essays, entitled Textiles, Towns and Trade (1994). Their discussion of how and when the late thirteenth-century textile production complexes evolved, however, is marred by the authors' almost complete neglect of the studies of Eleanora Carus-Wilson, Edward Miller and Paul Harvey, amongst others, concerning woollen cloth production and trade in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. These works certainly undermine their idea of an "evolutionary" development of the industry between the late twelfth- and late thirteenth centuries. They also raise serious questions about the alleged emergence of a "new" English industry in the late fourteenth- and fifteenth centuries. Such sins of both omission and commission pervade the whole of the section on "medieval" industry, making it impossible for the reader to "dip" into the book in the hope of finding a quick overview of existing research on a particular area of industrial activity.

The central thesis of the book, however, is not concerned with industry and guild organisation but concentrates on the changing forms of "medieval" merchant organisation. Local markets and regional-international fairs are portrayed as the characteristic institutional forms within which "medieval" commercial activity took place attaining, in the case of the important Champagne fairs, their apogee in the late thirteenth century. Subsequently these "ancient" institutions are seen as undergoing a transformation, their numbers increasing but only as the fairs assumed an increasingly regional character. They are seen, in the sphere of international commerce, as being displaced in the late thirteenth- and early fourteenth century by allegedly "new" forms of mercantile activity. These, as has been indicated above, are characterised by "new" company structures whose members employed allegedly "new" financial and accounting instruments in conducting their business. It is within this "new" framework moreover that, in the aftermath of the Black Death, change takes place as businessmen, in coping with an increasingly hostile environment, reaped "a harvest of adversity" creating new forms of "capitalist" organisation that prepared the way for the economic expansion of the sixteenth century. Whilst the authors, as indicated above, present a well-rounded and informed account of company organisation and techniques in the late thirteenth- and early fourteenth century and after, their overall thesis is unsustainable. Within the pages of their book one searches in vain for references to the work of Reynolds, Face or Hall, who amongst others, have revealed the highly developed forms of commercial activity practised at, and beyond the bounds of the Champagne Fairs in the twelfth century. In the light of this work, both the "primitive-ness" of the fairs and the "newness" of the late thirteenth-century mercantile company organisations and techniques, postulated by the authors of this book, can be seen as being largely illusionary.

The deficiencies of the book revealed in the descriptive accounts of "medieval" institutional forms moreover extend to the overall analytical framework within which it is set. Having adopted the old institutional historiography of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century "German School of Economics" to provide the structure for their book, the authors abandon what they call the view "from an aircraft flying at 35,000 feet" -- the currently fashionable pattern of demographically impelled economic long-swings. In its place they recognise, in chapter 6, a series of "shorter-term variations in economic activity, which occur in approximately thirty year spans." Their analysis of these "variations", which is related randomly to demographic-epidemiological, monetary and political influences, however, focuses on forces which are exogenous to the prevailing economic system. This is totally at variance with the current work of the heirs to the "German School" who seek within its institutional historiography for endogenous factors to explain the processes of economic change. Thus there is no mention here of George Grantham's fascinating work on long endogenous fluctuations and the unmaking and re-making of a unified economic space within a relatively constant technological environment during the millennium 300-1300 A.D. Nor will the reader find amongst the pages of this book any reference to the use made by medievalists of the path breaking "Institutional Economics" of Nobel-prize winner Douglas North, which may be exemplified by the recent study of John Munro, "The 'New Industrial Economics' and the Changing Fortunes of Fairs in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: the Textile Trade, Warfare, and Transaction Costs" (Vierteljahrschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte 88, 2001, pp. 1-47).

The very limited range of studies consulted by Hunt and Murray ensures that the reader will not be able to "dip" into their book in the hope of finding a quick overview of existing research on a particular area of industrial-commercial activity. Nor, because of the authors' failure to assimilate the "New Industrial Economics", do they provide a systematic medieval institutional analysis capable of replacing the currently fashionable pattern of demographically impelled economic long-swings. Overall this is an unsatisfactory textbook, which this reviewer at least will NOT be recommending to his students.