GOLD AND SPICES by Jean Favier


The Rise of Commerce in the Middle Ages
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A painstakingly detailed account of the development of capitalist institutions and practices in Europe from the 11th to the 15th centuries by a French historian. Favier’s story is in many ways a heroic one. He praises those who in any period are determined to extend the limits of what is imaginable. This would seem to be his view of the great medieval trading families of Europe, who over the course of several centuries transformed themselves from, as he puts it, “dusty-footed merchants” to a dominant economic and political force. At the same time, there is little that is heroic here; after all, the driving force for most of the merchants was simply to make the most profit with the least risk. To do so they had to be willing to confront, or manipulate, or coopt, both religious and secular authorities. New ways of doing business had to be imagined; new methods of exchange, accounting, payment, and raising capital had to be devised. If at the end of the 15th century the capitalist class, as, say, Ricardo or Marx had imagined it, had not yet emerged, the tools it would use to rule and define the world were, Favier concludes, firmly in place. Favier’s work is most of value in the detail he provides. This is not grand narrative, but a careful historical investigation of precisely how, for instance, the merchants of Genoa kept their accounts or of how the credit systems they devised to protect themselves from uncertain royal currency systems worked. This is not, however, a work for the faint-hearted; a whole chapter on the various types of coins in circulation in Europe, their comparative worth, and how this worth fluctuated is not everyone’s idea of fascinating reading. Still, with a bit of forbearance, the details do accumulate into a worthwhile tale of the origins of the modern economic world. Not for everyone, but an impressive historical achievement.

Pub Date: June 15th, 1998
ISBN: 0-8419-1232-7
Page count: 375pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1998