In Alle origini della città: Credito, fisco e società nella Bergamo del Duecento, Paolo Gabriele Nobili uses Bergamo, a mid-sized Italian commune, to explore the relationship between credit, the economy, and public power in the decades leading up to the crisis of the fourteenth century. Scholars of communal Italy will find food for thought in its solid empirical work and a useful bibliography of recent Franco-Italian scholarship on the communes, but the narrowly-constructed argument and limited comparative dimension belie its utility for a broader audience of scholars.
Alle origini sheds light on a critical moment in medieval Italian history, roughly 1240 to 1300. This interval marked the last phase of a longer period of flourishing independent communes, steady economic growth, and intense experimentation in political, social and economic life. For Bergamo, the years between the end of Frederick II's wars in Italy and the turn of the fourteenth century saw internal peace, with the popolo (i.e. non-nobles) coming to play an ever greater role in civic life and government. The commune grew rapidly in power and reach, participation in government broadened, and administration became ever more document-driven and archivally-minded. The economy grew as well, yet it all came to a halt when, in the early fourteenth century, the city collapsed into endless internal strife that would last well beyond the end of the Middle Ages.
This collapse is the primary explanandum of Nobili's work here, which argues that the seeds of Bergamo's perpetual crisis were sown during these same decades of frenetic economic growth and institutional development. Based on a reading of 6,000 or so notarial acts, Nobili reconstructs an image of a credit market that, encouraged by official policy and institutional protection for creditors, grew rapidly. This simultaneously enabled growth while undermining social and political cohesion, exacerbating inequality on multiple intersecting levels: between lenders and borrowers, between dominant and subject communes, and between the city and its countryside generally. Through its multiple interventions in credit relations, Bergamo progressively impoverished its rural subjects, sowing the seeds for the internal struggles that would plague it for centuries to come.
The book is packed with empirical detail, particularly the first chapter, making a brief summary difficult. However, it divides roughly into two sections, with a conclusion that helpfully condenses arguments built up over multiple chapters. The conclusion also adds a comparative dimension showing common threads between the experiences of Bergamo and other second-rank northern communes. The first section (Chapters 1 and 2) lays the foundation of the analysis. First, it provides a comprehensive and detailed view of expansion and innovation in Bergamo's credit market (Chapter 1). Nobili shows (Chapter 2) that the use of the ban and imprisonment for debt grew in step with the provision of credit, indicating that the credit market did not simply grow in response to a shortage of coin. Instead, it was actively enabled by Bergamo's legal apparatus which made recovering debts much easier, thus encouraging lending.
The second section builds on the first, demonstrating how Bergamo's fiscal demands on the countryside, alongside the market shifts previously discussed, ultimately bankrupted the contado. Chapters 3 through 5 argue that Bergamo's own economic and political interventions created fertile soil for factional discord in the district: forcing rural communes to borrow beyond their means from private lenders (Chapter 3), assenting to the transfer of debt from communes to individuals, then enforcing those debts when creditors sought to seize real property to cover them (Chapters 4 and 5). At its climax in the 1280s and 1290s, this process saw widespread pledging of both individual and communal property to secure rural communes' debts to private lenders. Public property, herds of animals and landholdings were seized, transforming desperate debtors in need of further credit from individual proprietors to rent-paying tenants. These poor souls, for their part, often slipped into a kind of economic tutelage to a single creditor, preferring to develop ties with an individual who might be persuaded to forego the occasional interest payment in the name of maintaining a relationship (without, of course, ever renouncing any of the principal). The overall situation was a recipe for disaster, as the economic and political grievances of the contadini left them receptive to any figure who might offer some relief, while ambitious urban notables acquired in their debtors an inexhaustible pool of factional adherents willing to support their bids for power.
Because Nobili's story is built from a heterogeneous mass of notarial material, the central argument at times takes a back seat to descriptive completeness in discussing different types of contracts and credit. The chapters are all guided, however, by Nobili's unwavering, if implicit, belief that politics is central to understanding the credit economy. This is perhaps best seen with an example. In 1287, Bergamo required the subject commune of Vertova to provide four cavalrymen to serve in the army for one year (182-184). Rather than provide its own residents, Vertova hired mercenaries, at a cost far exceeding its budgetary capacity (Ch. 3.1.4). This pushed the community into the credit market, as it sought to make up the shortfall through borrowing (Ch. 4.1) from a private lender. The debt was not merely the commune's, however, for it was shared proportionally among residents according to the official or public estimate of the wealth of its households (the estimo), making individual contadini liable for collective debts (Ch. 4.2, 5.2). Bergamo, for its part, promised some reimbursement, yet Vertova opted to sell these as-yet-unpaid and certainly tardy sums to a third party (Ch. 1.6), presumably an urban figure closer to the administration in Bergamo, leaving collection up to the purchaser (see also Ch. 2.3.2, 3.3.2). Vertova's creditors, the de Beatis, were not necessarily typical of lenders, a category which encompassed declining aristocratic families reconstituting a lordship, middling men looking only for a quick profit, and politically-active men seeking both gain and opportunities for political office-holding in the contado (Ch. 5.3, 1.3). Lenders were united only in their reliance on Bergamo, first to stimulate the need for their services by its impositions, and afterward enforce their contracts in case of default.
This story was repeated with variations across the contado, as Bergamo's incessant demands for war funds created a flurry of credit activity, with rural communities scrambling to meet large short-term expenses by long-term borrowing. This at once expanded the amount of credit in circulation, benefited urban lenders, shifted debt to rural populations, and eroded those same populations' economic and political fortunes. The city's lapse into civil war was a direct consequence of its credit revolution, as the same credit expansion that promoted growth enabled a fiscal policy that destabilized the district. In effect, Nobili seems to indicate, Bergamo was a casualty of the commercial revolution.
The balance of evidence makes Nobili's conclusions reached above relatively unassailable, yet at times the rhetoric and interpretation outrun the source material. For example, he writes that between 1250 and 1296, "economic relations became impersonal, each contractual moment characterized by complete monetization and debtors constantly menaced by the use of grave sanctions" (298). Yet his own profiles of lenders and borrowers suggest, in line with other studies of premodern credit (e.g., Muldrew, Economy of Obligation), that credit markets were hardly impersonal. Neither was every relationship completely monetized. Nobili recounts a contract empowering rural communal officials to gift "two and a half measures of cheese" to a judge and notary in Bergamo "for the good and utility of the commune of Vertova" (193). This reveals gift-giving and favor-currying that at once strengthens Nobili's argument about the importance of law and the commune (why else send an official gift-giving delegation to legal officials?) while hinting that the apparent formality and impersonality of legal documents can conceal something substantially more personal and informal, the kind of personal and economic ties that give rise to a political faction, for example.
Although there are plenty of figures and numbers, they are not presented systematically, nor do they always bear the burden of interpretation placed on them. For example, on page 232-233, Nobili cites a document in which a small commune paid off a debt of 51.5L to the heirs of a creditor. The initial capital was only 24L, meaning the heirs collected more than double the principal. Nobili contends that this shows a speculative attitude, the search for penalties and damages above and beyond interest and principal. Yet the initial loan was 13 years old when finally repaid. Basic math makes the interest rate 8.8%, which was hardly a back-breaking, given that major commercial centers like Florence or Genoa found it difficult to borrow voluntarily below about 15% interest. Not only this, the total amount repaid included any added costs of recovering the loan, i.e. legal expenses. This is hardly rank profiteering.
Despite occasional problems, the central argument, the role of courts and contracts in the progressive impoverishment of rural communities, is thoroughly documented. Nobili should be praised both for his thorough research and for constructing a coherent narrative out of a mass of laconic documents. The overlapping, complicated relations between private and public credit are convincingly and repeatedly demonstrated. This reader is compelled by his underlying story, yet also compelled to answer "no" to the rhetorical question posed in the introduction: whether or not "the improvement of administrative and credit practices was so profound as to transform, in a brief period, the face of relations on which an entire society was constructed" (22).
Nobili's insistence on the importance of the legal context of credit relations should inspire interest, if not always agreement, from readers familiar with both anthropologically-inspired readings of the law and institutionally-minded economic histories. In contrast to studies that see legal procedure as a subset of behaviors for publicizing social values and disseminating reputations, Nobili's account appears heavily institutional, in part due to sources which are long on formula. Yet the two accounts of the law are not mutually exclusive. Not unlike some of Dan Smail's recent work ("Violence and Predation in Late Medieval Mediterranean Europe." Comparative Studies in Society and History ), Nobili sees the growth of the state as something similar to the construction of a great debt-collection agency. While court proceedings certainly functioned socially, appointing honor and shame, Nobili emphasizes that the law could simultaneously, by regular application of structured and predictable inequalities in wealth and power, have economic and political effects that might fundamentally destabilize those societies.
Alle origini can also contribute to the debate concerning the roots of the political and economic crises of the fourteenth century. It is clear that a period of famines in the 1270s contributed significantly to rural indebtedness, but Nobili emphasizes the role of human institutions in mediating agricultural crisis. Bergamo did not make crops fail, but when they did it allowed some of its residents to profit by forcing rural communities to repay loans made in distress. This, in turn, contributed further to rural indebtedness, robbing the economy of some of its elasticity and ability to respond to future crises, until by the fourteenth century the district could no longer hold together. Lurking behind an empirically-dense and apparently Bergamo-centric book there lies a subtle and complex argument about economic growth, political structure, and social collapse at the end of the commercial revolution.
Sadly, this review must close by lamenting the sudden death of the author. Alle origini della città is a work that showed promise, confirming the impression of his colleagues that Paolo Nobili was "a mature and brilliant scholar, capable of extraordinary productivity." For a brief notice from his colleagues at the Università degli Studi di Milano, visit http://www.dssds.unimi.it/dipartimento/dottorati/nobili.htm For a list of his other publications, updated shortly before his passing, visit http://paolonobili