14.09.12, Michienzi, Datini, Majorque et le Maghreb

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Monique O'Connell

The Medieval Review 14.09.12

Michienzi, Ingrid Houssaye . Datini, Majorque et le Maghreb (14e-15e siècles): Réseaux, espaces méditerranéens et stratégies marchandes. The Medieval Mediterranean. Leiden: Brill, 2013. Pp. 704. ISBN: 9789004232891 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Monique O'Connell
Wake Forest University

The Florentine merchant Francesco Datini was introduced to a wide audience by Iris Origo's 1957 book Merchant of Prato. Datini's 500 account books and 150,000 business papers have also formed the basis of many specialized economic histories, making Datini one of the best-known businessmen of Renaissance Italy. Michienzi's book offers a new and innovative approach to Datini's commercial operation, particularly his business enterprises in the western Mediterranean between 1382 and 1410. Michienzi's achievement is to take a relatively small slice of documentation and use it to open the horizons of late medieval Mediterranean commerce. She follows the trail of merchant correspondence and account books from Prato to Florence and then to Catalonia, the region of northwest Africa known as the Magreb, and above all to the great island emporium of Majorca, a linchpin of commercial and intellectual exchange. Michienzi argues that Datini's flexible and adaptive business strategies allowed him to overcome numerous obstacles to commerce in the Magreb, using this case study to suggest much larger conclusions about business practices in Europe and the Mediterranean as a whole in the late medieval era.

Michienzi's work connects to the existing scholarship in two ways. First, there has been a great deal of interest in the dynamics of cross-cultural trade and the creation of trust among trading partners. Secondly, some scholars have begun to apply the methodology of social network analysis to merchant correspondence in search of the mechanisms by which commercial networks functioned. Recent studies by Georg Christ and Francisco Apellaniz, for instance, have looked to the eastern end of the Mediterranean and examined aspects of Alexandrian commerce there. Michienzi applies the techniques of social network analysis in the western Mediterranean; as she describes it, her methodology marries economic and social history, revealing the flexible, creative, and dynamic strategies Datini used to create and maintain systems of commercial engagement.

As Michienzi elegantly demonstrates, Datini faced three fundamental obstacles to entering north African markets. Firstly, in an era where most Florentine businesses were family-based, Datini was a man alone, without legitimate children, brothers, cousins or nephews to rely on. Secondly, Florence was not a major maritime power in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century, and thus Datini could not rely on a state-supported fleet or official representatives for support. Thirdly, Italian merchants did not have direct access to the markets of the Magreb, as alliances of Majorcan merchants controlled the traffic to and from north African ports. How, then, did Datini's companies manage to purchase products from North Africa and resell them in Northern European markets?

The central argument of Michienzi's book is that it was Datini's business strategy, which relied on multiple small and diverse networks, that allowed him to overcome these obstacles and to access products from the Magreb. In order to build these networks, Datini recruited and mobilized reliable agents, made optimal use of his available financial and material resources, and used intermediaries when necessary. Michienzi's reconstruction of Datini's strategy is in itself an achievement, since it is nowhere articulated by Datini himself. But her careful analysis of a mountain of documentation allows her to build a convincing case that Datini was part of a vast and interconnected web of local and transnational collaborators who worked with one another on an informal basis.

The book is divided into three main sections. The first describes Datini's familial, business, and political situations, carefully placing his case in context in order to show where he can be seen as a typical example and where he differed from others. The second section is analytical, investigating the composition and characteristics of Datini's network in the Western Mediterranean. The third section is comprised of over 100 pages of appendixes, including multiple genealogical trees, personnel lists for Datini's various companies, lists of the middlemen who provided African products to Datini's agents, and the sailing routes of galleys. These appendixes are in addition to the 11 maps, 9 illustrations, and 23 tables in the main text. By far the most important element of this third section is Michienzi's catalog and transcription of the 44 Italian letters regarding the Magreb trade from the Prato archive. Michienzi's editorial work here was made particularly challenging by the fact that, as most merchant letters were, this correspondence was heavily abbreviated and used a number of contractions (p instead of per, for instance.) Her edition of the letters, by making these documents available to other scholars, constitutes one of the book's contributions to the field.

The first four chapters place Datini and his enterprise in their wider context. She demonstrates that the Datini enterprise, modestly sized in relation to its competitors, was atypical because of Datini's lack of kin. Datini responded to this situation by building horizontal networks of friendship and trust among more distant relations and among neighbors: all of Datini's agents were Tuscan. As many other Florentine companies did, Datini recruited likely apprentices between the ages of twelve and fourteen and moved them from place to place within his eight separate enterprises, reserving the key positions to experienced agents of proven loyalty. Michienzi argues that this strategy marks the birth of new forms of loyalty and trust not based on kinship. She also demonstrates that grana, a red dye used in the European textile industry, was the most important of the North African products Datini's firm purchased. Leathers and skins had a secondary importance, as did wax, flax, and coral. Finally, Datini's firm invested in luxury goods that crossed the Sahara in caravans--for instance, Datini's firm in Majorca purchased 300,000 ostrich feathers between 1396 and 1410.

The last three chapters systematically build on one another to present an overall vision of Florentine merchants' capacity for innovation and adaptation. Chapter 5 investigates the situation of Florentine merchants; in contrast to Venice where the state was heavily involved in economic life, Florentine merchants trading outside the city were more autonomous. Michienzi shows that after the collapse of the Bardi, Peruzzi, and Acciaiuoli super-companies in the 1340s, no single Florentine company had an equally wide geographic range or dominant position. As a result, she argues, informal and situational collaboration between Florentines was key to their success. Through exchanging information, executing commercial operations, and offering help in cases of political or economic difficulty, widely dispersed Florentine merchants developed ties of trust and interdependence. Florentines not only relied on one another but on local intermediaries and collaborators, and it was through this combination of Florentine and local agents that companies like Datini's had access to a large network of connections in western Europe that provided entry to markets where the Magrebi products were resold at a profit.

Chapter 6 investigates how Florentine merchants attempted to overcome the difficulties in the infrastructure of trade, especially the problem of shipping goods without a dedicated Florentine fleet. Unable to rely on state-sponsored shipping, Florentines were completely dependent on the goodwill of transporters to move their products to the Magreb and to ship Magrebi products northward, leaving them at the mercy of political and military contingencies and exposing themselves to a good deal of risk. In response, companies co-operated to rent entire ships, a solution that offered greater control over routes and destinations but did not entirely resolve the difficulty. Florentines also relied on the consuls of other city-states and sometimes adopted other identities for commercial advantage.

Chapter 7 advances two secondary arguments: Majorca's centrality in Western Mediterranean systems of exchange and the methods and implications of cross-cultural trade. Michienzi demonstrates the importance of Majorca as a point of contact not only for the exchange of goods but as a key node of co-ordination between different networks. Italian merchants in Aragon-Catalonia were in a precarious political position, as concerns about Italian influence on the Catalan economy led to waves of protectionist legislation and several expulsions of Italian merchants. On Majorca, these protectionist impulses were exacerbated by leagues that monopolized commerce to North Africa; the leagues did not completely block Italian merchant company like Datini's from acquiring North African products, but they did force Italians to work through local intermediaries. The Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic lettering in Datini's account books show that the company relied on Christian, Jewish, and Muslim intermediaries. Jews and New Christians played a particularly important role, because after anti-Semitic pogroms swept Iberia and Majorca in 1391, many Jews emigrated to North Africa. These trails of exile became important lines of commercial exchange, meaning that Datini's firm relied heavily on Jews and New Christians on Majorca. In Valencia, Muslim agents and intermediaries played an important role. The multicultural character of both Majorca and Valencia, Michienzi argues, was what offered Datini's firm a way of infiltrating the commercial organization there. In an environment where Florentines engaged with Pisans, Jews, Muslims, Genoese, Venetians, Valencians, and Barcelonans, identity was fluid rather than fixed, allowing the lever of mutual economic advantage to pry open cracks in the leagues' monopolies and give Datini's agents access to North African products.

While the volume's extensive and extremely detailed presentation of the evidence might intimidate the casual reader, it is precisely that detail of the documentation that makes this a significant work. While her own argument is sustained and developed in a well-organized and clearly articulated way, Michienzi does not offer unsupported generalities, making her claims very convincing. In only one example, she not only asserts that Datini relies on an informal network of diverse collaborators, she names and identifies an astonishing number of those collaborators, documenting and describing each individual's history and the extent of his participation with Datini's network. It is here that we best see the movement from local case study to transnational frame of reference: each collaborator opens a small window onto a wider net of interconnections and links, and taken together they provide an expansive vision of trade and trust stretching from the North Sea to the Sahara.

Michienzi's painstaking archival work, lucid presentation of a mountain of documentation, and nuanced analysis means that this volume will be an essential contribution to the commercial history of the Western Mediterranean. The book not only presents the results of Michienzi's own research but synthesizes an astonishingly wide range of scholarly literature in French, Italian, English, and Spanish. While experts in the history of late medieval commerce will benefit from the specific cases and evidence she presents, the larger audience for this book will be those interested in the way that individual merchants and collective business enterprises successfully responded to difficult circumstances.

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Author Biography

Monique O'Connell

Wake Forest University