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Profits from trade with the Levant in the fifteenth century

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 December 2009


To show how great were the profits in the medieval Levant trade may seem like bringing coals to Newcastle. The accounts of the strenuous efforts made to discover the sea route to India bear witness to the Europeans’ desire to get a greater share of these riches. Anybody passing by the old palaces along the Grand Canal of Venice becomes aware of the riches accumulated in the trade of the Indian spices. However, it goes without saying that the margin of profit changed in the course of time. Certainly they were very great in the period of the Crusades, both on the Red Sea and in the Mediterranean. In a Judaeo-Arabic letter written in 1134 in Aden by Abū; Zikrī Kōhēn, one reads: ‘If you would have come this year (to Aden), there would have been no need to journey to India. Youngsters came who had never travelled before, who have no knowledge of selling and buying, and those (of them) who had a hundred earned another hundred…and if he were a Muslim—a hundred and fifty’. The riches of the Kārim merchants, who specialized in the spice trade on the Red Sea, were fabulous, if one can believe the Arabic chroniclers. Judging from the Geniza documents, one would be bound to conclude that the profits in the spice trade were much greater than in other branches of trade. But in the later Middle Ages, when it had become a wholesale trade conducted on regular lines, did it still yield returns much greater than other branches of trade and industry? And if this was indeed so, how can one explain the fact that the Levant traders succeeded in maintaining high prices for the Indian commodities destined for mass consumption?

Copyright © School of Oriental and African Studies 1975

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1 Strauss, E., ‘Documents for the study of the economic and social history of the Jews in the Near East’, Zion, vii, 34, 1942, 146.Google Scholar

2 See my paper ‘The Kārimī merchants’, JRAS, 1956, 1–2, pp. 45 ff.

3 Goitein, S. D., A Mediterranean society, i, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1967, 203.Google Scholar

4 Le voyage d'outremer de Jean Thenaud, ed. Schefer, C., Paris, 1884, 27.Google Scholar

5 The Sources quoted most often are:

ASV (Arohivio di Stato, Venice), Giudici di Petiziòn, Sentenze—GP, Sent.

ASV, Cancellaria inferiore, Notai, ba. 230, Nicolo Venier—Nio. Venier.

ASV, PSM (Procuratori di S. Marco), Commissarie miste, ba. 180, 181, Com. Biegio Dolfin—Dolfin.

ASV, PSM, ba. 116, 117, Com. Alvise Baseggio—Baseggio.

ASV, Miscellanea di carte non appartenenti ad alcun archivio—Carte di ness. arch.

Melis, F., Documenti per la storia economica dei secoli xiii-xvi, Firenze, 1972—Melis, Doc.

6 See my paper ‘Quelques problèmes que soulève l'histoire des prix dans l'Orient médiéval’, in Mémorial Gaston Wiet, Jerusalem, 1975, ch. ii.Google Scholar

7 E. Rossi and P. M. Arcari, ‘I prezzi a Genova dal xii al xv secolo’, La Vita Economica Italiana, Ser. iii, An. viii, 1933, 72 f.

8 For the meaning of the name, see Heyd, W., Histoire du commerce du Levant, Leipzig 18851886, II, 619 f.Google Scholar

9 See GP, Sent., 51, f. 17b f.

10 See my Histoire des prix, 338.

11 Melis, F., ‘Werner Sombart e i problemei della navigazione nel Medio evo’, in L'opera di Werner Sombart nel centenario della nascita, Milano, 1964, 124, 143.Google Scholar

12 Heers, J., Gênes au XVe siècle, Paris, 1961, 312; Melis, art. cit., 135.Google Scholar

13 Melis, art. cit., 137.

14 ASV, Senato Mar, iii, f. 140a, v, f. 152b, 154b f.

15 Same series, ii, f. 185a ff., of. iii, f. 23b f., iii, f. 157a, v, f. 152b, 154b ff.

16 GP, Sent., 127, f. 32b.

17 Same series, 117, f. 206a ff., 129, f. 97b ff.

18 Same series, 95, f. 75b f., 107, f. 149b f.

19 Same series, 70, f. 43a, 107, f. 188a ff., 114, f. 161b ff., 129, f. 59b f. (all of these acts referring to pepper); 39, f. 3b ff., 114, f. 75b (ginger); 114, f. 75b (cloves); see further 117, f. 206a ff., 125, f. 142 (spices in general).

20 Same series, 137, f. 6a, 191, f. 24b.

21 Accounts of Tommaso Malipiero, ASV, PSM, Com. m., ba. 161, fasc. vi.

22 GP, Sent., 176, f. la ff.

23 Same series, 71, f. 55a ff.

24 Rightly emphasized by Mallett, M. E., The Florentine galleys, Oxford, 1967, 146, 148.Google Scholar

25 Müller, G., Documenti sulle relazioni delle città toscane coll'Oriente cristiano e coi Turchi, Firenze, 1879, 357 f. (Müller believes that the first of these tariffs was fixed in 1446).Google Scholar

26 Trattato di mercatura d'incerto, MS Laurenziana, Acqu. e doni 13, p. 80. For the exchange rate of the fl. see Cipolla, Cambi, 60.

27 Heers, op. cit., 317, 318.

28 GP, Sent., 10, f. 87a f.

29 Nic. Venier, A, f. 20b f.

30 op. cit., 318.

31 Nie. Venier, B, 2, f. 40a ff.

32 GP, Sent., 93, f. 162a f.; see further GP, Sent., 77, f. 92a ff.

33 op. cit., 113.

34 op. cit., 91.

35 Jorga, N., ‘Notes et extraits pour servir à l'histoire des Croisades au xve siècle’, Revue de l'Orient Latin, iv, 1896, 587, 615;Google ScholarAmari, M., I diplomi arabi del R Archivio Fiorentino, Firenze, 18631867, 189 f., 348 (the ‘ushr and khums in the text quoted on p. 189 f. are perhaps the duty paid to the sultan and the brokerage amounting to 2%).Google Scholar

36 Amari, op. cit., 375, 383; Wansbrough, J., ‘A Mamlūk commercial treaty concluded with the republic of Florence 894/1489’, in Stern, S. M. (ed.), Documents from Islamic chanceries, Oxford, [1966], 64.Google Scholar

37 ‘Secreta fidelium crucis,’ in J. Bongars, Gesta Dei per Francos, pt. ii, Hannover, 1611, 24 f.; Pegolotti, 72 (where one reads that there was an additional fee of 7%). The agreement between the two authors seems to show that Marino Sanuto's statement was not a simple exaggeration, as Amari, p. lxiii, supposed.

38 This assumption is corroborated by the difference between the general impost in Alexandria, as reported by Pegolotti, loc. cit., viz. 20%, and by Uzzano, see above. In general, at the end of the Middle Ages the duties collected by the sultan were lower than in earlier times, see Amari loc. cit. There is no reason to believe, as did de Mas Latrie, Histoire de Chypre, Paris, 18521882, ii, 320, that Pegolotti's text should be corrected by amending 20% to 10. The duty of 20% indeed corresponds to the Khums, and some trading nations, such as the Pisans and North Africans, always paid 16–18%; see Heyd, ii, 450.Google Scholar

39 op. cit., 90 f.

40 Wansbrough, J., ‘Venice and Florence in the Mamluk commercial privileges,’ BSOAS, xxviii, 3, 1965, 495, 496.Google Scholar

41 Amari, op. cit., 366; Wansbrough, ‘Venice and Florence’, 490, 502 (translation, 514).

42 Jorga, ‘Notes et extraits’, Rev. Or. Lat., iv, 1896, 553; Wansbrough, art. cit., 491, 502 f.

43 Jorga, ‘Notes et extraits’, Rev. Or. Lat., viii, 1900–1, 56.

44 Dolfin, ba. 181, fasc. 23; GP, Sent., 19, f. 66a f., 32, f. 72a, 54, f. 70b ff., 75, f. 43a, 83, f. 186b ff. (189a), 93, f. 171b, 95, f. 95a ff., 117, f. 206a ff., 123, f. 49a ff., 133, f. 39b if.; Baseggio, ba. 117.

45 GP, Sent., 150, f. 71b ff.

46 ASV, Senato Mar, I, f. 125a f.

47 Dolfin, ba. 181, fasc. 23; ASV, Senato Mar, v, f. 99a.

48 Accounts of the Priuli family, Museo Correr (Venice), MS Tron-Donà, Prov. div. 912/1, sub 4 May 1511.

49 GP, Sent., 170, f. 30a ff., 32a ff.; Dolfin Dolfin was a merchant in Damascus, see ASV, Cancellaria inferiore, Notai, ba. 83, Cristoforo del Fiore, v, f. 13b f., 14a f. (1456), vi, f. [7b] (1461).

50 Carte di ness, arch., ba. 8; GP, Sent., 51, f. 17b f., 107, f. 154b ff., 106, f. 97b ff., 117, f. 53b ff., 132, f. 38a ff.; Baseggio, ba. 117.

51 GP, Sent., 97, f. 116b ff.

52 ‘Bastardi’ were a kind of cloth probably first produced in England, and then in Florence and Padua, see Melis, Doc., 188. The panni di fontego and cloth of Brescia were cheap kinds. Panni di Pollana were perhaps cloth from Saint-Pol, a district in the Pas-de-Calais, see Espinas, G., La draperie dans la Flandre française au Moyen Âge, Paris, 1923, II, tableau ii.Google Scholar

53 GP, Sent., 32, f. 56b ff., 34, f. 37a ff., 95, f. 95a ff., 117, f. 206a ff., 119, f. 31b ff., 176, f. 101b; Cristoforo del Fiore, fasc. vi, f. [4a] f.; Baseggio, ba. 117.

54 Heers, op. cit., 319.

55 Cristoforo del Fiore I, f. lb f.; GP, Sent., 52, f. 85b f., 150, f. 71b ff.; Baseggio, ba. 117.

56 op. cit., 142.

57 GP, Sent., 107, f. 154b ff., 117, f. 53b ff.

58 Uzzano, 22;‘Estratto nuovo delle mercatantie e cosa che pagano le gabelle’, MS Lauren-ziana, Antinori 26, f. 20b, 25b. 32b, and see f. llb, the date 1465. For the exchange rate of the silver coins see Cipolla, Cambi, 61.

59 op. cit., 127 f.

60 GP, Sent., 74, f. 128b ff.

61 Probably this was a kind of cloth first produced in England, cf. p. 267, n. 52. The name is perhaps an italianized form of ‘lowest’, see Melis, Doc., 318, ‘lovesti’ or, more probably, comes from the town Lowestoft.

62 GP, Sent., 117, f. 206a ff.

63 Same series, 180, f. 69b ff.

64 Same series, 106, f. 66b ff.

65 Same series, 79, f. 115a ff.

66 Same series, 76, f. 47a.

67 Same series, 96, f. 106b f.

68 Same series, 75, f. 43a.

69 Same series, 191, f. 23b ff.

70 Quoted by F. C. Lane, art. cit., 590 f.

71 MS Museo Correr, Tron-Donà, Prov. div. 912/1.

72 GP, Sent., 175, f. 22a ff.

73 According to the famous speech of Tommaso Mocenigo, 1423, the profits of the Venetian traders amounted to 20% on the average; see Marino Sanuto, ‘Vite de’ duchi’, in Muratori, xxii, col. 959. If this estimate was correct, it proves that the profits in the Levant trade were greater than in other branches of Venice's trade.

74 GP, Sent., 84, f. 44b ff., 100, f. 6a ff.

75 Same series, 127, f. 27b ff.

76 Same series 52, f. 9a, a lawsuit pleaded on 12 Sept. 1429.

77 Melis, Doc., 190, 318 (erroneously dirh.); Cristoforo del Fiore, i, f. 16a ff.

78 op. cit., 104.

79 Archivio di Stato Prato, Quaderni di charichi e prezzi, 1171; Heers, J., ‘Il commercio nel Mediterraneo alia fine del see. xiv e nei primi anni del xv’, Archivio Storico Italiano, cxiii, 1955, 201;Google Scholar Uzzano, 111. In the Datini lists prices are given in dirhams; for the conversion in dinars see my Les métaux précieux et la balance des payments du Proche Orient à la basse époque, Paris, 1971, 49.Google Scholar

80 See Sprandel, R., ‘Le commerce du fer en Méditerranée orientale au Moyen Âge’, in Sociétés et compagnies de commerce en Orient el dans l'Océan indien. Actes du 8éme colloque international d'hisloire maritime, Paris, 1970, 391.Google Scholar

81 See Sprandel loc. cit.; however, Melis, ‘Werner Sombart’, 122, concludes from the same source (Pegolotti) that it amounted to 12·9%.

82 The book of Ser Marco Polo, ed. Yule, H., London, 1921, ii, 299.Google Scholar

83 See Ashtor, Histoire des prix, 423.

84 Melis, Doc., 186.

85 GP, Sent., 190, f. 176b ff.

86 Same series, 188, f. 62b.

87 Romano, R., Tenenti, A., Tucci, U., ‘Venise et la route du Cap: 1491–1517’, in Mediterraneo e Oceano Indiano. Atti del vi colloquio internazionale di storia marittima, Firenze, 1970, 128. However, according to C. Carrère, the Catalan merchants had much smaller profits, viz. 10–15%; see ‘Barcelone et le commerce de l'Orient à la fin du Moyen Âge’, in Sociétés et compagnies, 369.Google Scholar

88 Davidsohn, E., Forschungen zur Geschichte von Florenz, Berlin, 18961908, iii, 200 ff.Google Scholar

89 Davidsohn, R., Geschichte von Florenz, Berlin, 18961927, iv, 246.Google Scholar

90 Melis, F., Aspetti delta vita economica medievale, Siena, 1962, 608 f., 614 f., 623.Google Scholar

91 See Ashtor, , ‘La découverte de la voie maritime aux Īndes et les prix des épices’, in Mélanges en l'honneur de F. Braudel, Toulouse, 1973, 1, 38 ff.Google Scholar

92 See R.-H. Bautier, ‘Les relations économiques des occidentaux avec les pays d'Orient, au Moyen Âge, points de vue et documents’, in Sociétés et compagnies, 300 f. The author of the paper does not succeed in attempting to prove that Oriental commodities were cheaper than the European. He concludes, e.g., from the data quoted by Heers, ‘Il commercio,’ 201, 205, from the price lists of Damascus at the end of the fourteenth century, that European iron was more expensive than pepper. But the price of iron quoted there is that of a Damascus qinṭār, just as is that of the spices. On the date to which Bautier refers, 8 April 1396, pepper cost 2000 dirhams, iron—1300. See also my remarks in Recent literature on Levantine trade’, Journal of European Economic History, II, 1973, 198.Google Scholar

93 Libra di cucina del secolo xiv, a cura di A. Consiglio, Roma, n.d., 54.Google Scholar

94 op cit., 57.

95 op. cit., 28.

96 op. cit., 31.

97 op. cit., 117.

98 See Ashtor, , ‘Venetian supremacy in the Levantine trade—monopoly or precolonialism’, Journ. Europ. Econ. Hist., iii, 1974, 5 ff.Google Scholar

99 Romano and others, art. cit., 122 ff. The authors of the paper refer to the exorbitant price which the Venetians asked for their pepper in 1501. They probably did this because of the rise in prices in Egypt (as against these of the preceding years).

100 Jorga, ‘Notes et extraits’, Rev. Or. Lot., iv, 1896, 599, v, 1897, 343 f., vi, 1898, 71, vii, 1899, 42 f., viii, 1900–1, 8, 35 f., 38 f., 56 f.

101 ASV, Senate Mar, iii, f. 103b.

102 ASV, Giudici di Petiziòn, Terminazioni, 11, f. 27b ff.

103 GP, Sent., 75, f. 76b ff. (a lawsuit pleaded on 2 May 1437).

104 Same series, 83, f. 186b ff.

105 Same series, 104, f. 84b ff.

106 Same series, 178, f. 36a.

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