Business-related genres

Due to the complex organization of commerce, the merchant of the High and Late Middle Ages had to be able to make commercial calculations, to keep accounting records, to write letters and, as we have just seen, to speak foreign languages. Initially, the merchants’ children learned these skills either in schools run by the Church or by taking private lessons. As early as the 12th century, however, municipal schools more specifically oriented towards practical necessities were set up in some commercial centres (Pirenne 1929: 21). In these schools, one learned to read, write, count and make calculations, while commercial skills in a narrower sense were acquired during an apprenticeship.

Apprentices, and also more experienced merchants, recorded much specific information in personal notebooks. Some Italian examples have been preserved, and several have already been published. The oldest Tuscan manuscript dates from 1278 (Lopez 1970), the oldest Venetian from around 1311 (Stussi 1967). Both contain a medley of commercially relevant information on weights and measures, coins, customs duties and related arithmetic problems, commodities, nautical information; they also include incantations against sea storms, poems, and a chronicle of the home town. The most well-known exemplar of the notebook genre is a relatively systematic manuscript by Francesco Balducci Pegolotti from the beginning of the 14th century, later titled Pratica della mercatura (Pegolotti 1936). The incredible confusion surrounding weights and measures, on the one hand, and coins on the other, is well-known, and constituted an important stumbling block for medieval commerce. Nowadays, both these areas are studied largely by distinct scholarly disciplines, including metrology (cf. Witthoft 1992) and numismatics; linguistic studies are few and far between (for French, cf. Glaser 1904).

The arithmetic problems described in one such notebook from the High Middle Ages, the Venetian Zibaldone da Canal, all come from the Liber abbaci, published by Leonardo Pisano (Fibonacci) in 1202, which for its part constituted a real breakthrough in the history of arithmetic. This Latin treatise, which among other things introduced Arabic numerals to European audiences, was the first of a long-lasting genre, viz. treatises of so-called practical or commercial arithmetic. Many such manuscripts from the Middle Ages, written in Italian, have been preserved (cf. Egmond 1980). Following the invention of the printing press, they served as models for countless similar books written in all European languages (cf. Hoock and Jeannin 1991-2001).

Another genre that reached its near-definitive shape during the Middle Ages was the ledger. The evolution of this type of book of accounts was characterized by an increasing conventionalization of both the entries and their position on the page, in Italy especially during the 14th century (Tucci 1989: 549). In the end, the entries were so formulaic that outsiders would have had difficulty understanding them correctly. The most important change in the layout occurred from the 14th century onwards, when the transition from a single-entry to a double-entry book-keeping system took place in Italy, and the debit and credit accounts were written next to each other and not one above the other as previously (Peter 1961: 251). The first printed treatise on double-entry book-keeping, contained in Luca Pacioli’s Tractatus de computis et scripturis, dates back to 1494. So far, the evolution of the ledger genre during the Middle Ages has not been dealt with from a linguistic perspective or in a book-length study, with the notable exception of Tophinke’s (1999) treatise on the Hanseatic League’s books of accounts.

Conventionalization was also a distinctive feature of the evolution of business correspondence. In Italy, the oldest preserved business letter from Tuscany dates back to the second half of the 13th century (Koch 1988: 22), the oldest Venetian letter to September 27,1327 (Tucci 1957: 2, fn. 1). Some 150,000 letters from the 14th century are preserved in the Datini Archive of Prato. According to Koch (1988: 24, 28, 39), business letters in Italian did not follow the precepts of the ars dictaminis, the art of writing letters in Latin as taught at school, but were essentially based on the principle of “listing”, very much like the earliest books of accounts. Yet, very soon, a typical format emerged (Tucci 1989: 550). Letters began with an invocation of God. This was followed by the place and date of writing, notification of letters received, commercial information or orders for the addressee, information on the market situation including exchange rates, and sometimes also on the political situation. The letter then ended with private information, the parting phrase and the signature. By and large, this is also true of the medieval business letters from Northern Germany analyzed in Penndorf (1932). There, the oldest business letter that has survived, dating from the middle of the 14th century, was still written in Latin. Even though German became predominant from the beginning of the 15th century onwards, a number of Latin set phrases continued in use. Generally, the language of the letters was very crude: as noted by Krieger (1933: 35) in his discussion on the letters of the Ravensburg Company from Southern Germany dating from around 1500, the merchants wrote more or less as they spoke.

The highest degree of conventionalization was attained in the Middle Ages by the bill of exchange, an important innovation which allowed the transfer of money from country to country without the need to transport cash. This instrument originated in Italy - where it was called lettera di cambio - around 1300 and was spread all over Europe by Italian merchants during the following two centuries. In this process of diffusion, the genre was translated one to one into all major European languages.

Notebooks, books of accounts, business letters and bills of exchange were not the only business-related genres that already existed during the Middle Ages. One could add to the list partnership agreements such as the commenda, insurance contracts, the recordacione (guidelines), invoices or bills of lading. Most of these genres still await detailed linguistic investigation (on insurance contracts, cf. Holtus 1988). Yet it has become clear is that the language of business from the High and Late Middle Ages must to all effects be granted the status of a language for specific purposes, with its own genres that fulfilled concrete communicative needs and, as we will see in the following section, with its own terminology.

 
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