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  • Eighteenth-Century Commercial Mentalities as Reflected And Projected in Business Handbooks
  • Daniel A. Rabuzzi (bio)

A perfect merchant is not made solely by a Laus Deo, statements of accounts, attractive handwriting, the writing of correspondence, measuring with the ell, weighing with the pound, having a store of words with which to persuade buyers and sellers, disputing immodestly. . . Properly experienced merchants are seasoned and tried in honest and virtuous business-affairs, forming virtue; they can then with justice be named as merchants.

From Speranders Sorgfältiger Negotiant und Wechsler, a German handbook for merchants published in 1706. 1

The commercial history of early modern Europe has recently attracted a heightened degree of interdisciplinary inquiry, with renewed interest in questions of merchant mentality and what Chandra Mukerji has called “the mutual embeddedness of cultural and economic meanings.” 2 Perhaps informed in a diffuse way by Annaliste attempts to link the material world and mentalité, historians are seeking to reconcile “the dreary science” with cultural and literary history. 3 For example, Simon Schama and others have made ingenious use of sources not traditionally examined by economic historians—especially within the visual and literary arts—to reconstruct the cultural armature of commercial activity in western Europe. 4 German scholars have culled insights on the social world of early modern merchants from [End Page 169] sources typically studied for their technical content, such as lexica, correspondence and travel/topographical accounts. 5 Along similar, if more modest lines, this article will suggest ways in which another body of sources, also ostensibly technical and sachlich, can be utilized to add to our understanding of eighteenth-century commercial mentalities: the source is the didactic handbook intended for merchants, the business textbook of its day. 6

These manuals offer testimony on merchant mentalities, or certain public perceptions of them, since they were often written by non-merchants. These mentalities are shown in two ways: (1) explicitly in the form of moralistic apothegms and enjoinders scattered throughout the text, some couched in traditional religious terms and some in new secular phraseology and (2) implicitly in the appearance of rhetorical and typographical figures that seem to have been included without conscious deliberation and can be read as carriers of deep meaning often at loggerheads with what is explicitly stated. A fairly representative manual will be used here as an example: Speranders Sorgfältiger Negotiant und Wechsler (Speranders Careful Merchant and Exchanger; hereafter Speranders Negotiant), published in Leipzig and Rostock in 1706. Although perhaps peculiarly German in some of its conscious construction (for example, the frequent use of religious imagery), Speranders Negotiant shares a pan-European eighteenth-century sensibility in much of its implicit content. That sensibility prevailed in the merchant manuals until around 1800; although the merchant handbooks of the later eighteenth century were better organized and claimed to be more “scientific,” their implicit meanings were little changed. 7 What emerges when we view Speranders Negotiant and other merchant manuals as literary artifacts is a picture of merchant mentality in eighteenth-century northern Europe that is deeper and more nuanced than the image conveyed solely by the trade statistics. We can see more clearly the ambivalences and contradictions, the psychomachia between greed and restraint, the struggle, as A.O. Hirschman has framed it, involving “the passions and the interests.” 8 Attention to rhetorical detail reveals that the calm and virtuous rationality which the merchant manuals professed to convey was often belied by the inclusion of large amounts of opaque, useless, and sometimes countermining, data. This is most evident in the manuals’ frequent presentation of lengthy lists of goods (e.g., auction catalogues, price-currents), an iconization of commodities representing a submerged siren call of wealth.

Content, Audience and Response

Some twelve thousand of these manual titles were published in Europe between 1470 and 1820; they were the outgrowth of memoranda written for internal use within the great medieval and Renaissance Italian trading houses. 9 They were also closely related to mathematical treatises and often incorporated substantial portions of them. 10 Later, once manuals began to be published and had spread to other European countries, they became a cottage industry for retired merchants, lawyers, and “reckoning masters.” Though there was some overlap...

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