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Housing the Stranger in the Mediterranean World: Lodging, Trade, and Travel in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages

Author(s):Constable, Olivia Remie
Reviewer(s):Greif, Avner

Published by EH.NET (July 2005)

Olivia Remie Constable, Housing the Stranger in the Mediterranean World: Lodging, Trade, and Travel in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xii + 427 pp. $65 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-521-81918-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Avner Greif, Department of Economics, Stanford University.

Building on her impressive command over historical sources — particularly in Latin, Arabic, and Spanish — Constable has produced an interesting book about the ways in which travelers were housed, particularly those involved in trade in the Mediterranean world in late antiquity and the middle ages. The discussion centers on the classical Muslim funduq (a structure in which, generally speaking, travelers resided, stored their goods, traded, and were often taxed). The book also examines in impressive detail the funduq’s origins in the ancient world, its importance to European trade in Muslim lands, its adoption in various European states (where it was often called fondacos), and its relationship to other lodging facilities. The book provides a wealth of information regarding the particularities of the different histories of funduqs and fondacos in various areas. It also reaches some general conclusions: the importance of the funduq, in its various forms, in fostering cross-cultural exchange, how it was shaped by rulers’ interests in trade and changing economic and political circumstances, and that late medieval European fondacos in Muslim states were not, as one might intuitively expect, precursors of colonization.

The short introduction states the purpose of the book, emphasizing that the Mediterranean world constituted one economic unit for much of the period from the fall of the Roman empire to the rise of the early modern empires. Yet, relatively little work has been devoted to the actual means that enabled people to live away from their homelands while traveling around the Mediterranean. Chapter 1 discusses the nature, functions, and history of the pandocheion (meaning, ‘accepting all comers’) from the first to the seventh centuries, highlighting its particular prevalence in the Syrian area of the Byzantine empire. In this historical episode, the pandocheion was mainly a paid lodging establishment and was not particularly devoted to commerce. Chapters 2 and 3 discuss the transformation of the pandocheion into the funduq during and after the emergence of the Muslim empire. These chapters discuss how, from the seventh to the thirteenth centuries, the funduq became the characteristic establishment from Syria to Spain, where it began to increasingly serve as a lodging for pilgrims and traveling merchants. As such, it evolved into a place to also store goods, and thus became an important resource for rulers who wished to direct, control, and benefit from trade. Funduqs specialized in dealing with particular goods, merchants from specific localities, and pilgrims. Interestingly, the Byzantine pandocheion was influenced by these developments in the Muslim world and changed its form and function in the same manner.

Chapter 4 discusses the establishment of European fondacos in Muslim areas during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. A fondaco in a Muslim state functioned like a funduq, but was dedicated to the accommodation of merchants from a particular European “nation,” such as Genoa, Venice, or Catalan. Christian merchants, who came from outside the Muslim world, presented new problems regarding security, religious freedom, interactions with locals, the law, control of the establishment, etc.. The chapter presents the mitigating responses to these problems which were crucial to enabling trade between Europe and the Muslim world during this period.

Chapters 5 and 6 consider the implications of the European conquest of previously Muslim areas in Spain, Sicily, and the Crusaders’ States. These chapters emphasize that because the new rulers’ recognized the importance of the funduqs in facilitating, controlling, and taxing trade, they incorporated them into their economic administration. This implied various changes in the ownership and nature of the funduqs, which, in particularly, were increasingly owned by the crown.

Chapters 7 and 8 discuss the relative decline, particularly from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, of the funduqs in the Muslim states. It argues that two forces contributed to this trend, and to the rise of alternative establishments such as khans and wakalas. The first is political change, changes in trade routes, and greater oversight of commerce by the state. The second is the increasing association of funduqs with non-Muslim traders. The movement away from the funduqs was less pronounced in North Africa, and the chapters discuss the sources of this distinct development. Chapter 9 returns to the adoption of the fondaco in areas of the European Mediterranean that traded with the Muslim world but did not have a Muslim residence for visiting traders. In these areas — northern Italy, southern France, and the Dalmatian coast — fondacos were established from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. Because merchants in these areas shared the same religion, by and large, these fondacos did not provide lodging. They served only as places to store, tax, and control trade; trading activities were conducted in alternative commercial spaces such as the loggia. The short conclusion emphasizes the importance of the pandocheions, funduqs, and fondacos as facilitators of cross-cultural exchange and that the European fondacos in Muslim lands were not precursors for colonization but represented a distinct trading system.

This book will be an asset to any economic historian interested in the mechanism through which long-distance, pre-modern trade was actually conducted. It is rich in illuminating details regarding the location, size, administration and function of the pandocheions and their later derivatives in the Muslim and European worlds. The overall analysis, however, is guided by tracing particular terms in the historical records. Focusing on terms rather than on issues (e.g., storing goods, residing abroad, controlling trade, etc.) limits the benefits of the analysis. The reader is left without a comprehensive understanding of the broader phenomenon that motivated this study, namely, the means by which cross-cultural movements of people and goods were facilitated. There were substitutes for the funduqs in the Muslim world and there were other establishments that hosted foreigners in European political units. How do the pandocheions and their derivatives fit into this broader picture? Constable is well aware of the limitations of her study and provides some discussion of alternatives to the funduqs in the Muslim world (e.g., the khan). Hopefully, future comparable studies on these alternative establishments will enable us to better understand the pandocheion and its derivatives in a broader context. Constable’s contribution is a first promising step in this direction.

Avner Greif’s publications include “A Theory of Endogenous Institutional Change,” (with David Laitin) American Political Science Review (2004) and “Cultural Beliefs and the Organization of Society: Historical and Theoretical Reflection on Collectivist and Individualist Societies,” Journal of Political Economy (1994). His book, Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade, will be published by Cambridge University Press.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):Medieval