The Early Middle Ages
As mentioned in the previous section, the Roman business world was relatively unsophisticated in comparison to that of modern times or even the Later Middle Ages. Correspondingly, business-related terminology was also relatively scant: Andreau’s (2004: xii-xvi) glossary, for example, does not exceed three pages if one discounts non-business-related and Greek material. On the one hand, there were terms for the agents, activities and places of commercial exchange: circumforaneus ‘travelling trader’, mercator ‘merchant’, negotians and negotiator ‘businessman, wholesaler’; emptio venditio ‘sale’; mercatus ‘market place’, nundinae ‘periodic market’ and, of course, the Forum in Rome. ‘Renting’ was called locatio conductio. The name for deposit banking was argentaria, that for a deposit banker, as already mentioned, argentarius, from the second century ad onwards nummularius and in late Antiquity collectarius. Nummularius originally designated a money-changer and money-assayer, with the latter also being referred to as spectator. A deposit banker used to keep an account (ratio) for his clients and to make loans (commodare, mutuari). Any person lending money at interest could be called a fenerator. A special category of loan, characterized by the high risk (periculum) involved, was the maritime loan, called fenus nauticum, pecunia nautica or pecunia traiecticia. The interest on a loan was referred to as usura, a word that did not yet have the pejorative tinge it was given later on by the Church. Though the Romans had no bills of exchange, they could transfer funds without material transportation (permutatio). Rich people had a treasurer (dispensator), a cashier (arcarius) and a farm manager (vilicus), who were mostly slaves. Slaves, incidentally, could also do business for themselves if entrusted with a peculium, money taken out of the master’s patrimony. Last but not least, the Romans also knew the institution of the company, called societas, most often in the rudimentary form of a sleeping partnership.
Only a few of these terms survived the Early Middle Ages, when the Western part of the former Roman Empire lapsed back into the state of a largely rural barter economy (Pirenne 1972), and schooling retreated to monasteries. It is true that, from the High Middle Ages onwards, the conceptual needs of more advanced societies led to thousands of Latinisms being revived in the trivium and the quadrivium of medieval schools. However, almost uniquely, this did not apply to the language of business, where little Roman terminology was taken up even by the Romance languages, never mind other European tongues. To illustrate this, we call a ‘banker’ a banker, using a term taken from medieval Italian, and not by a term rooted in the Latin (e.g., “argentary”). The following discussion, based on the useful synthesis provided by Schiaffini (1930), further illustrates the fate of Roman business terms in Romance languages during the Early Middle Ages.
Thus in the domain of bartering, mutare ‘to exchange’ was replaced early on by cambiare (cf. French changer); at a later date, Italian added barattare, and French and the languages of the Iberian Pensinsula contributed troquer/trocar, of uncertain origin. The word for ‘to sell’, vendere, has been retained everywhere, while its opposite, emere ‘to buy’, has been replaced by comparare (cf. Italian comprare) and *adcaptare (cf. French acheter; the asterisk indicates that this verb is not attested in Latin, but can be reconstructed from later evidence). Merx, the word for ‘commodity’, has been partly preserved (cf. Italian merce, Old French merz), but modern terms such as Italian mercanzia or French merchandise are native creations from the same root. While pretium ‘price’ has survived everywhere, solvere ‘to pay’ has been replaced by pacare (cf. French payer), literally ‘to pacify’. Latin finis ‘payment’ survived in Old French fin, whence finer ‘to pay’ and finance, which originally meant ‘payment’. Among the Latin names for coins, denarius and solidus have survived, for example in French denier and sou.
As regards the designations for those places where business was carried out, mercatus has been retained in all Romance languages (cf. French marche), while nundinae has only survived in Sardinian nmdinas. Forum took on varied meanings, for example, that of ‘market tax’ in Old French fuer. Since markets were often held on Sundays and holidays, feriae ‘holiday’ came to mean ‘fair’ (cf. French foire, the etymon of English fair). Of the designations for different categories of traders, mercator and negotiator have only survived in a few languages (cf. Old Spanish mercador, Rumanian negustor). French negociateur is a loanword from the Late Middle Ages, which from the Renaissance onwards changed its meaning into that of ‘negotiator’. The most successful word for ‘trader’ was the agent noun *mercatans (cf. French marchand), derived from the verb *mercatare ‘to go to market’, itself a derivative of mercatus ‘market’. The synonymous Italian noun mercante is derived from mercare, a straightforward descendant of Latin mercare ‘to buy’. Old French mercier, the etymon of English mercer, was a native derivative from merz ‘commodity’.
One lexical field where much change occurred during the Early Middle Ages was that of money lending (cf. Jordan 1927). The likely reason is that this activity was stigmatized under the influence of the Church and therefore became prone to the use of euphemisms. The Latin verbs commodare, fenerari and mutuari all disappeared and were replaced by *impromutare (cf. French emprunter) and praestare (cf. French
prefer), literally ‘to give’. Usury continued to be referred to by the descendants of usura, but also by those of lucrum ‘gain’ (cf. Spanish logrero ‘usurer’). In its original sense of ‘gain’, lucrum has been replaced by *profectum (cf. French profit). Capitale first referred to livestock (cf. French cheptel ‘cattle’), the “capital” of agrarian societies, before it started a great international career, from Italian, in its modern sense (cf. Deschepper 1963-64; Knobloch 1972).
Latin lucrare ‘to gain’ also changed its meaning, as witnessed by Romanian a lucra ‘to work’ and Spanish lograr ‘to achieve’. Its place was taken by Franconian *waidanjan (cf. French gagner), which is related to Modern German Weide ‘pasture’, pointing to the rural context of origin. Generally speaking, however, the Germanic contribution to the early Romance business vocabulary was quite restricted. One could add *sparanjan (cf. French epargner ‘to save’), *barganiare ‘to haggle’ (cf. Old French bargaignier, the ancestor of English bargain), or *waddi ‘pledge’, which replaced pignus in Nothern France (cf. French gage).
Even so, the Early Middle Ages are the moment when the Germanic languages first appear on the screen of business-language studies. The oldest layer of English business language was first examined in Bernhard Fehr’s Habilitation at the University of Zurich, a seminal work that is still an indispensable source. According to Fehr (1909, Part 1), the Anglo-Saxons of the Early Middle Ages already had expressions for the concepts ‘property’, ‘pawn brokering’, ‘money’, ‘price’, ‘debt’ and ‘usury’. More or less at the same time as Fehr, Alfred Schirmer outlined the history of German business language in his inaugural dissertation of 1911, which was republished in 1925 for a wider readership. Schirmer (1911a: 8-9) states that there is no evidence for the existence of anything one could refer to as a Proto-Germanic commercial terminology. In fact, some of the oldest German trade-related terms are of Latin origin. Examples are Old High German mangari ‘trader’ (cf. English monger) from Latin mango ‘(slave-)trader’; kaufen ‘to buy’ going back to Latin caupo ‘innkeeper, shopkeeper’; Markt ‘market’ from mercatus; Zoll ‘customs duty’, from teloneum; kosten ‘to cost’ from constare. These words must have entered the German language through contact with the Romans along the Rhine and the Danube rivers. Alongside these Latinisms, there also existed a sizeable number of indigenous business terms: feil ‘on sale’, sellan ‘to hand over, sell’, kramari ‘grocer’, from kram ‘tavern’, wehsal ‘exchange, trade’, lihan ‘to lend’, werd ‘price’, wandelunga ‘commerce’, wantal ‘business’, gelt ‘payment’, wuochar ‘gain’, etc., as well as complex words built from them by derivation or compounding. Overall, as one can see, the business-related terminology of German and English in the Early Middle Ages was still quite elementary.
The demise of the Western Roman Empire under the attacks of the Germanic tribes, and later the Arabs, severely compromised the unity of the Mediterranean as a trading area. Yet trading relations between West and East never ceased completely. Europeans maintained regular contact with the Arab world, which functioned as an intermediary between South-East Asia, Africa and Europe. Many business terms of
Arabic origin in the European languages, like tariff, testify to this fact. While European terms of Arabic origin have been studied widely, the Old Arabic business documents themselves (cf. Kaplony 2014) are yet to be analyzed from the perspective of business language history. The same is true of business texts in Hebrew, for example the abundant documents written by Jewish merchants, conserved in the storeroom (Genizah) of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo and dating from roughly 950 to 1150 (Abulafia 2014: 258-259).