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Barcelone et le grand commerce d'Orient au Moyen Âge

Damien Coulon

Résumés, index et tables


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1This book analyses the role played by the port of Barcelona from 1330 to around 1430 in general Mediterranean trade, with particular reference to the spice trade, which passed through the Mameluk empire —that is, Egypt and Syria/Palestine. Heretofore, historiography has tended to highlight the role of the great Italian metropolises, especially Venice and Genoa, in Levantine trade; and yet, Barcelona was easily comparable to these two great Italian ports during the period discussed.

2The first part of the book looks at the relative weights of the elements influencing this trade, above all papal policy. From the hypothetical standpoint of the crusade, the papacy in theory forbade all dealings with the Mameluk state, but in practice it tolerated these and in return exacted penalties; these soon became de facto licence payments, which the Avignon Popes churned out to make the most of what they perceived as a ready source of revenue.

3The second factor conditioning trade with the Levant was the diplomatic activity of the Crown of Aragon. The Aragonese sovereigns in fact sought to protect this highly lucrative trade, likewise seeking to profit from such providential manna by means of taxes; initially, following the example of the papacy, these were levied in the form of fines as a sop to the papal power. From the reign of Jaime II to that of Ferdinand I (1291-1416), the Aragonese monarchs thus took care to maintain good relations with the Mameluk sultans and to smooth over the inevitable disputes between traders of the two nations, so that Catalan merchants might continue to pursue their fructiferous business. However, with Alfonso the Magnanimous (1416-1458), this policy shifted to a more aggressive stance vis-à-vis the Mameluk sultans, who also sought to profit from the trade by arbitrary imposition of numerous taxes. The attitude of the Aragonese sovereigns became considerably more restrictive and authoritarian in general, not excluding Catalan merchants. This toughening of policy can largely be explained by the determination of Alfonso V to carry out his ambitious plans of conquest in the Mediterranean, for which he needed the financial aid of the business class and the tactical support of their merchant fleet. The king occasionally met with opposition from the merchants, and also from the city councillors of Barcelona, who likewise sought to exercise control over the eastward expansion of trade by appointing Catalan consuls at Alexandria and Damas. Tensions between the sovereign and the city authorities surfaced towards the end of the reign of Pedro the Ceremonious (1336-1387), for example over control of the tax levied on trade with the Mameluk empire for the construction and upkeep of Barcelona’s naval dockyards.

4This first part closes with a study of the merchant fleet and conditions of navigation. The study shows that very large vessels were used until the mid-13th century and smaller vessels thereafter, and that galleys were also used, although more rarely. The records of sea routes reveal a veritable network of ports of call and suggest that the pace and customs of navigation were essentially much like those of the other great trading metropolises. Finally, records of pursuits and piracy show that the Catalan navigators who sailed to Egypt or Syria were sometimes aggressors and sometimes victims, resulting in endless rounds of reprisals with other trading nations. Nevertheless such incidents, although increasingly frequent, never completely halted the flow of trade between the two shores of the Mediterranean.

5The second part of the book, dealing with the actual trade, begins with an analysis of the trading techniques used; these were characterised by widespread use of maritime commendas, which entailed a constant toing-and-froing of itinerant merchants between Barcelona and the Mameluk lands. Also, the first premium insurance contracts made their appearance at the start of the 15th century and came into general use in the course of the 1420s, largely through the influence of Italian merchants in Barcelona. An examination of the capital sums invested reveals major fluctuations reflecting the various phases of a virtually complete economic cycle: expansion, crisis, depression, then recovery. Investments reached a respectable level during the 1340s —doubtless thanks to a shift in the great trade routes which brought Egypt and Syria to the fore following the break-up of the Mongol empire, whose unity had formerly permitted the establishment of trade routes through the centre of Asia. However, the following decade saw a sharp fall in the average level of Catalan capital investment in the Levant, largely as a consequence of the plague epidemics which then assailed the Mediterranean basin and Europe in general, with all its demographic and economic repercussions. This state of extreme depression was further aggravated by the conflicts between the crowns of Aragon and Castile (1356-1375) and the raid on Alexandria by the King of Cyprus in 1365. However, starting in the 1370s, the average level of capital investment slowly but surely recovered, regaining the levels of the 1340s by the end of the 14th century and considerably outgrowing them in the course of the 1430s.

6From the large number of commenda contracts scrutinised, it is possible to determine exactly what goods were exported to Egypt and Syria by the Catalans. The main commodity by far was cloth; indeed, the scale of exports to Near Eastern markets caused a slump in Levantine textile production. Besides cloth —a medium-quality and relatively inexpensive product— precious goods were also exported. First came silver, in the form of ingots, coins or plate; however, this was very short-lived (until the 1340s) as the Sardinian deposits under Catalan-Aragonese control (the main sources of these exports) were very quickly exhausted. Then came coral, exports of which commenced later (end of the 14th century) but lasted much longer (until the civil war of 1462-1472). The successive exportation of these two kinds of luxury goods were a significant factor in rising investment levels, further helping explain the upturns in trade described earlier. Numerous other commodities were exported, including saffron, less valuable foodstuffs such as honey, nuts and oil, or again furs and antimony. Such is the abundance of hard data that in some cases it is possible to compile price series and discern fluctuations.

7As regards imports, on the other hand, these contracts, drawn up before the merchants’ departure, are far less enlightening. The commendas furnish no precise information about quantities, so that series cannot be compiled in such detail as in the case of exports. Nonetheless, it is quite clear what products were brought from the East, and it is even possible to classify the different spices by order of importance. The most abundant is pepper, although it is on occasions surpassed by the various kinds of ginger; next come cinnamon and cloves. Sugar imports slumped sharply from the end of the 14th century with the expansion of sugar cane cultivation in regions closer to Catalonia such as Sicily or South-East Spain. The list of spices imported to Barcelona by the Catalans is very long, including condiments, colourings and medicinal articles. Because of the shortage of exact data on imported goods, it is not at all easy to give a precise reckoning of the trade balance between Barcelona and the Mameluk Near East.

8The third and last part deals with the human element in this intercourse with the Levant. An analysis of geographic and social origins reveals widely differing profiles: merchants were of course very numerous in this business, but we also find courtiers, bankers, apothecaries, drapers, furriers and many other occupations besides. However, there is a clearly perceptible and rapid trend towards uniformity in favour of merchants; this reflects a process of «professionalisation» which is surely directly connected with the observed increase in average capital investment in the trade. Thus, individuals of modest means who also hazarded sums on the lucrative trade with Egypt and Syria gradually faded from the scene. On the other hand, the rich businessmen who exercised ever tighter control over trade with the Mameluk empire belonged to the elite merchant class of Barcelona and were frequently members of a consultative body known as the Consell de Cent (Council of the Hundred). For the latter, then, the Levantine trade, as the source of their wealth, was a means to social advancement. They did not however occupy positions of command in the city; these were effectively monopolised by an oligarchic group which jealously guarded its own privileges and was opposed at that time to the commercial ethos of the merchants. The tension between these rival social groups would progressively augment, culminating in the civil war of 1462-1472.

9The vast majority of players in the Levantine trade were citizens of Barcelona, including active minorities, initially Jews and later conversos (after the pogroms of 1391); there were also some women, frequently the wives or widows of merchants. The second largest group in numerical terms were Catalans from other towns, most notably Perpignan. Traders from elsewhere in the Kingdom of Aragon were relatively few, at least according to the sources; however, as these are predominantly from Barcelona, it is difficult to arrive at any exact estimate of the numbers of Mallorcans and Valencians involved. Be that as it may, according to these sources there were years in which Italians —particularly Genoese and Florentines— outnumbered the first three groups in the trade between Barcelona and the Mameluk empire. There are only odd instances of participation by merchants from the south of France, but it was not uncommon for merchants in Marseilles to consign large quantities of merchandise on ships departing from Barcelona.

10Finally, additional sources show that the influence of the Catalans residing in Egypt and Syria as a community was very small, unlike those of the Genoese and Venetians, who could count on support from their local factors, The lack of correspondents explains why in trading with the Levant, Barcelona merchants so often resorted to commenda contracts —that is, single-voyage contracts whereby the backers placed their goods in the hands of itinerant merchants who were constantly travelling back and forth— whereas other trading nations (and the Catalans themselves in trade with other parts of the world) used more modern and flexible commercial techniques.

11Be that as it may, throughout the period considered here, Barcelona was most certainly a major economic nucleus and a dominant, cohesive force in key parts of the Mediterranean area in the same way as Venice and Genoa, which are frequently cited as the founders of modern mercantile capitalism and of a «world-system» as conceived by Fernand Braudel. Internal social tensions were undoubtedly the principal weak point of Barcelona and were largely responsible for the outbreak of the civil war that ravaged the city from 1462 to 1472, bringing an end to a brilliant period of trade expansion.

© Casa de Velázquez, 2004

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