03.01.31, Reyerson, The Art of the Deal

Main Article Content

Dan Smail

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.031


Reyerson, Kathryn L.. The Art of the Deal: Intermediaries of Trade in Medieval Montpellier. Series: The Medieval Mediterranean, vol. 37. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2002. Pp. xi, 257. ISBN: 90-04-12129-3.

Reviewed by:
Dan Smail
Fordham University

The medieval merchant is a figure much celebrated in the modern historiography of medieval Europe. Acclaimed for his enterprise and no-nonsense brand of rationality, the merchant was favored by a style of medieval history, popular from the early twentieth century onward, that sought to uncover the medieval origins of modern institutions. Throughout the nineteenth century, the medieval church -- especially though not exclusively in Protestant circles -- was seen as a brake on the natural tendency of society to advance. The merchant, especially the "glamorous international merchant-banker" described by Reyerson in The Art of the Deal (2), was celebrated as the progressive individualist who helped break the mold, casting off the superstitions of the medieval church and orienting his own goals toward profit rather than salvation. Although mainstream medieval history has long since abandoned the posture of anticlerical bias, the field of medieval economic history, as Reyerson points out, had and to some extent still has a tendency to search for "sophisticated, proto-capitalist reflexes that foreshadowed the modern way of doing business" (1). Economic histories, perhaps unwittingly, have portrayed the medieval merchant as a figure who managed to exist above and outside his own cultural and social context.

As an economic historian herself, Reyerson understands as well as anyone the improbable nature of this image, and The Art of the Deal is her effort to situate the medieval merchant back in his (and now her) context. Generally speaking, the arguments of the book are based on the idea that the medieval merchant should not be imagined as a solitary individual breaking the conventions of society. Instead, medieval society and culture, or at least urban culture from the eleventh century onward, was fundamentally oriented around exchange, and the merchant was embedded in this larger social and cultural context. She identifies the key figures at the outset of chapter 3: "It is the contention of this study that the most important players of the trade infrastructure in the medieval European marketplace, and in that of the case study of Montpellier, were notaries, innkeepers, and brokers." Other players include transporters, auctioneers, and subordinate members of the merchant's entourage. These, the "members of the trade infrastructure," were the essential intermediaries who built connections and helped establish the trust that must underpin every commercial exchange. The study focuses on the period before 1350, that is to say before the emergence of state-sponsored exchanges (loges or bourses) that would eventually supplant or supersede the earlier, more informal sets of relations that are the subject of this book (8).

In developing this argument Reyerson offers a close reading of her own sources from Montpellier, the city she has studied for most of her career, as well as a synthesis of relevant secondary sources. The book is divided into an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion, and has an extensive and up-to-date bibliography. The introduction discusses the reasons why medieval economic historians have tended to overlook the importance of intermediate personnel and social networks to the medieval marketplace. Contrary to the impression that one is left with after reading standard works, "buyers and sellers did not miraculously find each other" (5-6). Developing or manipulating these networks efficiently, Reyerson implies, would have helped lower transaction costs and improve profits (6-7). Merchants, accordingly, were not just financial wizards; they were also students of social relations. Chapters one and two provide a necessary survey of the nature of both Mediterranean and local trade as well as background political and social information. These chapters may not offer much that is new to economic historians. As a non-specialist, however, I found them to be a very useful tour through the recent literature. The relevance of the discussion was not always apparent -- the "art of the deal" recedes at times as Reyerson develops themes relevant to a broader economic history. For example, although Reyerson does discuss the problems associated with trading in unknown lands and with unfamiliar people (20-29), it would have been useful to the reader had she found a way to link this general discussion more closely to the major themes of the book. In later chapters, when she comes to focus on Montpellier and in particular on the Cabanis family business, we see commerce primarily through the eyes of the well-established insider with a healthy local network, and tend to lose the perspective of the foreign or non-resident merchant needing to know how to negotiate an unfamiliar trading environment.

Chapter three introduces the three major players -- notaries, innkeepers, and brokers -- and discusses the legal, social, and institutional context of each. I agree entirely with Reyerson that the spatial mobility of notaries is a crucial feature of notarial practice (83-84); the practice allowed notaries themselves to build and maintain a broad social network, and, more importantly in my view, kept notarial practice in the public eye, a theme Reyerson discusses later in the book. A particularly striking feature of the social profile of innkeepers is that so many were apparently foreign-born, a feature that presumably gave confidence to the foreign-born merchants who used inns as a base for developing trade connections (84-85). Innkeepers also served as brokers, distributors, and guarantors, an argument Reyerson develops with convincing references to secondary work on other late medieval cities and towns. Brokers were in turn crucial intermediaries between foreign and local merchants and their fees were closely regulated. Reyerson notes that brokers (corraterii, corratiers) were closely associated with auctioneers throughout medieval Europe (91). Reyerson does not give us much information about who these people were, though, perhaps because the evidence from Montpellier is too patchy. In Marseille, the vast majority of brokers and auctioneers (corraterii et inquantaterii) were Jewish, a reflection of the sizable Jewish community implanted in the city. In a municipal record of ninety-two brokers, auctioneers, and resellers who took oaths in 1350, only one, Johan Guilhem, was a Christian; as if surprised by this, the notary recorded his profession as "corraterius crestianus." (See Archives Municipales de la Ville de Marseille, FF 166, fols. 22v-26v for the complete list.) Here, as elsewhere, there is less discussion of Jews than I would have expected. Jews figured prominently in Marseille's trade infrastructure; it seems likely that they did not in Montpellier.

Chapter four considers the mercantile entourage. This chapter does not work very well to advance an argument about notaries, innkeepers, and brokers, though it is not without relevance to the major themes of the book. Reyerson focuses the first half of the chapter on the importance of kinship. In the case of the Cabanis brothers, who begin to emerge here as the focus of the Montpellierain evidence, kinship is vitally important, for Jacobus and Guiraudus worked closely with their cousins as well as their mother Martha. The revisionist drift of this section is clear, for it illustrates how merchants were not somehow emancipated from the characteristic patterns of medieval European society.

Chapter five takes up the making of the deal itself. I was not especially convinced by Reyerson's claim that notaries played an important role in providing "information networks and avenues of information" (156), though this claim may well turn out to be correct. The section on the notaries (147ff.) has revealing phrases like "probably well-informed" and "might have been," phrases that convey the refractory nature of the evidence. Her discussion of the vital nature of legal publicity (152-53), though perhaps equally speculative, strikes me as extremely important and more significant as a description of the role notaries played in the trade infrastructure. A scattering of phrases throughout the book show that Reyerson is attuned to the importance of publicity, gossip, and public ritual in the making and sealing of the deal. Here, as with kinship, we find that whatever merchants did was fully in keeping with the norms and patterns of everyday medieval life, and not in anyway modern or progressive. The section on innkeepers (167 ff.) is extremely interesting. Ample evidence that innkeepers frequently witnessed business contracts, for example, is indirect proof of their mediating role, and Reyerson couples this with other evidence gleaned from the notarial sources (e.g. the role of innkeepers in offering credit to their guests) to build a convincing portrait of the role of innkeepers in the trade infrastructure. Here, as elsewhere, I found the arguments an inspiration to return to my own sources.

Chapter six, finally, discusses the closing and execution of the deal. Parts of this chapter address a range of themes, like transportation and monetary trends, with a level of detail that is a little distracting. Here, I looked for more discussion of the ways in which merchants learned how to conduct litigation, surely a vital feature of the enforcement of the deal. Despite the generally positive reputation of the Roman-canon legal system, at least among legal historians, going to law in medieval Europe was hardly a simple affair. A great deal of skill was required in selecting proctors and lawyers, marshaling convincing sets of witnesses, conveying the appropriate gifts to judges, and shaping public rumor and gossip about the case. Merchants also made free use of arbitration, and this process likewise required considered acumen and social connections.

In general, the focus on Montpellier in this book means we do not get a good sense of how the Cabanis brothers and other merchants conducted trade in foreign cities. As noted earlier, we see the art of the deal largely through the perspective of insiders. A complete case study of the Cabanis should ideally include not only their experiences in Montpellier, but also their experiences (or those of their proctors and factors) in foreign markets. This is, admittedly, an idle dream, given the absence of a master index covering all Mediterranean notarial acts.

The Art of the Deal is a valuable contribution in several ways. As an economic history, it provides a revisionist perspective on some longstanding characteristics of the field, and showcases some of the recent developments among a newer generation of economic historians interested in setting the medieval merchant back in his and her own social and cultural context. Reyerson's observations regarding the trade infrastructure help to open up a field of research that has clearly been too little studied. At the same time, the book illustrates the many ways in which all historians can profit from research in the voluminous (though little-known) notarial archives of Mediterranean Europe in the later middle ages. In this and in other ways The Art of the Deal offers valuable signposts for future historians.

Article Details

Author Biography

Dan Smail

Fordham University