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Real and Imaginary Travels 16th-18th centuries

Anne Bandry-Scubbi
Rémi Vuillemin

Travelling,Trade and Identity

“Bearing the Adventure of the Seas”

Seafaring and the Figure of the Merchant in the Early Modern Imagination

Anne-Kathrin Marquardt


« Qui est ici le marchand, et qui le Juif ? » demande Portia dans Le Marchand de Venise. La question suggère une certaine difficulté à distinguer entre marchand et usurier, entre des façons morales ou immorales d’employer l’argent. Elle revient à demander: qu’est-ce qu’un marchand, et qu’est-ce qui rend sa profession différente d’autres formes d’activités financières ? En s’appuyant sur des traités économiques de la Renaissance anglaise, notamment ceux de Gerard Malynes (1585-1641), l’on démontrera que le voyage en mer est la caractéristique essentielle qui définit l’activité marchande. La navigation est le grand risque du commerce, et permet d’afficher sa soumission à la Providence divine – ce dont l’usurier, toujours assuré de sa fortune, est bien incapable. « Courir l’aventure des mers », semble-t-il, est ce qui définit le marchand comme un personnage de bonnes mœurs, qui emploie son argent d’une manière moralement acceptable pour un bon Chrétien.

Texte intégral

1In the early modern imagination, one of the defining characteristics of the merchant is that he is a traveller. Trips to foreign trading posts could last for months or even years. According to Thomas Mun (1571-1641) for instance, the merchant “ought as he is a Traveller, and sometimes abiding in forraign Countreys to attain to the speaking of divers Languages” (Mun, 1664:7). After all, the famous Exchange of Antwerp bore the inscription “ad usum mercatorum cujusque gentis ac linguae”: “to the use of merchants of whatever nation and tongue.”

2What is at stake is the position of the merchant in the society of his time. Is he a good Christian who shows his faith in God? Or is he a morally reprehensible character, whose use of money places him on a par with other detested figures such as usurers? How do merchants deal with their “embarras de richesses,” riches that come from trade and travel? The aim of this paper will be to show how merchants, seeking to counter attacks levelled at them, put travel at the centre of their project to give their trade a good name.

  • 1 “Daher auch ettliche unter den kauffleuten aufferwacht und gewar worden sind / das unter yhrem hand (...)

3Very often, in writings inspired by religious themes, merchants and usurers are lumped in one category, together with any other profession that deals with money, and represented as immoral. The title of Martin Luther’s (1483-1546) On Trade and Usury shows the association between merchants and usurers; the text explains that almost all merchants are sinners. “Thus many merchants have opened their eyes and become aware that their trading habits include many a wicked ruse and detrimental financial practice, and that it must be feared that it is as Ecclesiasticus says, that merchants can hardly be without sin” (Luther, 1524: sig. A2).1

4More specifically, merchants were often criticised as travellers for their perceived lack of loyalty to one specific country. A good example may be found in the writings of the schoolmaster John Wharton (active in the 1570s), who recounts his “dream” of hell. Like Dante’s Inferno, this vision includes a list of the people he finds punished for their sins, especially merchants:

Next lowring in place where they,
whom Marchaunts we do cal:
for synful sinne they used:
Whenas they dyd inioy this worlde,
and Natiue soyle abusde.
[…] as felons, them we coumpt
for sinne more worse and base.
Because that Countries theyrs they robd,
an other to enritch (Wharton, 1578: sig.

5The idea that merchants “abuse their native soil,” doing business where there is most to be gained without taking regional or national ties of loyalty into account, was very common, and even goes beyond writings inspired by religious themes. This becomes particularly visible in the rivalry between the Dutch and the English. Mun, even though we just saw him encourage merchants to learn foreign languages, is hardly a friend of the Dutch: “So that we may truly say of the Dutch, that although they are amongst us, yet certainly they are not of us, no not they who are born and bred here in our own Countrey, for stil they will be Dutch, not having so much as one drop of English bloud in their hearts” (Mun, 1664: 205-6).

  • 2 Malynes himself, in his texts, refers to the English when he uses “us”, and refers to the Dutch whe (...)

6The words “they who are born and bred here” could be read as an allusion to Gerard Malynes (?-1641), another merchant. Malynes2 was of Dutch origin but lived in London and wrote in English. Others often accused him of proposing policies that would benefit the Dutch. His double identity thus made him a focus for the anxiety caused by people living in-between two cultures. More generally speaking, Mun’s accusations point at the difficulty of reconciling the need to be in contact with foreigners and the fear of becoming disloyal to one’s origins. The latter concern is to be understood in the context of mercantilist economics, which stressed the importance of national wealth.

  • 3 Note that “traffic” has neutral connotations and is synonymous with “trade”.

7The treatises of merchants need to be seen in the context of these religious attacks. They can be read as justifications of their professional activity, giving reasons why this represents a morally acceptable use of money. Despite the aforementioned suspicions, travel thus becomes an essential aspect of the project of portraying merchants as positive figures. Seafaring, and the risk it entails, is connected with the idea of submitting to God’s Providence, turning merchants as seafarers into good Christians. In the writings of merchants, the allegory of the “Ship of traffique”3 is recurrent. Malynes uses it when discussing bankruptcy:

  • 4 To give only two more examples, a longer version of the allegory of the ship of traffic exists (Mal (...)

that Merchant which in the storms of aduersitie, sheweth to be a good pilot, deserueth great commendation of the care and endeuours which he vseth to preuent the ship-wrecke of his reputation and credit, especially with a good conscience, which will be vnto him a continuall feast, although the seas be turbulent, for he is armed with patience, and not destitute of comfort (Malynes, 1622a: 222)4

8Such a depiction of the merchant as a “pilot” on the seas of “adversity” clearly emphasises the connection between seafaring and risk-taking: ships and their precious cargo can sink; merchandise is bought sight unseen; volatile European markets might annihilate the profit expected from a twoyear journey… That seafaring is used as an allegory of risk-taking in merchant writings is of course no coincidence: merchants are travellers both literally and metaphorically.

9This central concept of risk is encapsulated in the word “adventure”. In early modern English, it is used more or less in the sense of “business venture.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as:

  • 5 A similar meaning exists in French: the expression “à la grosse aventure,” used of a maritime ventu (...)

3.a. Chance of danger or loss; risk, jeopardy, peril.
3.b. In marine insurance: the risk or peril insured against; the period during which a ship, cargo, etc., is considered to be at risk.
7.a. A financial risk or venture; a commercial enterprise; a speculation.

10Malynes often uses the expression “to bear the adventure,” i. e. the risk, of a sea-voyage (Malynes, 1622a: 130). He describes merchants as “those that doe aduenture their goods beyond the Seas, and put out their substance vpon their owne hazard” (Malynes, 1622a: 332). The OED shows that, etymologically, in many European languages, “risk” emerges as “hazards of travel or transport by sea” specifically in a mercantile context during the Middle Ages.

  • 6 The expression comes from “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away” (Job 1:21).
  • 7 The expression seems to come from the story of Abraham, who says “My son, God will provide himself (...)

11The idea that, in overseas trade, a merchant’s capital is exposed to risk, is in turn linked to faith and Providence. According to the adage “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,”6 expounded for instance in medieval Everyman plays, a Christian has to submit to God’s will and accept that He can take away his livelihood at any time. However, solace may be found in the idea that “God will provide.”7 According to Luther, a good Christian accepts loss because he has faith that God will provide for him in the end:

  • 8 “Die vierde weyse ist / keuffen und verkeuffen / und das mit bargelt / odder wahr mit wahr bezalen. (...)

The fourth way is buying and selling, and that with cash or in such a manner that merchandise is paid for with merchandise. He who wishes to use this method must endeavour to keep in mind that he cannot rely on anything in the future, but on God alone, and that he must deal with men who will undoubtedly fail or lie. […] Such a man would be a true Christian merchant, and God would not forsake him, because he trusts Him so implicitly, and because he is happy to take risks and to trade with his unreliable neighbour. (Luther, 1524: sig. C1v)8

  • 9 Muldrew points out that Protestantism, by emphasising a personal relationship with God, influenced (...)

12As historian Craig Muldrew notes, success and profit were interpreted as a result of God’s Providence, rather than personal endeavours. “Evidence from diaries and other personal sources shows that the successful middling sort did indeed rely on trust in God and their neighbours, and not capital, to deal with uncertainties of credit” (Muldrew, 1998: 144).9

13Risk-taking is thus interpreted in a positive light as evidence of faith in God. There are many Biblical precedents justifying such an attitude, the parable of the talents being a case in point (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-26). In the story, a master gives several servants various sums of money. Those who make even more money through trade are rewarded, but the servant who simply keeps the money is punished. Theologian Niels Henrik Gregersen comments:

  • 10 Here and elsewhere, italics belong to the original text.

Similar positive views of risk-taking can be found in many strands of the Jesus tradition […]. The early church consisted of those who had left the sanctuaries of temple, tradition, and national identity. […] Recurring in the biblical traditions is the idea that only the one who is willing to risk a loss will prevail, and only the one who is willing to face uncertainty on the streets of life will find God. […] Expressed in theological terms, the world is created by a benevolent God in such a manner that it invites a risk-taking attitude and rewards it in the long term. (Gregersen, 2003: 368)10

14In their writings, merchants thus underline the importance of risk-taking in their profession, citing it as evidence of reliance on God’s Providence. Facing the “storms of adversity” is presented as a leap of faith. Malynes explicitly connects risk-taking and Providence:

  • 11 There is of course a limit to this risk-taking, which, when excessive, threatens to turn into hubri (...)

to be rich and to become poore, or to be poore and to become rich, is a matter inherent to a Merchants estate, and (as it were) a continuall and successiue course of the volubilitie of variable blind fortune, which is admitted (according to the heathen word) for a distinction of Gods prouidence, as the words of Fate, Destinie, Chaunce, and the like are, for the better vnderstanding of it (Malynes, 1622a: 221)11

15Thus, when one adventures one’s capital on the seas, and risks becoming poor, one submits to God’s will. By highlighting the centrality of risk and divine Providence for their profession, merchants are of course only tapping into a wider tradition which, both in secular and religious documents, associates seafaring, risk-taking and faith in God. Given the huge number of sources that could be quoted on this subject, I shall limit myself to emblem books for the secular aspect, and to Psalms for the religious one.

16Whitney’s emblems depict seafaring as an allegory of changeable fate, where the “gallante ship […] When Seas do rage, is swallowed in the waue.” The readers are warned “To beare in minde how they haue but a time” (Whitney, 1586: 11). Another emblem depicts personified Occasion with the usual attributes of Fortuna, such as the wheel and the half-shaven head. The image shows the goddess precariously balanced on her wheel, which floats on a tempestuous sea where two ships sail (181). A third emblem adds a religious dimension, in which seafaring becomes the metaphor of life’s journey towards heaven. Man’s ship “And here, and there, with varrijng windes is toste.” We are reminded that “whilst that man dothe saile theise worldlie seas,/His voyage shortes” and that reaching heaven is possible: “if he keepe his course directe, he winnes/That wished porte, where lastinge ioye beginnes” (137).

17In the Bible, the storm is a metaphor of God’s ability to take away the possessions of men—but, once they have accepted Providence, the seas are calm once more:

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.
For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.
They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble.
They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’end.
Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses.
He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.
Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven. (Psalms 107:23-30)

18Merchants thus use ideas already present elsewhere about the association between seafaring, risk and Providence. The merchant steering the “Ship of traffique” shows his faith in God as he travels the oceans.

19Even more broadly, merchants often argue that trade and travel, as a form of neighbourliness, are what God wanted for mankind. Edward Misselden (?-1654) writes:

And to the end there should be a Commerce amongst men, it hath pleased God to inuite as it were, one Country to traffique with another, by the variety of things which the One hath, and the other hath not: that so that which is wanting to the One, might be supplied by the Other, that all might haue sufficient.
Which thing the very
Windes and Seas proclaime, in giuing passage to all Nations: the Windes blowing sometimes towards one Country, sometimes toward another; that so by this Diuine Iustice, euery one might bee supplyed in things necessary for life and maintenance. (Misselden, 1622: 25)

20The seas themselves participate in this divine project. Mun calls trade “a work of no less Reputation than Trust” and refers to “the nobleness of this Profession” (Mun, 1664: 3).

21Trade is presented as something natural, and often compared to the labours of agriculture, the suggestion being that they are both subjected to God’s will. Misselden uses this metaphor as he complains that the Dutch East India Company makes a profit at the expense of its English counterpart:

  • 12 Of course, the expected harvest, i. e. profits, could still be achieved by putting an end to this A (...)

And so in the meane while, by Plowing vp those Indian Seas and Soyle with our Heifers, they may at last Reape all the Haruest, and possesse and dispossesse at their owne pleasure, to the wonderfull enriching of their Common-wealth, and the impouerishing of our’s. (Misselden, 1622: 99)12

22The suspicious idea of making a profit is thus advantageously compared with agriculture so as to present it as a natural and divinely sanctioned process. Farming, often used in Biblical parables, is an altogether respectable profession, and merchants seek to be associated with that respectability.

23Moreover, portraying themselves as good Christians enables merchants to highlight the difference between their own and other, more disreputable, professions. Merchants tended to be lumped into the same category as other professions using money, such as usurers, and condemned along with them. In order to stymie these attacks, the strategy of merchants was to separate themselves from these other professions. They drew a clear line between morally acceptable and unacceptable uses of money, placing merchants squarely on the side of what is acceptable. This requires a very narrow definition of what a merchant is and what he does, cordoning off the profession from other uses of money which they represent as falling on the other side of that moral divide. Since merchants belong to one of the few professions that require regular travel, seafaring and its positive associations are an essential aspect of that project.

  • 13 This restriction was put in place mainly for economic reasons, in order to limit the number of agen (...)

24The legal definition of “merchant” was quite restrictive, excluding shopkeepers or craftsmen. In the royal charters granted to merchant companies a clause was often introduced to restrict trade to “mere merchants,” a term which historian Robert Brenner glosses as “overseas trading wholesalers” (Brenner 1993: 83).13 The OED also mentions this gradual narrowing down of the concept of merchant, and dates it to the 16th century:

A.1.a. A person whose occupation is the purchase and sale of goods or commodities for profit. (Originally used gen. of any trader in goods not manufactured or produced by his or her own hand, but from the 16th cent. chiefly restricted to wholesale traders, esp. those having dealings with foreign countries.)

25This narrow definition of the merchant as a traveller, and therefore as a good Christian, enabled merchants to distinguish themselves from other disreputable professions, such as moneylenders. Moneylending was considered acceptable if one did not take interest, and if one did not try to recover the money when the debtor could not pay—one was supposed to call the loan a gift. But in practice the suspicion of usury was never far away. Luther could hardly be clearer:

  • 14 “Denn wer also leyhet / das ers besser odder mehr widder nemen will / das ist eyn offentlicher und (...)

For he who lends with the intention of getting back something better or something more, that is clearly a case of damnable usury, all the more so as even those who demand or expect to get back the exact same thing, and do not unreservedly dare take the risk of not seeing it come back to them, even those do not act in a Christian way (Luther, 1524: sig. B4)14

  • 15 R. H. Tawney reminds us that this definition of usury goes back at least to the scholastics of the (...)

26That was the essential difference enabling merchants to draw a clear line between themselves and usurers: a usurer was sure to be paid back, for instance by having the debtor thrown in prison and seizing his goods. Since the capital is never exposed to risk, the usurer never shows his trust in God’s Providence. Malynes thus defines usury as “Moneys deliuered at interest without casualtie, and so termed Vsurie by reason of the contract of benefit without aduenture” (Malynes, 1622a: 358).15

27This difference between the merchant as the risk-taker, and the moneylender whose gain is certain, is also a theme of William Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) The Merchant of Venice. “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” (4.1.170) Portia asks in the play, highlighting the need to make a clear distinction between the two professions. Shylock explicitly points out the difference, as he tries to gauge whether Antonio is a good credit risk:

[…] his means are in supposition. He hath an argosy bound to Tripoli, another to the Indies; I understand moreover upon the Rialto, he hath a third at Mexico, a fourth for England, and other ventures he hath squandered abroad. But ships are but boards, sailors but men; there be land rats, and water rats, water thieves, and land thieves—I mean pirates—and then there is the peril of waters, winds and rocks. (1.3.14-23)

28Shylock the usurer is uncomfortable with the way merchants make a living: in his opinion, an income based on seafaring is too insecure. This distinction between merchant and moneylender is alluded to in the very first lines of the play. Antonio is melancholy and Salarino ascribes this to the constant obsession with “merchant-marring rocks” (3.2.270):

Should I go to church
And see the holy edifice of stone
And not bethink me straight of dangerous rocks,
Which, touching but my gentle vessel’ s side,
Would scatter all her spices on the stream,
Enrobe the roaring waters with my silks,
And in a word, but even now worth this,
And now worth nothing? (1.1.28-35)

  • 16 Whether or not Antonio actually represents an ideal Christian merchant is contentious in criticism (...)
  • 17 Jill Ingram cites numerous religious sources supporting these claims from merchants that risk-takin (...)

29As Salarino associates the church’s stone with dangerous rocks, he suggests a link between risk-taking and Christian behaviour, while at the same time underlining the difference between Antonio’s profession and that of the usurer.16 The “adventure of the seas” is thus presented as the essential difference between merchant and moneylender. The merchant submits to God’s will; the usurer does not. After all, the “winning casket” in the play tells the suitor to “hazard all he hath” (2.7.9).17

30If drawing a line between trading and moneylending seems relatively easy for merchants, the exact definition of merchant ethics is less certain in other areas, such as investing, defined by the OED as “to employ (money) in the purchase of anything from which interest or profit is expected.” Being entitled to a share of those profits when one has lent money to start a business seems relatively obvious in the twenty-first century. In the early modern period, however, getting back more money than one had paid in smacked of usury. The very concept of “investment” was extremely new at the time (the OED dates the first occurrence to 1613 in the context of the East India Company); the word is not used once in either Malynes, Misselden or Mun.

31Without calling it “investment,” however, Malynes defends the practice, citing once more the “adventure of the seas” as the difference with usury. In a chapter of Lex Mercatoria entitled “Of Usurie Politike, and Moneys deliuered at Interest,” he asks the following question: “If I deale with a Merchant that maketh gaine of my money with his trade and commerce, and is well able to pay mee againe, being chiefly inriched by my meanes; why should not I in reason haue part of his benefit and aduantage, when by my goods hee is growne rich?” (Malynes, 1622a: 330).

32Malynes goes on to take the example of four merchants who become partners in a sea voyage; two of them actually travel on the ship but put in little money, while the other two stay at home but bear the bulk of the expense. He concludes “is it not reason that the other two (although they were idle at home) should haue part of the benefit?” (331). He concedes that some might object that this constitutes usury because the two “idle” investors “haue not borne the aduenture of the Seas, but conditioned a certaintie” (331). His answer is that “they haue not onely borne the aduenture of the Seas, but many other casualties besides, and in trusting them that had no meanes of their owne” (331). In other words, a merchant does not need to expose himself to the risk of travel, it suffices that his capital be exposed to such a risk. “Bearing the adventure of the seas” can thus be understood in a more metaphorical manner.

  • 18 Raymond De Roover contends that exchange was generally considered acceptable because “a banker’s pr (...)

33It should not be supposed, however, that all merchants are in agreement on these matters. Where exactly the red line between merchandising as a Christian activity and other professions presented as immoral lies is the subject of much debate. The fact that merchants engage in currency exchange, for instance, is a source of unease for Malynes, but Misselden and Mun view it as acceptable.18

34Malynes concedes that currency exchange is necessary, “For Bullion being the Fountaine, Money is but the Water, and Exchange the Riuer that serues all priuate turns” (Malynes, 1623: 139). He also admits that exchangers “doe beare an aduenture for the losse of their moneys,” but it is only an “aduenture to lose by exchange (which is verie seldome)” (Malynes, 1622a: 330). In other words, they risk transporting money on ships, but the only way they can lose out is through unfavourable exchange rates, which Malynes contends happens but rarely. What counts is that usurers and exchangers “haue both an intention of gaine vpon money,” so that the difference between the two “consisteth onely in the name” (330). Tellingly, exchange in Lex Mercatoria is dealt with in the chapter on usury already mentioned.

35Misselden also seems somewhat uneasy. He acknowledges that “Exchangers of mony for mony with gaine” (94) were once whipped out of the temple by Jesus, and that “A Common-wealth also may subsist with the trade of Commodities without mony: but it cannot subsist with the trade of mony without Commodities” (95). Despite these objections, and the belief in the primacy of trade in commodities, Misselden defends exchange, especially with the argument that gain is unpredictable: “Sometimes there is some gain: sometimes there is some loss: sometimes there is neither gain nor loss” (104). Insisting that exchange is no great mystery, he presents it as a natural and normal process. It should be noted that Misselden does not attribute the uncertainty of gain to Providence, but rather to market fluctuations. Nevertheless, the fact that he builds his defence on the idea of uncertainty shows that this notion was deeply entrenched: capital needed to be exposed to risk for profit to be deemed acceptable.

36As for Mun, he does not even seem to see the problem, freely admitting that “wee Merchants” (116) engage in exchange. Yet apparently even he thinks it necessary to prove that gain from exchange is unpredictable. Indeed, “the losse by Exchange is sometimes eight or ten per cent” (117). He acknowledges that exchangers are strangely similar to moneylenders, but contends that there is nothing shameful in either profession since gain is always uncertain: “As Bankers and Exchangers do furnish men with money for their occasions, so do they likewise who let out their money at interest with the same hopes and like advantage, which many times notwithstanding fails them” (Mun, 1664: 122).

37These hesitations about where exactly the red line between acceptable and unacceptable uses of money lies are no coincidence. They can be interpreted as the most visible sign of an ongoing debate in the early modern period: how does one strike a compromise between moral ideals inherited from the past and an emerging proto-capitalist economy? This, in turn, might explain the obvious contradictions in writings by merchants, where risk-taking is celebrated as that which makes a merchant a good Christian, while at the same time all is done to minimize that risk.

38Merchants themselves admit that the moral ideals they set forth for their profession are not always respected. Some of their colleagues “may commit great errors in Trade, seeking their priuat gaine, and the Commonwealth doth receiue an incredible preiudice thereby” (Malynes, 1623: 14). Just the same, they complain that merchants give up trade in order to become moneylenders “for we see that generally all Merchants when they haue gotten any great wealth with vs, leaue trading, and fall to Vsurie; the gaine whereof is easie, certaine, and great” (Malynes, 1622a: 333).

39In other words, the clear line they would wish to draw between morally acceptable and unacceptable uses of money is more wishful thinking than reality, and the separation between merchant and usurer is more permeable than they would like to think. There clearly is what Alan Sinfield (1992) would call an ideological faultline: a place where internal contradictions or blind spots in a discourse become apparent.

40I do not mean to suggest that merchants’claims of good Christian behaviour are hypocritical, however. The idea of divine Providence could certainly be a source of comfort in an age when profit from trade was unpredictable, and I do not presume to make any claims about the reality of religious feeling in the early modern merchant community. Yet, undeniably, contradictions appear, such as careful theoretical separations between merchants and moneylenders followed by complaints that many practice both professions. The portrayal of merchants as professionals demonstrating their faith in Providence emerges above all as a useful tool to rescue merchant activity from the moral condemnation found in so many religious writings of the time.

41The fact remains that merchants increasingly manage to “bear the adventure of the seas”, not by trusting God to provide for them, but by turning risk into a manageable technicality of trade. Malynes’ Lex Mercatoria is a case in point: the title of the treatise refers to the Law Merchant, a customary form of international law designed to deal with merchants’disputes. Endless chapters are devoted to legal documents (bills obligatory, bills of exchange, letters of attorney…), questions surrounding maritime law, etc. Insurances, especially, are an increasingly popular way to minimise risk. There are also numerous calls for the State to intervene in the economy to make trade safer and more predictable:

all things should be gouerned in the best and most assured manner that can be deuised, and (as it were) seeking a kind of certaintie in vncertainties, which is termed (Policie:) For all worldly and transitorie things being mutable, maketh the world properly to consist of discord and dissention, a verie vncertaine ground to build vpon, and yet a certaine equalitie and concord is required in euerie well gouerned Commonwealth (Malynes, 1622a: 327)

42Unsurprisingly, it is often not the merchant who steers the ship of trade, but rather the King who must “sit at the Rudder of the Ship of Traffique, to reforme abuses” (Malynes, 1622b: 68). Increasingly, risk-management becomes technical and secularised, as merchants do not trust God with their capital, they trust what, in modern nation-states, is called a “financial system.”

  • 19 I wish to thank Emilie Jehl, who generously shared her extensive knowledge of emblems with me.

43What, then, is the role of seafaring when it comes to defining the position of merchants in early modern society? At a time when risk becomes a secular problem, it is increasingly obvious that the notion that seafaring can be evidence of the merchants’status as good Christians is not much more than a useful fiction.19



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TAWNEY R. H. (1948): Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, 2nd ed., West Drayton, Penguin.

WHARTON J. (1578): Whartons Dreame Conteyninge an Inuectiue Agaynst Certaine Abhominable Caterpillers as Userers, Extorcioners, Leafmongers and such others, London.

WHITNEY G. (1586): A choice of emblemes, Leiden.

WOODBRIDGE L. (2005): “‘He Beats Thee’ Gainst the Odds’: Gambling, Risk Management and Antony and Cleopatra”, Antony and Cleopatra: New Critical Essays, ed. Sara Munson Deats, New York, Routledge, 193-212.


1 “Daher auch ettliche unter den kauffleuten aufferwacht und gewar worden sind / das unter yhrem handel manch böser griff und schedliche fynanze ym brauch sind / und zu besorgen ist /es gehe hie zu /wie der Ecclesiasticus sagt/Das kauffleut schwerlich on sunde seyn mügen.” Luther is quoting from Ecclesiasticus 26:29, “A merchant shall hardly keep himself from doing wrong; and an huckster shall not be freed from sin.” All translations of Luther are mine. The reception of Luther’s economic ideas in England is somewhat complex. The English Short Title Catalogue shows no records at all for his writings dealing specifically with usury, most notably Von kauffshandlung und wucher and An die pfarrherrn Wider den Wucher zu predigen. Luther is nevertheless quoted in numerous English usury tracts, showing that his ideas crossed the Channel. To give only one example, Miles Mosse (1595) constantly mentions “de taxanda vsura tom. 7,” a Latin translation of An die pfarrherrn.

2 Malynes himself, in his texts, refers to the English when he uses “us”, and refers to the Dutch when he uses “they”. He seems to identify with England, and claims again and again that the policies he suggests, most notably a change in currency exchange rates, would benefit England. But Misselden and Mun disagree, and accuse him of being pro-Dutch.

3 Note that “traffic” has neutral connotations and is synonymous with “trade”.

4 To give only two more examples, a longer version of the allegory of the ship of traffic exists (Malynes, 1622a: 60-61), with the currency exchange rates as the rudder of the ship, and money as the compass. Another version has the ship nearly destroyed by whales representing the threats of war and piracy (Malynes, 1622b: 7-9). The metaphor of money as an ocean, or a river, flowing through Europe, is equally frequent. Malynes for instance writes that the influx of bullion from the mines of the West Indies is “like unto an Ocean, hath divided her course into several branches through all countries” (Malynes, 1622a: 253). Many authors thus describe Spain and the mines of her empire as the “Fountain of mony” (Mun, 1664: 34).

5 A similar meaning exists in French: the expression “à la grosse aventure,” used of a maritime venture, means “with great risks.” The OED’s earliest occurrence for definition 3b is dated 1678, but I believe evidence of this meaning may be found in earlier sources, such as the ones I am quoting from here.

6 The expression comes from “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away” (Job 1:21).

7 The expression seems to come from the story of Abraham, who says “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:8). The same idea is found in numerous other parts of the Bible, for instance: “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them” (Matthew 6:26).

8 “Die vierde weyse ist / keuffen und verkeuffen / und das mit bargelt / odder wahr mit wahr bezalen. Wer nu dieser weyse will brauchen / der schicke sich dreyn / das er wisse sich auff keyn zukunfftiges zuuerlassen / sondern auff Gott alleyne / und das er musse mit menschen umbgehen / die feylen odder liegen werden gewislich. […] Das mocht eyn recht Christlicher kauffmann seyn / den wurde Gott auch nicht lassen / weyl er yhm also feyn trawet / und frölich mit seynem ferlichen nehisten wagt und handelt.” One cannot help noticing the hypothetical “would”: apparently, there is no such thing as a “true Christian merchant” for Luther. Defining Christian behaviour purely in terms of trust in God is indeed somewhat problematic for a merchant, who will have to put some measure of trust in human beings. Malynes is equally aware of the problem, carefully differentiating between faith and trust: “There is great affinitie betweene Faith, Trust, and Confidence; in Diuinity Trust and Confidence are two handmaides vnto Faith, euen as Faith is the hand whereby wee apprehend Gods mercies, to repose our trust in him, and to bee confident thereof. But in Humane actions the word Trust is more proper, which implieth a credit or beliefe which wee giue or repose vpon others, or others do attribute and giue vnto vs” (Malynes, 1622a: 362). Muldrew (1998) offers a possible explanation of how the relation between secular trust and religious faith might have evolved. He contends that, at the beginning, Protestantism emphasised a personal relationship with, and hence trust in, God. But this relationship was akin to a contractual relationship between neighbours, which also required trust, so that Protestantism had the effect of promoting contractual relationships, whose enforceability was guaranteed by the State, and not a deity. Paradoxically, then, the rise of Protestantism would have contributed to the secularisation of risk-management.

9 Muldrew points out that Protestantism, by emphasising a personal relationship with God, influenced people’s perception of success in business as dependent on God’s Providence. These ideas about Protestantism, trust in God and wealth have been famously explored by Max Weber, whose Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was first published in German in 1904-05.

10 Here and elsewhere, italics belong to the original text.

11 There is of course a limit to this risk-taking, which, when excessive, threatens to turn into hubris. According to Malynes, only fools take too many risks “as if the successe did not depend vpon the diuine power, to be guided by his prouidence” (Malynes, 1622a: 443).

12 Of course, the expected harvest, i. e. profits, could still be achieved by putting an end to this Anglo-Dutch rivalry—God willing: “there cannot but be great hope, by Gods blessing, of a Glorious harvest, from so Gracious a Seed-time: and I hope, that those that haue Sowen in teares, shall in due time Reap in Ioy” (Misselden, 1623: 37).

13 This restriction was put in place mainly for economic reasons, in order to limit the number of agents on the market in a corporatist perspective. Misselden for instance complains about the state of the English trade with Spain, which is not organised in a Company, describing it as “a receptacle and rendes-vous for euery Shopkeeper, Stragler, and Vnskilful person” (Misselden, 1622: 87). That explains why ship captains—increasingly active in the American trade—were equally excluded. Nevertheless I would argue that the exclusion of retailers is also motivated by this narrow concept of the merchant as a traveller.

14 “Denn wer also leyhet / das ers besser odder mehr widder nemen will / das ist eyn offentlicher und verdampter wucher / Syntemal auch die noch nicht Christlich handeln / die also borgen / das sie widderumb eben dasselb foddern odder hoffen / und nicht frey dahyn wagen/obs widder kompt odder nicht.”

15 R. H. Tawney reminds us that this definition of usury goes back at least to the scholastics of the Middle Ages. In a chapter dedicated to medieval economic thought he writes: “The essence of usury was that it was certain, and that, whether the borrower gained or lost, the usurer took his pound of flesh. […] His crime is that he takes a payment for money which is fixed and certain, and such a payment is usury” (Tawney, 1948: 54-55).

16 Whether or not Antonio actually represents an ideal Christian merchant is contentious in criticism of the play. For instance, he stands surety for Bassanio, a practice often condemned by religious writers, including Luther. My point is therefore limited to the motif of seafaring in the play, which I believe is used to contrast Antonio’s faith in Providence and Shylock’s lack thereof. Walter S. H. Lim thus remarks: “while Shakespeare indicates sensitivity toward some of the obvious dangers of distant travel, he is equally open to the idea that useful economic activity—involving in particular the export of goods for profit—rests upon the necessity of ocean travel” (Lim, 2010: 358). “[The Merchant of Venice] suggests that God’s divine providence looks out for and abundantly blesses the activities of the faithful. For the Judeo-Christian God is also, importantly, the God of ocean travel” (Lim, 2010: 376). For an interesting discussion of attitudes to risk elsewhere in Shakespeare see Woodbridge (2005).

17 Jill Ingram cites numerous religious sources supporting these claims from merchants that risk-taking legitimises their profits, concluding: “contrasted with merchants whose ‘inventions’ and ventures are ennobling by virtue of their hazardous nature were usurious moneylenders who took no risk—Shylock is the exemplar of the latter type. In early modern English literature, to ‘hazard’ one’s goods or one’s self is a positive trait” (Ingram, 2006: 117).

18 Raymond De Roover contends that exchange was generally considered acceptable because “a banker’s profit was never certain, since it was always dependent upon the unpredictable swing of the exchange rates” (De Roover, 1949: 101).

19 I wish to thank Emilie Jehl, who generously shared her extensive knowledge of emblems with me.


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