12.02.16, Dodds, Commercial Activity, Markets and Entrepreneurs in the Middle Ages

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Martha Howell

The Medieval Review 12.02.16

Dodds, Ben and Christian D. Liddy. Commercial Activity, Markets and Entrepreneurs in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2011. Pp. xv, 256. ISBN: 978-1-84383-684-1.

Reviewed by:
Martha Howell
Columbia University

This Festschrift pays excellent tribute to Richard Britnell by pursuing questions and themes long associated with his research. The collection brings together many of the most important scholars working on the medieval English economy and organizes their contributions roughly by theme: wages and prices and what they tell us about labor, standard of living, and the health of the medieval economy (Hatcher and Langdon); the roles and powers of civic or royal officials in markets (Keene, Lee, Davis, Bailey); the extent of entrepreneurial activity in the County Durham (Newman and Larson); business practices and commercial decision-making (Kowaleski, Carlin and Masschaele); and, finally, the extent of "luxury" vs. "ordinary" industrial activity and trade throughout the realm (Dyer). This organization makes this Festschrift a more coherent volume than many such collections manage to be, but its power is perhaps better revealed by considering the essays through four lens: the depth of the commercial economy; the close relationship between the growth of state-like institutions and commerce; the way that socio-cultural norms governed commercial activities, and the care with which we must treat our sources if we are to understand any of these matters.

The volume's central theme is the extent of commercialization in medieval England. Although the bigger cities were centers for international and national trade, the men and women of small towns, villages, and the countryside itself were both buyers and sellers of industrial or agricultural goods (as well as land itself) that circulated locally or regionally. Dyer's essay makes the point explicitly by presenting data about the industrial and mercantile activity in both small and large urban settings throughout the realm, emphasizing that most of the trade was in non-luxury goods produced by ordinary people and made for both the rich and not-so-rich; Kowaleski's essay helps expose the extent and entrepreneurial nature of shipping in England, providing valuable information about the backgrounds, skills and activities of small owners and shipmasters; Carlin's study of a text instructing readers how to cheat lords and employers indirectly reveals the extent of the black market and illegitimate economy; Masschaele's study of charters as evidence of property transfers indirectly reveals the vigor of the market in land; Newman and Larson examine the extent of trade in villages and small towns in the County Durham.

Yet, as many of the essays explicitly argue, market exchange was not necessarily the modal form of exchange, nor was it conducted according to the supposed norms of the modern western commercial economy. Land transfers were not always responses to market imperatives (many transfers were gifts or inheritances, and even priced transfers had often not been negotiated in market-like conditions) and did not proceed at the pace one would expect given economic conditions (Masschaele, Newman and Larson). The crown and, more often as time went on, the cities themselves, intervened in markets to assure supplies and protect profits, thus limiting the expansion of the market itself (Keene, Davis, Lee,) even as they assured its continued functioning. Labor markets were highly segmented and hardly "free," even if laborers themselves were not technically unfree (Hatcher, Langdon, Davis). In short, many of the articles in the volume emphasize the role of national and civic authorities in setting the terms of market exchange, limiting the scope of market activities, and determining the market players.

In doing so, they were enacting a generally accepted ethic about governors' obligation to establish "fair" prices, profits and practices, all in an effort to protect consumers (the court among them) and conform to the moral norms of a society suspicious of overt profit-seeking. Given that the essays making these points rely heavily (some exclusively) on evidence from the grain trade and given grain's centrality in the household budgets of the day (for rich and poor alike), it is perhaps unsurprising to find so much public investment in assuring supplies, affordable prices, and the like or punishing rapacious market practices. Still, the essays implicitly endorse one of Britnell's most important claims: that the growth of the commercial economy proceeded hand in hand with the growth of state-like institutions, royal or municipal. The arguments here also closely track another of Britnell's insights: that the laws governing market activity were not simply "top-down" impositions of royal or other elite interests. Instead, they were codifications of norms that emerged as much from the practices of ordinary English people and the communities to which they belonged as from princely or municipal authorities themselves.

All the essays in the volume are distinguished by meticulous treatment of the sources, and many explicitly address questions of method, always cautioning us about what we can and cannot know given the limitations of the material we have. The first two essays in the volume, by Hatcher and Langdon, are in fact methodological explorations of wage and price data, asking us to reconsider what they can tell us about standards of living, unemployment, labor practices more generally, and the economy as a whole. Carlin and Masschaele carefully assess their texts' ability to provide a window into the medieval market economy (hers a "how-to-cheat" treatise, his collections of charters witnessing property transfers). Others are less forthrightly concerned with methodological issues, but each essay displays the author's sensitivity to the unreliability of sources, their partiality, and their scarcity. Graduate students would be well advised to regard them as models of scholarship, not just as sources of information.

If there is quarrel to be had, it is with the aggressively "English" focus of the studies. While the empirical richness of the essays and the author's control of their material derives, of course, from their close focus on time and place, the volume's significance would have been greatly enhanced by even occasional references to other parts of Europe and the larger history of commercialization. Were, for example, the relations between king/prince and city in England like those elsewhere? Obviously not--but what is the significance of that difference for the history of European commercialization? Or even of England itself? And so on. In this regard it is worth noting how scarce in this volume are the bibliographic references to literature not in English. Taken at face value, the omissions imply that the rest of the west is either not relevant to the story of commercialization in England or that we have nothing to learn either about England or about commercialization by expanding our lens a bit. Neither assumption could be right, as I am sure all these authors would agree.

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Martha Howell

Columbia University