John Drendel

title.none: Murray, Bruges, Cradle of Capitalism (John Drendel)

identifier.other: baj9928.0510.012 05.10.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John Drendel, University of Quebec at Montreal,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Murray, James M. Bruges, Cradle of Capitalism, 1280-1390. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. xii, 409. $100.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-521-81921-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.10.12

Murray, James M. Bruges, Cradle of Capitalism, 1280-1390. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. xii, 409. $100.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-521-81921-0.

Reviewed by:

John Drendel
University of Quebec at Montreal

Prior to this exhaustive and detailed monograph, historians unfamiliar with Netherlandic historiography described fourteenth-century Bruges to their students as the preeminent emporium of Northern Europe, a redistribution center where raw materials from England and the Baltic regions traded for finished textiles and exotic goods in a market dominated by Italian merchants and their sophisticated financial techniques. Specialists of Flanders and local historians hold a more nuanced view which James Murray makes available in English in this detailed, multilayered monograph. This book is most remarkable for eluding the originality trap which plunges some monographs so deeply into the perspective of unexplored documents or the novel angle that they exaggerate uniqueness, contradictions and revisions. Murray of course explores his chosen bailiwick, the account books of native changers and innkeepers (hostellers) and applies network theory to them in order to advance the argument of the book's title, that an integrated constellation of financiers and traders made Bruges a motor of economic growth in Northern Europe in a century of political and economic tumult. He thus convincingly demolishes Raymond de Roovers model of a segmented system of credit and finance with no interchange between local lenders and the Italians dominant in international credit and exchange. Yet he carefully fits this argument into a larger architecture derived from the work of others, especially local historians unknown to non-specialists. Like a fifteenth-century Netherlandish painter, his artistry lies not in overthrowing the accepted iconography, but rather in the tiny brushstrokes which transform the overall picture through the details. I ndeed the central argument of the author at times disappears into the background of this ambitious survey. In an echo of John Munro's Wool, Cloth and Gold, Murray introduces Bruges' economic history with an overview of the tumultuous politics of western Flanders in the fourteenth century. The economic development of the town is all the more remarkable in that it triumphed over endemic local violence beginning, say, with the Wars against Philip the Fair in the beginning of the century and ending withthe convulsive struggle with Ghent between 1379 and 1385, at the nadir of industrial dislocation in Flemish cloth towns. To a large degree, the survival of Bruges' prosperity can be explained by a more diverse economy than those of other towns, a more open political oligarchy, and above all, a constant flow of goods, talent and capital from outside Flanders. In order to sustain her trade, Bruges needed a monopoly on maritime imports to west Flanders, a monopoly which dep ended in part upon sustaining control of the ports of embarkation along the canals linking an increasingly inland Bruges from its maritime outlet in the Zwin. Thus Murray describes in detail the intricate web of water and land transport which defined the economic geography of Bruges both within and without its walls. However no Flemish city had the means to dominate territory beyond the immediate environs; thus Bruges' ambitions to dig a canal which would end Ghent's stranglehold on the inland waterways transporting grain from the south ended with a disastrous defeat in 1372. Rather than being able to impose her monopoly by force, Bruges defended it with an unmatched ability to attract an international community of merchants to one of the most mediocre moorings in the North Sea. How it could do so is the focus of Murray's core chapters on the local innkeepers and changers who housed foreign merchants and served as intermediaries in markets for both money and goods.

The money market in Bruges was served by several occupational groups. Local changers accepted deposits and transferred funds between their own clients and with accounts held by other changers; innkeepers provided the same services, as well as warehousing and accommodations; pawnbrokers also accepted deposits and transferred funds, while lending money both to the poor and to impecunious aristocrats. All of these groups permitted their clients to overdraw on their accounts under certain circumstances, a service particularly useful to drapers, who had to make frequent purchases of raw materials, but whose sales were less frequent. Murray characterizes all of these financiers as multifaceted economic actors whose preeminent activity, in the end, was trade; all invested considerable sums in the merchandise transiting through Bruges.

A host of detailed studies of specific elements of the Bruges' economy gives this book a fine grain. Murray reexamines the trade in wool and cloth, paint s detailed portraits of the colonies of Hanseatic, English, Italian and Iberian merchants, thoroughly revises De Roover's classic study of pawnbrokers and changers, and provides answers to how the Bruges' drapery industry emerged from decline by successfully making a transition to the manufacture of luxury woolens. His description of the ambivalent role of weavers as landlords of the poor as well as artisans gives us new insight into the complex social antagonisms of the city. But most readers will come away most impressed by the density of his analysis of the role of innkeepers or hostellers, illuminated by his examination of their accounts in the books of money changers. These men, and often women, served as the most important links integrating international finance and trade with local markets for money and goods. The hostel was the place where merchants met their clients through the intermediary of their host's brokers, warehoused their goods, deposited cash, drew on le tters of change, and most importantly, obtained information about cargoes, politics and other news affecting the market around a pitcher of wine and a plate of food in the hostel's basement cabaret. The hosteller's notary provided a legal assistant to ensure that agreements drawn up were valid, and the hosteller himself frequently stood as surety and procurator for strangers in a world whose fragile institutions made reputation the most valuable asset in business. By law a hosteller was responsible for the goods and cash entrusted to him by a guest, and was liable for any goods they purchased on credit.

Murray, with characteristic caution and subtlety, challenges a prevailing historiographical idea that a more commercialized medieval economy relegated women to increasingly marginal roles in the later Middle Ages. In a chapter which a few years ago he might not have been able to get away with calling "Women in the Market and the Market in Women" he examines big business and vice, and finds women making important decisions in both worlds. Women helped insure the financial stability of Bruges' concerns in a century where monetary and political tumult provoked frequent crises of liquidity because, as elsewhere in Flanders, their half of the community property in marriage had nearly absolute protection from creditors. Whether because of this or because Flemish society was less patriarchal, the presence of demoiselles, dames and vrouwen in exchange accounts shows that women of Bruges managed many change benches and hostels with their husbands and alone as widows. Nonetheless, high finance and trade remained a man's world in which women played second fiddle. Quite the opposite was true in the underworld. Unlike in southern Europe, the municipality never tried to control prostitution, which thrived in the presence of a large population of young, single and well-heeled businessmen, particularly during the annual trade fairs. Statistics showing an increase in the numbers of houses of ill repute are accurate indices of Bruges' ability to attract merchants, particularly in the quarter century after the Black Death. Prostitution was big business, with 126 brothels operating at its peak in 1373. Before 1350 men controlled the baths where prostitution flourished, but after the Black Death, brothels became the locus of sin and after 1370 nearly all of them were owned by women.

There are some faults in this book, but I would prefer to place them at the feet of the Cambridge University Press: twenty years ago, the editors at this august house simply did not allow a book to appear with the typographical and syntactical errors which pop up in the footnotes of this volume. More troubling is the partial reference to a key article authored by Murray and Anke Greve, "Hostellers Accounts," (203, n. 102; 204, n. 109; 213, n. 147) for which I cannot find a complete reference either in either footnotes or bibliography. Teachers will regret the lack of any reference to the location and shelfmark of the manuscript from which is taken an illumination (301) guaranteed to wake up even the sleepiest Monday-morning undergraduates. Perhaps specialists can find more content with which to quibble than I have been able to detect. This rest of us will find this book invaluable.