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The Local Merchants of Prato: Small Entrepreneurs in the Late Medieval Economy

Author(s):Marshall, Richard K.
Reviewer(s):Court, Russell Ives

Published by EH.NET (November 1999)

Richard K. Marshall. The Local Merchants of Prato: Small Entrepreneurs in

the Late Medieval Economy. The Johns Hopkins University Studies in

Historical and Political Science. Baltimore and London:

Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. xxi + 191pp. Tables, notes, bibliography

and index.

$42.50 (cloth), ISBN 0-8018-6057-1.

Reviewed for H-Business and EH.NET by Russell Ives Court, Department of

History, University of California, Los Angeles.

Upsetting the Apple Cart: Questioning our presumptions about pre-modern


Mr. Marshall’s monograph seems marginal, judging from the title. Yet this is

precisely his point. In the long and distinguished historiography of Medieval

economic history, it appeared that such big names as Melis, De Roover, Sapori,

Cipolla, etc. had written the book on the lack of sophistication of all but the

very elite of the Medieval world. Until late into the pre-modern period, in

Melis’s figuration, small

merchants and laborers restricted their business to “the money lying idle in

his cash box,” which “even if modest, was always sufficient for the

acquisitions and other needs of his business, which was based on tradition.”

Marshall tells us that his motivation for presenting us this study is to widen

the debate on the origins of credit. Great merchants, argued Melis, must have

seen the utility of credit, providing a ready source of capital while not tying

it up for long periods. Marshall claims a reason for the appearance of running

credit in the fourteenth century was its widespread use at all strata of

society. Marshall’s volume is based on his study of forty-five account books of

seventeen different petty tradesmen, found in the Archivio di Pratos famous F.

Datini Archive — a collection unparalleled in any other archive. The small

entrepreneurs include three druggists, two cheese mongers, two small-time cloth

merchants, a second-hand dealer, a broker, a sheerer, a tailor, a shirt-maker,

a grain dealer

and the partnerships of two bricklayers, a family of innkeepers and a butchery.

Economic sophistication and flexibility existed at all levels of Medieval


while all levels of this economy were fully monetized and integrated. The

universal use of all types of specie, unsecured loans and money of account

supports this contention. The book provides a counterpoint to the study of

elites and calls for a more organic study of Medieval economic life.

The Local Merchants of Prato is divided into seven chapters within two

sections and includes a foreword by Marco Spallanzani of the Istituto di Storia

Economica at the University of Florence. After a short introduction to the

local history of Prato, the first of the two sections sets the scene with a

reconstruction of the local economic landscape of Quattrocento Prato. Of

particular interest is the examination of a wide range of consumer prices,

salaries and net-worths of many of the tradesmen. In the first three chapters,

“Way of Life,” “The Conduct of Business,” and “An Independent Broker and a

Family of Innkeepers,” Marshall attempts to reconstruct the business climate

from fragmentary documentation, which paints a spotty picture at best, as cash

transactions are rarely noted in the ledgers. The effort

is admirable, and even though the author tells us it is not his goal, I would

have liked to see an effort to reconcile this picture of Prato’s petty economy

to more traditionally examined sectors.

This would offer a mediated view of the economy from which

we could better perceive the main thrust of the book. As per the author’s

expressed hope,

the examples he provides will no doubt stimulate a re-examination of older

historiography, which was based more on explaining the genesis of modern day


than is Marshall’s examination of the human experience.

The second section of the book, entitled “Business Practices,” lays out a far

more compelling analysis. In “Bookkeeping,” Marshall asserts that contrary to

popular belief, petty merchants kept writ ten accounts. One might think that

accounts books served to evaluate tactics. These merchants might have extracted

something from these poorly kept registers. Yet there is little evidence that

they produced balance sheets. Further, they logged very few cash transactions,

the very milieu in which Melis, Cipolla Saponi et al assumed they operated. The

raison d’etre of these books is to register a variety of petty loans and credit

transactions. The rich documentation explores down payments for supplies,

advances on laborers salaries, the commonality of pawning, purchases on credit,

both with and without guarantor, and many other unexpected devices. Such credit

transactions reveal a wider range of sophistication, as well as complexity

unappreciated by older studies. The remaining two chapters, “A World of

Credit” and “Trust and Loans,” make a convincing case for a rethinking of

pre-modern economy as a whole. They do this through diverse examples over a

significant span of time. Although the author shies away

from placing traders’ activities firmly into the greater context. Marshall does

not deem it his task to rewrite Medieval economic history. Regardless, the

author could have better situated the study within the greater context. As a

result, the reader is at a loss to gauge the importance of these petty

traders. After all, there were few of them — the elite of the non elite.

The Local Merchants of Prato leaves the impression that

Marshall is the

first to doubt the older historiography. His bibliography

seems strangely dated, given the task he has set himself. He makes no reference

to Berlow,

Reyerson, Pryor, Greif, and offers limited readings from Lopez. All of these

historians that have addressed the complexity of Medieval traders far down on

the food

chain. Marshalls great success is his introduction of a hitherto ignored

collection of ledgers which may have changed Melis point of view, had he seen

them. Placing them into an organic context, Marshall sheds light on one source

of the great financial innovation of the fourteenth century. Marshall might

have gone even further to suggest that we treat the historical object, rather

than look ceaselessly for origins that transformed us from Medieval clods into

the sophisticated, dynamic folks we are today.

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval