Late Middle Ages - Trade and Commerce

Trade and Commerce

Medieval Merchant Routes

The increasingly dominant position of the Ottoman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean presented an impediment to trade for the Christian nations of the west, who in turn started looking for alternatives. Portuguese and Spanish explorers found new trade routes – south of Africa to India, and across the Atlantic Ocean to America. As Genoese and Venetian merchants opened up direct sea routes with Flanders, the Champagne fairs lost much of their importance.

At the same time, English wool export shifted from raw wool to processed cloth, resulting in losses for the cloth manufacturers of the Low Countries. In the Baltic and North Sea, the Hanseatic League reached the peak of their power in the 14th century, but started going into decline in the fifteenth.

In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, a process took place – primarily in Italy but partly also in the Empire – that historians have termed a 'commercial revolution'. Among the innovations of the period were new forms of partnership and the issuing of insurance, both of which contributed to reducing the risk of commercial ventures; the bill of exchange and other forms of credit that circumvented the canonical laws for gentiles against usury, and eliminated the dangers of carrying bullion; and new forms of accounting, in particular double-entry bookkeeping, which allowed for better oversight and accuracy.

With the financial expansion, trading rights became more jealously guarded by the commercial elite. Towns saw the growing power of guilds, while on a national level special companies would be granted monopolies on particular trades, like the English wool Staple. The beneficiaries of these developments would accumulate immense wealth. Families like the Fuggers in Germany, the Medicis in Italy, the de la Poles in England, and individuals like Jacques Coeur in France would help finance the wars of kings, and achieve great political influence in the process.

Though there is no doubt that the demographic crisis of the 14th century caused a dramatic fall in production and commerce in absolute terms, there has been a vigorous historical debate over whether the decline was greater than the fall in population. While the older orthodoxy was that the artistic output of the Renaissance was a result of greater opulence, more recent studies have suggested that there might have been a so-called 'depression of the Renaissance'. In spite of convincing arguments for the case, the statistical evidence is simply too incomplete that a definite conclusion can be made.

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