The project in a nutshell
The European Research Council funded project MICOLL (ERC-2020-COG 101002084), led by Professor Stefania Gialdroni, aims at analyzing the development of commercial law by means of a tool almost ignored in this field: historical linguistics.
The borrowing and transfer of legal terms will be carried out through a comprehensive and systematic investigation of medieval and early modern legal sources, in particular commercial letters, contracts, and statutes. Even though legal historians tend to deny the effectiveness of a body of customary laws uniformly adopted across medieval and modern Europe, the “myth” of the ancient lex mercatoria continues to provide historical legitimacy to the supporters of corporate self-regulation.
“Kaufmannszug mit Geleite” by Georg Kellner on the façade of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce at Nuremberg (1910) | Photo © Theo Noll / www.nuremberg.museum
According to a widespread historiographical topos, merchants all over the world “spoke the same language” when it came to what was important for them: to make profits. As legal institutions are represented by technical legal words, an analysis of the terms merchants actually used is a powerful and never attempted way to verify the impact of merchants’ migrations on the development of commercial law, which had, in its turn, tremendous effects on social and economic history.
The center of this project is Venice, for several centuries the mandatory stop for merchandise coming from the East and directed both to northern Europe (e.g. towards Nuremberg, Augsburg, and the Hanseatic cities) and to Genoa, from where men and goods would reach other trading centers (e.g., France and the Iberian peninsula). Our time-frame spans from the “commercial revolution” of the 11th century to the beginning of the modern period, when the new dynamics of transoceanic trade left Venice at the periphery of a world that was changing its very dimensions.
Did merchants actually use the same legal terms in different geographical areas? And, above all, did they grant these words the same legal meaning?
Fondaco de’ tedeschi (Warehouse of the Germans) next to Rialto Bridge
MERCHANTS AS CROSS-CULTURAL BROKERS
Migration is one of the great challenges of our era, but one that has been with us since ancient times. Today, it is usually seen as a problem but history tells us that, once it provided opportunities. This is particularly evident when we look at the migration of merchants over the centuries and the great advantages they brought to the economy. In fact, all the most powerful and flourishing trading centers are (and were) melting pots of people coming from different parts of the world.
Recent historical research has analyzed the encounter, over the course of history, of “cultural” or “cross-cultural brokers”. Mechanisms of inter-religious contacts, cross-fertilization and communication have been studied through sources provided by people living in a cultural environment different from their own: diplomatic envoys and scholars, artists and translators, religious experts, and missionaries. Beside them, merchants have been defined “latent brokers”, i.e., agents whose impact on another culture was the by-product of an activity that had other aims. The analysis of this activity can help us to shed new light on this impact but only if we find out whether, and to what extent, the interweaving of cultures and ethnicities really influenced everyday life. Law, and in this case commercial law and practices, constitute a privileged point of view from which to evaluate this influence.
The project focuses on the edited and unedited legal sources referable to four cities that can be considered crucial for the commercial relationships between Italy and Germany between the late Middle Ages and the early modern period: Venice, Genoa, Lübeck, and Nuremberg. They are all represented in MICOLL’s logo: the iron comb of a Venetian gondola, the lighthouse of Genoa, the Frauenkirche clock of Nuremberg, and the Holstentor of Luebeck. In developing the project, two more cities have gained importance: Augsburg and Bolzano.
The main objective of MICOLL is to shed new light on one of the main issues of commercial law history, i.e. the supposed universality of commercial law in the Middle Ages and in the modern period (so-called lex mercatoria). Throughout history, the idea of lex mercatoria has been used for its symbolic value in order to lend a certain historical legitimacy to the supporters of corporate self-regulation (“soft law”). This is, essentially, in order to demonstrate that merchants have “always” acted according to non-state rules, able to cross national boundaries, and is useful if you want to make acceptable the existence of a system of rules not subject to an external control.
The groundbreaking approach of MICOLL consists in analyzing this issue and, more generally, the development of commercial law and practices by means of language, i.e., studying the borrowing and transfer of legal terms from one context to the other in order to verify whether merchants used the same technical legal terms and whether they attributed to these terms the same meaning. To reach this goal, interdisciplinary research, combining economic history and historical linguistics with legal history, is essential.
Four main bodies of evidence will be used in this project:
- commercial letters
The first three will constitute the core of the project, while the fourth one will be limited to the 16th and 17th centuries commercial law treatises published by Italian and German scholars (in particular: Benvenuto Stracca, Tractatus de mercatura seu mercatore, 1553 and Johann Marquart, Tractatus politico-juridicus de jure mercatorum et commerciorum singulari, 1662). These are all legal sources but they were produced by different actors: learned jurists (statutes and treatises), notaries (contracts) and merchants (contracts and letters).
By combining these heterogeneous (but technical) sources, all the main actors involved in the development of commercial law will be taken into account. Special attention will be devoted to commercial law institutes (e.g., commenda, societas/partnerships, assicurazione/insurance, bancarotta/bankruptcy, monopolio/monopoly, etc.) and, more generally, to words and concepts connected to commercial law (e.g., bona fides/good faith, capitale/capital, debito/debt, profitto/profit, responsabilità/liability, etc.), their variants and their meaning, whilst always making reference to the context in which these words are used.