The High and Late Middle Ages

The “Commercial Revolution”

After the turn of the millennium, commerce in Europe returned to a level which made written documents indispensable (on commerce and writing from a general perspective, cf. Hacki Buhofer 1994). Many hitherto itinerant merchants, who had previously transported their commodities from market to market, settled down in the main trading centres, from which they organized their commercial activities by means of a network of family members, agents and partners. This new way of organizing trade, especially long-distance trade, converted business correspondence and book-keeping into two of the major requirements for successful commerce. The introduction of paper, which was much cheaper than parchment and had been brought to Europe by the Arabs in the 12th century, must also have been of vital importance in the diffusion of written commercial documents from the High Middle Ages onwards (Patze 1970: 60).

Languages used in business

The question of language choice was by no means easy for medieval merchants. In local trade, they would obviously use the local dialect, though in bilingual societies, such as medieval England, even local trade sometimes made it necessary to choose between languages. But where language really became crucial, was, of course, foreign trade. There, where written communication had greater importance, the language issue was a different one. For, throughout the Early Middle Ages and even beyond, learning to write was synonymous with learning to write in Latin, which remained the language, not only of the Church and the administration, but also of trade (Pirenne 1929: 21).

As a result, it took some time before the vernacular languages were able to challenge Latin in this domain. Their adoption in business-related texts took place at different moments in different regions of Europe and depended largely on the type of text. The first country to adopt vernacular languages instead of Latin was

Italy, though with significant differences from region to region. Tuscany seems to have had a pioneering role. There we find vernacular registers of property, taxes and expenditures dating back to the 11th century (Castellani 1982), and we have fragments of a Florentine bank’s ledger written in Old Tuscan from 1211. Venice also seems to have switched to Venetian early on (Stussi 1989, 1993; Formentin 2015), whereas Genoa and Milan did not abandon Latin until the 15th century (Tucci 1989: 554, 548). As far as text types are concerned, the vernacular languages were preferred in company-internal documents (ledgers, letters, notes, etc.), while in the public sphere (administrative texts, contracts, etc.) Latin was used until much later. Still, as courts began to accept merchants’ documents as legally valid, the role of notaries, who drew up the Latin documents, decreased.

In other Romance countries, vernacular business documents from the High and Late Middle Ages are less abundant. With regard to French, Pirenne (1929: 28) mentions the preservation of many lettres de foire, that is, promises to pay at a later fair, from the 13th century, and the first known ledgers date from the 14th century. Occitan and Catalan ledgers exist from more or less the same time (cf., for example, Johan Blasi’s ledger from 1329-37, edited by Hauck in 1965, which is written in the Occitan dialect of the Languedoc). In Northern Europe, the 14th century was also a crucial transitional period for the Hanseatic League: according to Tophinke (1999: 200), the transition from Latin to Low German took place within a period of 70 years, during which both languages were used side by side, sometimes in one and the same document.

Outside business practice, among medieval scholars writing on economic or business-related subjects, Latin remained de rigueur throughout the Late Middle Ages. However, these subjects were only rarely treated in academic circles. From the realm of economics, the only pertinent example is Nicolas Oresme’s Tractatus de origine, natura, iure et mutationibus monetarum from 1355, in which the author chastised the common medieval practice of debasing coins. Nevertheless, moral theologians regularly included commentaries on usury and the question of just price in their Summae chapters. The theologians continued to publish in Latin well into the modern times, while later economic writers resorted to the vernacular languages, with the exception of some German cameralists of the 16th and 17th centuries. When Antonio Genovesi started lecturing as the first university chair of economics in Naples in 1754, he opted for Italian - a decision that still caused a scandal among his peers.

A special situation had arisen in England which, after the Norman conquest of 1066, remained a bilingual society for the following three centuries. As Fehr (1909: 17) observes, trade continued to be carried on mostly in English unless a public official intervened in the process, in which case French would enter the scene. The administration and the courts were French-speaking, which has left obvious traces in the English language today (English legal terminology is almost exclusively French). More to the point in our context, the Exchequer, which collected and managed the royal revenue, provided much of the central terminology of book-keeping for English merchants (cf. Fehr 1909: 34-54): account, amount, arrears, auditor, cancel, charge, control, discharge, enter, expenses, installment, item, rebate, receipt, sum, surplus, etc. Fehr (1909: 58-60) also points out the profound influence that French exerted on the terminology of the market: bargain, commodity, cost, count, market, merchandise, merchant, money, pay, price, profit, value, etc.

At all times, foreign trade has stimulated the acquisition and use of foreign languages. An author from the late 18th century (Gluck, Haberlein, and Schroder 2013: 323) provided the following rationale: “Der Fremde gonnt seine Auftrage lieber dem, der ihn gerade zu versteht, als einen andern, der erst Dollmetscher dazu bedarf.” [The foreigner would rather do business with somebody who is able to understand him directly than with someone who needs an interpreter]. In the Middle Ages, speakers of different Romance languages, or of different Low German and Scandinavian languages, could probably understand each other given some goodwill on both sides. But encounters among speakers of languages with no, or a more distant relationship inevitably involved communicative stumbling blocks. In the Eastern Mediterranean, “Italian” and “French” - note that at that time Italian and French did not yet exist as consolidated standard languages - seem to have been the most prestigious languages, spoken by the local trading partners with varying degrees of proficiency. Some scholars have claimed that this situation gave rise to a commercial pidgin, called “lingua franca”, but this idea is controversial: Cifoletti (2004), for example, holds that a stable pidgin existed only in North Africa from the beginning of the modern times until the 19th century.

More historical data is available on how Germans and Italians communicated in Venice during the Late Middle Ages. Consequently, we know that the sons of German merchants studied Venetian, and those of Venetian merchants “German”, either with a language teacher in their home town or through “immersion” during a prolonged stay abroad. Several “textbooks” used by such language learners are known to us, the most famous of which is by maistro Zorzi/Meister Georg of Nuremberg from 1424 (ed. Pausch 1972; cf. also Hollberg 1999; Rossebastiano 2002). The central part of this textbook consists in lively dialogues in Venetian and “German” - actually, the dialect of Augsburg - that were supposed to enable the learner to engage in business negotiations.

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