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  • JAMES E. SHAW (a1)


Evidence from the Piovego, the fraud magistracy of early modern Venice, offers a critical perspective on the documentary record of credit and the ways in which this was used in practice. Although it was formally illegal to charge interest on personal loans, a variety of legal fictions were employed to evade the ban. Such fictions significantly reduced the transparency and certainty of exchange, pushing personal loans into a world of semi-legality. This was a ‘baroque economy’, in which people were aware of the potential discrepancy between surface form and underlying substance, and private agreements might be contested on grounds of substantive fairness. The ‘hidden transcripts’ presented by litigants indicate that the formal record must be interpreted through a ‘thick description’ that considers its role as a resource in a broader process of negotiation. Far from being a ‘market’, characterized by price competition, choice, and transparency, the informal economy of credit was embedded in long-term power relationships. Rather than celebrating intermediaries such as brokers and notaries as facilitators of ‘market’ relations, we need to understand them as part of a hierarchical network of power and wealth, embedded in long-term relationships.


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Department of History, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, s3


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10 For example, Acemoglu, Daron and Robinson, James A., Why nations fail: the origins of power, prosperity, and poverty (New York, NY, 2012), and critical historical perspectives in Ogilvie, Sheilagh C., ‘“Whatever is, is right”? Economic institutions in pre-industrial europe’, Economic History Review, 60 (2007), pp. 649–84; Clemente, Alida and Zaugg, Roberto, ‘Hermes, the Leviathan and the grand narrative of new institutional economics: the quest for development in the eighteenth-century kingdom of Naples’, Journal of Modern European History, 15 (2017), pp. 109–29.

11 Granovetter, Mark, ‘Economic action and social structure: the problem of embeddedness’, American Journal of Sociology, 91 (1985), pp. 481510, at pp. 496–8; Shipman, Alan, The market revolution and its limits: a price for everything (London, 1999), p. 200.

12 Kadens, Emily, ‘Pre-modern credit networks and the limits of reputation’, Iowa Law Review, 100 (2015), pp. 2429–55.

13 Fontaine, Laurence, The moral economy: poverty, credit, and trust in early modern Europe (Cambridge, 2014; orig. edn Paris, 2008), p. 113.

14 Kadens, ‘Pre-modern credit’, p. 2444.

15 Muldrew, Craig, ‘From a “light cloak” to the “iron cage”: an essay on historical changes in the relationship between community and individualism’, in Shepard, Alex and Withington, Phil, eds., Communities in early modern England: networks, place, rhetoric (Manchester, 2000), pp. 165–6, 171.

16 Ben-Amos, Ilana Krausman, The culture of giving: informal support and gift-exchange in early modern England (Cambridge, 2008), pp. 1213; Safley, T. M., ed. The history of bankruptcy: economic, social and cultural implications in early modern Europe (New York, NY, 2013).

17 Atiyah, Patrick, The rise and fall of freedom of contract (Oxford, 1979), pp. 140–1, 147–8; Gordley, James, The philosophical origins of modern contract doctrine (Oxford, 1993); Gordley, James, ‘Good faith in contract law in the medieval ius commune’, in Zimmermann, Reinhard and Whittaker, Simon, eds., Good faith in European contract law: the common core of European private law (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 115–16.

18 Gordley, ‘Good faith’, p. 108.

19 Ago, Renata, Economia barocca: mercato e istituzioni nella Roma del seicento (Rome, 1998), pp. xviiixix, 108–9.

20 See for example the anonymous Dialogo nel quale si ragiona de’ cambi et altri contratti di merci (Genoa, 1573), quoted in Savelli, Rodolfo, ‘Between law and morals: interest in the dispute on exchanges during the sixteenth century’, in Piergiovanni, Vito, ed., The courts and the development of commercial law (Berlin, 1987), p. 83, ‘la forma sia scorza et non spirito’.

21 Kirshner, Julius, ‘Some problems in the interpretation of legal texts in the Italian city-states’, Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte, 19 (1975), pp. 1627, at pp. 18–20; McSheffrey, Shannon, ‘Detective fiction in the archives: court records and the uses of law in late medieval England’, History Workshop Journal, 65 (2008), pp. 6578.

22 Nussdorfer, Laurie, ‘Lost faith: a Roman prosecutor reflects on notaries' crimes’, in Findlen, Paula, Fontaine, Michelle M., and Osheim, Duane J., eds., Beyond Florence: the contours of medieval and early modern Italy (Stanford, CA, 2002), pp. 101, 111.

23 Hardwick, Julie, The practice of patriarchy: gender and the politics of household authority in early modern France (University Park, PA, 1998), pp. 1921.

24 Hoffman, Philip T., Postel-Vinay, Gilles, and Rosenthal, Jean-Laurent, Priceless markets: the political economy of credit in Paris, 1660–1870 (Chicago, IL, 2000), p. 25 for the quote. See also Hoffman, Philip T., Postel-Vinay, Gilles, and Rosenthal, Jean-Laurent, ‘Information and economic history: how the credit market in old regime Paris forces us to rethink’, American Historical Review, 104 (1999), pp. 6994, at p. 90.

25 Hoffman, Philip T., Postel-Vinay, Gilles, and Rosenthal, Jean-Laurent, ‘Private credit markets in Paris, 1690–1840’, Journal of Economic History, 52 (1992), at p. 298 n. 8, dismisses the possibility that notarial records were manipulated.

26 Burns, Kathryn, ‘Notaries, truth, and consequences’, American Historical Review, 110 (2005), pp. 350–79, at p. 353.

27 Girolamo Savonarola, Prediche nuovamente venute in luce,…sopra il Salmo Quam bonus Israel Deus (Venice, 1528), xlii verso, from a sermon of 1493, ‘notai che fanno cattivi contratti & usurai’.

28 Hardwick, Practice of patriarchy, p. 22.

29 Garzoni, Tommasso, La piazza universale di tutte le professioni del mondo (Venice, 1665), p. 97, ‘ne meno si fa[nno] pregar talvolta a formare un'istrome[n]to usurario’.

30 Hoffman, Postel-Vinay, and Rosenthal, Priceless markets, pp. 14–15, 30, acknowledges that notaries played a key role in concealing illicit interest, but interprets these techniques as being commonly practised and therefore transparent to all parties.

31 Marco Ferro, Dizionario del diritto comune e veneto (2 vols., Venice, 1845; orig. edn 1778–81), ii, p. 440, ‘piovego’, ii, pp. 529–30, ‘processo’.

32 Cassandro, Giovanni I., ‘La curia di petizion e il diritto processuale di Venezia’, Archivio Veneto, 5th ser., 20 (1937), pp. 1210, at pp. 2–4; Fusaro, Maria, ‘Politics of justice/politics of trade: foreign merchants and the administration of justice from the records of Venice's giudici del forestier’, Mélanges de l'École Française de Rome: Italie et Méditerranée modernes et contemporaines, 126 (2014), para 7.

33 von Stryk, Karin Nehlsen, ‘“Lus comune”, “consuetudo” e “arbitrium iudicis” nella prassi giudiziaria veneziana del quattrocento’, in von Stryk, Karin Nehlsen and Norr, D., eds., Diritto comune, diritto commerciale, diritto veneziano (Venice, 1985). For similar interpretation of English equity courts, see Lobban, Michael, ‘Contractual fraud in law and equity, c. 1750 – c. 1850’, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 17 (1997), pp. 441–76; Macnair, Mike, The law of proof in early modern equity (Berlin, 1999).

34 Volumen statutorum legum, ac iurium dd. Venetorum (Venice, 1678), fo. 55r, 2 Sept. 1328, ‘Contra i contratti illiciti, & fraudolenti auttorità sumaria commessa a tutti i zudesi, come per sua conscientia i dieno procedere, considerato non la scrittura, ma la qualità del fatto.’ Piovego, b. 141, filza G.

35 Volumen statutorum legum, fo. 156r, 29 Mar. 1357; Ferro, Dizionario, ii, p. 828, ‘usura’; Mueller, Reinhold C., The Venetian money market: banks, panics and the public debt, 1200–1500 (Baltimore, MD, and London, 1997), pp. 337–8.

36 Jones, Norman L., God and the moneylenders: usury and law in early modern England (Oxford, 1989), pp. 120–1. See also Shatzmiller, Joseph, Shylock reconsidered: Jews, moneylending, and medieval society (Berkeley, CA, 1990).

37 Piovego, bb. 27–39.

38 Piovego, bb. 146, 148, 150, 152.

39 Piovego, bb. 27–39.

40 Petizion, Dimande, b. 42, register for 1 Mar. 1660 to 31 Aug. 1661.

41 Beltrami, D., Storia della popolazione di venezia dalla fine del secolo xvi alla caduta della repubblica (Padua, 1954), p. 72, gives the nobles as 3.7 per cent of the Venetian population in 1642.

42 For women at English equity courts, see Stretton, Tim, Women waging law in Elizabethan England (Cambridge, 1998).

43 Nani, Filippo, Prattica civile delle corti del Palazzo Veneto (Venice, 1668), p. 198.

44 For complaints contesting sales of land as fraudulent many years later, see for example Piovego, b. 28, 22 Sept. 1622 (twenty-three years later), b. 40, 24 Mar. 1745 (twenty-nine years later), b. 40, 9 Sept. 1745 (fifty-three years later).

45 Davis, Natalie Zemon, Fiction in the archives: pardon tales and their tellers in sixteenth-century France (Stanford, CA, 1987); Bailey, Joanne, ‘Voices in court: lawyers' or litigants'?’, Historical Research, 74 (2002), pp. 392408, at p. 407.

46 Scott, James C., Domination and the arts of resistance: hidden transcripts (New Haven, CT, 1990), p. 14. I use the term ‘hidden transcripts’ to refer to power relations within civil society, rather than resistance towards the state.

47 Piovego, b. 34, Baldin Guerra vs. Salamon Camis, 17 Mar. 1670.

48 Jones, God, pp. 124–5, 131.

49 Emery, Richard W., The Jews of Perpignan in the thirteenth century: an economic study based on notarial records (New York, NY, 1959), p. 86; Heers, Jacques, ‘The feudal economy and capitalism: words, ideas and reality’, Journal of European Economic History, 3 (1974), pp. 609–53, at p. 617; Helmholz, R. H., ‘Usury and the medieval English church courts’, Speculum, 61 (1986), pp. 364–80; Braunstein, Philippe, ‘Le prêt sur gages à paduoe et dans le paduoan au milieu du xve siècle’, in Cozzi, Gaetano, ed., Gli ebrei e Venezia: secoli XIV–XVIII: atti del convegno internazionale organizzato dall'istituto di storia della società e dello stato veneziano della fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venezia, isola di San Giorgio Maggiore, 5–10 giugno 1983 (Milan, 1987), pp. 654, 657; Francesca Zen Benetti, ‘Prestatori ebraici e cristiani nel padovano fra trecento e quattrocento’, in Cozzi, ed., Gli ebrei e Venezia, p. 629; Jones, God, p. 131; Gazzini, Marina, ‘Dare et habere’: il mondo di un mercante milanese del cinquecento (Milan, 1997), pp. 147–8; Ray, Nicholas Dylan, ‘The medieval Islamic system of credit and banking: legal and historical considerations’, Arab Law Quarterly, 12 (1997), pp. 4390; Hoffman, Postel-Vinay, and Rosenthal, Priceless markets, p. 14; Munro, John H., ‘The medieval origins of the financial revolution: usury, “rentes”, and negotiability’, International History Review, 25 (2003), pp. 505–62, at p. 512. For a comparative perspective, see Hart, ‘Kinship’, p. 185.

50 Here I differ from Ago, Renata, ‘Enforcing agreements: notaries and courts in early modern Rome’, Continuity and Change, 14 (1999), pp. 191206, at p. 197.

51 The Venetian term stocco specifically referred to credit transactions using overpriced goods. Literally, a stocco (Eng. tuck, Fr. estoc) was a thrusting sword; this was evocative of the way that a ‘stab’ might be concealed beneath the cloak of ‘bazaar’ transactions where prices were negotiable. Stocchi, scrocchi, bazari, or barocchi were related terms. For Venetian usage, see Piovego, b. 29, Campana siblings vs. Pietro Maria Tassi, 2 Dec. 1627, where a mortgage contract for a loan in the form of overpriced iron was described as ‘uno stocco di tanto ferro’; Piovego, b. 27, Sebastian di Honorai vs. Alessandro di Grandi, 23 Dec. 1613, c. 21r–v, on ‘stochi’ and ‘bazzarri’; Piovego, b. 140, denunciation vs. Altobello Bon, 17 June 1648, c. 62r, ‘baratti bazari’; Piovego, b. 30, denunciation vs. Zuanne Pandolo & Zuanne Fuga, 19 May 1633, ‘contratto sive bazarro’. See also Garzoni, Piazza, p. 672; Priori, Lorenzo, Prattica criminale secondo il rito delle leggi della serenissima republica di venetia (Venice, 1738; orig. edn Venice, 1622), p. 183; Boerio, Giuseppe, Dizionario del dialetto veneziano (2nd edn, Milan, 1971; orig. edn Venice, 1856), ‘stocho’; Brian Pullan, ‘Jewish moneylending in Venice: from private enterprise to public service’, in Cozzi, ed., Gli ebrei e Venezia, pp. 677–8; Jones, God, pp. 122–3; Brackett, John F., Criminal justice and crime in late Renaissance Florence, 1537–1609 (Cambridge, 1992), p. 121; Farolfi, Bernardino, ‘Brokers and brokerage in Bologna from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries’, in Guenzi, Alberto, Massa, Paola, and Caselli, Fausto Piola, eds., Guilds, markets and work regulations in Italy, 16th–19th centuries (Aldershot, 1998), pp. 308, 315–16; Goldberg, Edward L., Jews and magic in Medici Florence: the secret world of Benedetto Blanis (Toronto, ON, 2011), pp. 109–10; Mellyn, Elizabeth W., Mad Tuscans and their families: a history of mental disorder in early modern Italy (Philadelphia, PA, 2014), pp. 117–18.

52 Fontaine, Moral economy, p. 95, for an example from Molière.

53 Compilazione Leggi, ser. 1, b. 303, c. 220v, 11 Dec. 1479; Piovego, b. 141, filza G.

54 Goldberg, Jews, pp. 109–10.

55 The Calimani were heavily involved in the second-hand trade and had substantial property interests in the ghetto – see Boccato, Carla, ‘Testamenti di israeliti nel fondo del notaio veneziano Pietro Bracchi seniore (secolo XVII)’, La Rassegna Mensile di Israel, 3rd ser., 42 (1976), pp. 281–97, at p. 294; Pullan, ‘Jewish moneylending’, p. 680; Pullan, Brian, ‘The conversion of the Jews: the style of Italy’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 70 (1988), pp. 5370, at p. 66.

56 Piovego, b. 29, Bortolo Cardinal vs. Michiel Calimani, capitolo of 29 Oct. 1627, ‘ha voluto finger cosi per coprir l'usura, che fà cresser la summa dalli ducati trentasette alli ducati sessanta, ch’è quasi il doppio’.

57 Ibid., ‘usura d'usura’.

58 Piovego, b. 34, Baldin Guerra vs. Salamon Camis.

59 Rothman, E. Natalie, Brokering empire: trans-imperial subjects between Venice and Istanbul (Ithaca, NY, 2012).

60 Fontaine, Moral economy, pp. 101–22.

61 Piovego, b. 33, S Zaccaria vs. Francesco Grana, 11 Jan. 1665 mv, cc. 43r, 110v.

62 Ibid., c. 47r, ‘Menachen Coen venne ad offerirmi li soprad[ett]i ducati due mille per far servitio più tosto al grana, che à me.’

63 Ibid., cc. 51r, 120r.

64 Ibid., c. 11v, ‘queste cose di quattordeci per cento et altre usure passano in quattro occhi’.

65 Ibid., c. 43r. This was the only case identified where the Piovego had a witness tortured (with the strappado), a very unusual situation linked to ethnic prejudice and the court's determination to obtain a conviction.

66 Ibid., c. 24r, ‘ho detto la verità da huomo legale, e di tutta integrità, ne per tutto l'oro del mondo porteria alcuna delle parti, ove si tratta di riputat[io]ne’.

67 Ibid., c. 23v, ‘fu esborsato alla mia p[resen]za due sacchetti d'oro’.

68 Ibid., c. 25v, ‘e sufficiente la confessione dei debitori, cosa che giornalm[en]te si prattica, et li Protocolli de nodari son pieni di tali instrum[en]ti’.

69 Ferro, Dizionario, ii, p. 204, ‘livello’.

70 Piovego, b. 33, S Zaccaria vs. Francesco Grana, c. 34r, ‘essendo suo compadre e amico’.

71 Ibid., c. 49v, ‘bisogna trovar modo che apparisca ch'io havessi maggior debito’.

72 Piovego, b. 29, Libanoto vs. Gambirasi, 23 Nov. 1627, ‘questo non si può fare, mà bisogna, che voi portate et contate il denaro alla sua presentia de testimonij’.

73 Ibid., ‘fece dichiarire al nodaro, che mi haveva esborsato il denaro alla presentia del nodaro, et testimonij, mà in fatto non corr[s]e dalla sua alle mie mani denaro alcuno’.

74 Ibid., c. 22, 11 Jan. 1627 mv, ‘riposando l'havere & facolta d'ogni famiglia sopra la fede notariale, la quale no[n] si deve, ne si puo metter in dubbio’.

75 Ibid., 11 Aug. 1627, ‘vidi ori…p[re]supongo che fossera la vera quantita espressa nell'instr[omen]to perche anco vidi che s[igno]r Libanoto se ne contento’.

76 Garzoni, Piazza, p. 97, ‘senza un'o[n]cia di coscie[n]za’.

77 Piovego, b. 33, S Zaccaria vs. Francesco Grana, c. 38r, ‘ogni g[ior]no mi faceva esser testimonio’.

78 Ibid., c. 35v, ‘non sò che cosa contenessero’.

79 Ibid., c. 34v, ‘circa il prezzo solito costume è che fra li contrahenti si stabilisce e sopra l'informat[io]ne de med[ese]mi si forma l'instrum[en]to, onde non sò se valessero di più o meno di quello parla l'instrum[en]to stesso’.

80 Piovego, b. 156, denunciation vs. Gerolemo Baldissini, 15 Jan. 1644 mv, ‘huomo tristo senza cognitione del s[igno]r Iddio privo di conscienza’.

81 Avogaria di Comun, b. 4034, filza 287, no. 14; Cowan, Alexander, Marriage, manners and mobility in early modern Venice (Aldershot, 2007), p. 143.

82 Piovego, b. 33, S Zaccaria vs. Francesco Grana, c. 48r, ‘questi per verità non sono stati che prò corsi sopra detti D[uca]ti 6 m[ila] raguagliati a 14 per c[en]to’.

83 Ibid., c. 58v, ‘Com’è possibile ch'il mutti si chiami debitore di d[uca]ti 6 m[ila] mentre non li havesse ricevuti.’

84 Ibid., c. 62r, ‘non fù contato pur un bagattino, a benche mostrassero con sachetti, non so di che ripieni, che vi fosse il denaro’.

85 Piovego, b. 29, Giacomo Gabrieli & Antonio Rubboni vs. Dario Solfin, 18 Sept. 1627.

86 Avogaria di Comun, b. 4132, 14 Nov. 1675, ‘estremo bisogno’.

87 Testamenti, b. 1196, no. 111, 31 Oct. 1648.

88 Piovego, b. 38, Loredan vs. Roncalli, 20 Sept. 1698, referred to the ‘contratti usuratici’ manipulated ‘con studiata accortezza de sansali’ which ‘inceneriscono i pretiosi capitali delle famiglie’.

89 Ibid., ‘per esser vecchi fatti lustri con arte’, ‘bevuto il mar beverò anco questo marino’.

90 Ibid., ‘dovevano restar à libera dispositione di detto Roncali come mezano per farne vendita’.

91 Ibid., capitoli of 19 Nov. 1698.

92 Ibid., ‘lasciar scritto un veridico testimonio per poter in qualunque tempo aggravarmi à tribunali di giustitia di tale infetto scandaloso contratto’.

93 Ibid., ‘havendo anco ciò diffamato con le più vive doglianze in secreta confidenza con più d'una persona’.

94 Piovego, b. 35, Andrea Cantin vs. Carlo Forella, 4 July 1670.

95 Kuran, Timur, ‘The logic of financial Westernization in the Middle East’, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 56 (2005), pp. 593615, at p. 600.

96 Koyama, Mark, ‘Evading the “taint of usury”: the usury prohibition as a barrier to entry’, Explorations in Economic History, 47 (2010), pp. 420–42, at p. 438.

97 Hoffman, Postel-Vinay, and Rosenthal, Priceless markets, p. 25.

98 Geertz, Clifford, ‘The bazaar economy: information and search in peasant marketing’, American Economic Review, 68 (1978), pp. 2832, at p. 31. See also Hart, ‘Kinship’, p. 179; Shipman, Market revolution, pp. 196–238.

The research for this article was generously funded by the British Academy. I would also like to thank Simon Middleton, Andrew Heath, Gary Rivett, and the anonymous reviewers and the editor of this journal for their helpful comments and suggestions. All archive references are to the Archivio di Stato di Venezia. Abbreviations: b. = busta, c. = carta, mv = more veneto (in the Venetian calendar, the year began on 1 March). Prices are indicated in the principal money of account, the ducat (D). Assuming a working year of 250 days per annum, in 1630 a master builder could earn D137 per annum, and a builder's labourer could earn D97 per annum – see Brian Pullan, ‘Wage-earners and the Venetian economy, 1550–1630’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 16 (1964), pp. 407–26, at p. 415.


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