The Medieval Review 14.02.08

Goldberg, Jessica L. Trade and Institutions in the Medieval Mediterranean: The Geniza Merchants and their Business World. Cambridge Studies in Economic History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xxi, 426. $110.00. ISBN: 9781107005471.

Reviewed by:

Shami Ghosh
Independent Scholar

The documents of the Cairo Geniza have long been used not just to study the society of the people who produced and preserved them--principally members of the Rabbanite Jewish merchant community associated with one of the four synagogues in Fustat in the tenth to the early thirteenth centuries--but also to advance claims regarding the nature of the economy in the Islamic world and its institutions, how different these were from the emerging economies of Italy in the central Middle Ages, and indeed regarding the nature of the medieval Mediterranean itself. In this meticulously-researched monograph, Jessica Goldberg--a rare scholar trained in both European and middle eastern history--provides a reappraisal of many of the claims made on the basis of these sources, with arguments that will be of great importance for how we understand the medieval Mediterranean, as well as the causes of divergence between Europe and the Islamic world in the very long term. In particular, while confirming much of the detail contained in S. D. Goitein's magisterial study of the Geniza corpus [1]--still the first port of call on this subject--Goldberg also corrects some aspects of his portrayal arising from a skewed, Eurocentric emphasis in the analysis, and equally significant, she presents a strong counterargument to Avner Greif's influential theses regarding institutional differences as the causes of Europe's eventual economic advance, [2] based on much stronger empirical footing than Jeremy Edwards and Sheilagh Ogilvie's recent rebuttal of Greif. [3]

It is estimated that of the over 300,000 individual documents extant from the Cairo Geniza, 12,000-18,000 are what Goldberg calls "historical documents," mostly from the period between 1000 and 1250 AD, and mostly written in Judeo-Arabic, the form of Arabic spoken by the Jewish community of Fustat and written in Hebrew letters. Goldberg's book is based primarily on an analysis of approximately 900 of these documents dating from the period between 990 and 1080. The first part of this book examines the nature of this merchant community, and its place within the Islamic world that was its historical context; the nature of the commercial correspondence and its uses; the nature of trade carried out by the Geniza merchants; and the relationships between the merchants, and between them and their institutional environment. Part II provides a geographical analysis, examining with which regions merchants had most or least contact, whence they received and where they marketed their goods, and the ways in which these elements developed over the course of the eleventh century.

Goldberg stresses repeatedly--and in contrast to some of the earlier scholarship--that the "Geniza merchants" were not a homogenous, exclusive group (also sometimes known as the Maghribi traders, they were, she points out, not exclusively of the Maghreb, and do not use any such term to refer to themselves as a professional group), and while they were linked by informal and frequent business relationships, they also periodically formed business relationships with members of other Jewish and Muslim communities across the Mediterranean. These merchants were not the whole of the business community in Cairo, far less the Islamic Mediterranean; nor do they represent all the Jews engaged in trade. Thus the community of Geniza merchants, while self-consciously a group within a wider economic world, was but a subset of a larger merchant community that included Muslims and Jews. Although for the most part Geniza merchants formed partnerships and relationships of reciprocal agency with others of their group, they also entered into such relationships with Muslim merchants. Within the context of an Islamic empire, the Geniza community was, while distinct, not generally excluded from civic leadership and most levels of administration in the regions where they operated; they were also not segregated by neighborhood or clothing from their Muslim fellows. As among Muslim merchants, social status within the Geniza community was not determined principally by commercial success (and this, Goldberg suggests, distinguishes both groups from Italian merchants); rather, commercial success was used to support other ways of claiming social prestige, mainly related to (religious) scholarship.

While these merchants generated a large volume of written material, Goldberg focuses mainly on 697 letters, the "commercial letter corpus," correspondence that includes some manner of explicit commercial content. These letters were mainly used as "the tools that allowed a merchant to project his authority over his goods and money across space" (65): they contained instructions to agents and associates regarding the dispatch, sale, and acquisition of goods; regarding price movements and the movement of goods; and they could also contain rebukes, praise, threats, and other forms of exerting authority in a manner designed to elicit action from partners and agents who were almost invariably unpaid. Although these letters were not formal legal instruments, Goldberg stresses that the Geniza merchants were no strangers to the latter, and the letters are filled with references to their frequent use of written legal instruments as well; indeed, the author points out that "many of their business activities conformed to both Jewish and Islamic legal norms, and secured the protection of both systems by contract form as well as use of witnesses whose testimony would provide sufficient proof in either legal system" (159). Letters, however, allowed a greater range of flexibility than written contracts for conducting business over long distance, both for the writers and for their correspondents.

The main form of business relationship among the Geniza merchants was one of reciprocal agency among free agents. This too, however, was a formal relationship begun and ended by oaths in front of witnesses; Goldberg stresses that this form of relationship was not, as previously suggested, some sort of unbounded friendship, but rather carried very specific limits and expectations. It was a form of "balanced reciprocity" (129), in which both agents performed certain services expected to be of roughly equal value over a finite period. Much of the commercial correspondence was devoted to managing these reciprocal relationships, as it was these agents, rather than paid employees, who attended to the disposal of goods and often also purchases. Goldberg provides a painstakingly detailed analysis of how such relationships work, and stresses that they should not be viewed as a preference for "informality" over formal contracts. One of the more innovative methodological aspects of Goldberg's study is her use of content analysis to examine the differing importance of the various topics in the letters, providing statistical breakdowns of how much of the letters are devoted to different subjects; unsurprisingly, transactions take up the largest percentage of the letters' content. The commercial corpus is overwhelmingly devoted to managing business transactions, relationships, and market information. One aspect of this management concerned discussions of and appeals (and sometimes threats) to the reputations of merchants--the correspondents themselves, as well as others among their circle. Reputation was in fact one of the key elements in ensuring that a merchant could enter into such relationships, and was based not least on the knowledge of the individual's local connections (including influence with local levels of government and toll collectors that could bring about exemption from customs dues) and access to information.

Perhaps the most surprising finding concerns the objects of these transactions. Medieval business history has long been (and, for the most part, remains) fascinated by the shiny stuff: trade in low-volume high-value commodities such as silk, gold, jewels, and exotic spices. Even Goitein focused on these high-status trades, and the characterization of the Geniza merchants as engaging primarily in business of this sort has been tied to larger narratives concerning the nature of long-distance trade in the pre-modern world, the lack of profitability in trading in bulk goods, the wealth of the Arab world, and the causes for the eventual rise of European commercial hegemony. One reason for such a focus has been the fact that what (Christian) Europeans got from the Islamic world were, for the most part, such luxuries; nevertheless, as Goldberg points out (contra Goitein), Christian Europe occupied a completely marginal place within the trade of the Geniza merchants: while they certainly did on occasion trade with Rum, and when remaining within the Islamic world also traded in luxury goods, the vast majority of their business was in bulk commodities, principally olive oil, flax, and non-luxury textiles. Although the grain trade was a vital element of trade in the Islamic Mediterranean, the Geniza merchants had no part in it; nor did they trade in weapons, timber, or slaves. All four of these commodities were indeed traded in open markets, but were also closely tied to political power, and required close connections with the military elite, apparently beyond what was available to the Geniza merchants. Most of the objects of trade were produced within the Mediterranean; and while many of the luxury items were indeed produced elsewhere, these took up not only a minimal proportion of the volume of trade, but were also greatly exceeded in terms of value by the bulk goods. Moreover, "greater wealth and political connections did not lead merchants to abandon such regional production…the two wealthiest families' records in fact show the greatest proportional investment in flax" (289). Furthermore, at this point (unlike in the twelfth century) Geniza merchants were not directly involved in the Indian Ocean trades: they bought goods arriving from that sphere locally, rather than themselves investing in trade with India and further east.

The fundament of trade in the Islamic Mediterranean, therefore, was supplying the many huge urban communities with finished products, and rural manufacturers with raw materials: not subsistence goods, to be sure, but also not high-value exotic goods; these were the "everyday luxuries," the "olive oil, soap, and linen garments of urban civilization" (292). A very large portion of time (and a very large proportion of the content of the letters) was devoted to acquiring and organizing the processing of flax in rural areas: Geniza merchants were involved in a fundamental manner with the production cycle (though they did not generally organize the final manufacture of textiles). A large--and increasing--amount of transactions concerned the acquisition of flax along the Nile, its transport to the southern Levant (a region that functioned largely as a hinterland to Fustat), and the purchase from there of finished textiles for sale in the western Mediterranean. The transport of these goods was organized privately, though the merchants in the Islamic world did not own or invest in their own ships, and shipping was without the kind of state protection that later Genoese and other Italian merchants enjoyed. Indeed, one of the things that emerges vividly from this book is a stark contrast between the Italian (and indeed, later European) conjuncture of military and political power with mercantile interests, and the non-European form of the state based on agricultural tax, with little direct interest in trade, and thus little or no military investment in it. [4] While tolls on trade did exist, they were "a less important revenue stream" for the state than agricultural taxes (165). A further contrast to the Italian merchants with whom those of the Geniza are often compared is that the former dealt in "market-ready goods...and booty" and owned their own ships; they did not engage in processing agricultural commodities, nor bring rural produce to central emporia (116).

Goldberg's geographical analysis shows that Fustat had two principal hinterlands: the regions along the Nile that produced raw materials, and southern Al-Sh¬ām, where these raw materials were sold by Geniza merchants, and where the latter bought finished products for export elsewhere. Unlike the northern part of the region, there was here no major metropolis or emporium, and small towns, while certainly commercialized (and indeed from Goldberg's presentation apparently dependent on trade), were not places where many extra-regional imports were to be found--certainly not among the wares of the Geniza merchants. Northern Africa and Sicily, meanwhile (especially the former), were sources of olive oil, and the places to which products from the eastern Mediterranean, not least the finished textiles, were exported. The Geniza merchants moved mainly on trunk routes between metropolises; and when they did go to lower-order cities, these were mainly in the hinterlands of Fustat, where they went to purchase flax and textiles. Goldberg notes some changes in the patterns of travel and trade over the eleventh century, with proportionally fewer journeys to Spain (which, like Persia, becomes marginal in terms of commercial correspondence, by the end of the eleventh century), and more time spent along the Nile region by the end of the century. The later generations also had a more diverse range of destinations beyond what had been the principal metropolises in the earlier part of the century, suggesting that there was growth in the number of central places that could serve as emporia for the distribution of goods within regions. Nevertheless, across the whole period, the main "business model" was based on procuring the output of regional production for sale in distant metropolises (such products were rarely sold by Geniza within the local regional markets). Furthermore, in monetary terms, the bulk of trade remained connected to northern Africa and Sicily: there was no contraction towards the eastern Mediterranean in this period.

Although Goldberg does find an increasing incidence of European merchants, she does not see this as evidence of a "decline" in commercial force of the Geniza merchants, or of the Islamic world more generally. By gradually becoming the major shipping powers in the twelfth century, the Italian merchants in fact freed up resources for the Geniza merchants, who could now expand into the India trade while simultaneously sending their goods to various Mediterranean destinations without having to bear the costs of security for their shipping. Arguing against Goitein, Goldberg suggests that it was not "increases in Italian shipping that drove the Geniza merchants out of the Mediterranean" (359). Rather, because shipping with the Italians was more cost-effective since they combined transportation with protection services, for the Geniza merchants and their Muslim colleagues "the expansion of Italian shipping might well have been a great economic boom" (360).

This is a magnificent book. Anyone wishing to make any claims regarding the relative strengths and weaknesses of Christian European and Islamic economic systems, and their long-term trajectories, will need to consider carefully Goldberg's findings. In addition to her important contributions to the debates regarding the nature of institutions and the role of high-value products already referred to, Goldberg's work also has important ramifications regarding how we view continuity and change in the Mediterranean, and indeed how we understand it as a socio-economic region. As she points out, there was a great deal of continuity with the Roman period in terms of the provenance of some commodities, and more importantly, in terms of the importance of long-distance trade for the economic vitality of regions at both ends of that trade. The specifics of the commodities traded had, however, shifted (most spectacularly in the case of Egypt, which was now apparently a greater exporter of flax than grain, which had earlier fed Italy and Asia Minor). Goldberg's Mediterranean gives us neither the grand sweep of Braudel with relatively little attention to high levels of local variation, nor the local Mediterraneans of Horden and Purcell that seem to mitigate against the possibility of "the Mediterranean," and do little to explain the development of relatively stable patterns of long distance trade in bulk commodities that sustained the civilization of the large cities of the Islamic Mediterranean. [5] She seeks instead to combine the latter, micro-regional approach with a broader view of things that united (much of) the Mediterranean: long-distance trade, but also culture, religion, and legal and administrative structures.

As Goldberg herself observes, the changes that took place in the twelfth century in the Mediterranean cannot be seen simply in terms of a "decline" of the Islamic economy as the consequence of a European (mainly Italian) "Commercial Revolution." Understanding the Mediterranean in that period requires attention both to the regional economies of which the whole was comprised, as well as the larger structures on both the northern and the southern coasts of the Mediterranean; there is as yet insufficient evidence to allow us to speak of the rise of the north at the cost of the south's prosperity. The material presented here well justifies her conclusion that the history of the "repatterning" of commercial life around the twelfth-century Mediterranean is yet to be written (336); Goldberg's monograph will surely comprise a fundamental part of the background to any such history.



1. S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, 6 vols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967-1993).

2. Avner Greif, Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

3. Jeremy Edwards and Sheilagh Ogilvie, "Contract Enforcement, Institutions, and Social Capital: The Maghribi Traders Reappraised," Economic History Review 65 (2012): 421-444; see also Greif's response, in Economic History Review 65 (2012): 445-469; and Goldberg's additional critique of Greif: "Choosing and Enforcing Business Relationships in the Eleventh-Century Mediterranean: Reassessing the 'MaghribīTraders'," Past and Present 216 (2012): 3-40; as well as the volume under review at pp. 148ff.

4. For further reflections on this difference in a later period, see e.g. K. N. Chaudhuri, Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

5. Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, trans Siân Reynolds (New York: Harper & Row, 1972); Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000).

Copyright (c) 2014 Shami Ghosh

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