- Venetian Trading Networks in the Medieval Mediterranean
To understand the system of business relations within the commercial network of the Republic of Venice, this article adopts a network analysis that differs from a standard narrative based on a privileged subset of actors or relations. It allows us to examine the socially mixed group of entrepreneurs, brokers, and shippers at the heart of Venice’s economic system, as well as the various conditions under which they operated. Venice’s overseas mercantile relations, shaped by the ruling patriciate, were riddled with restrictions upon foreigners and colonial subjects. The Venetian trading community centered in Alexandria from 1418 to 1420 exemplified this far-reaching Venetian system during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It featured a number of lower-rank characters negotiating, flaunting, and frequently breaking the rules, all to the greater profit of the empire.
The Venetian Patricians and Their Commercial Allies The nature of the sources has usually led historians to focus on predominant figures, whose family names can be easily noticed in the documents as charge holders and whose family lines and more orthodox careers can be easily reconstructed in the long run. Venice’s overseas trade was undoubtedly in the hands of its patricians (a similar domination may well have applied to other strategic sectors, such as the banking system or the salt monopoly). Scholars stress the importance of Venice’s noble families in the major trading cities of the Middle East; patricians held a large share of Venice’s total investment in spices and oriental goods. Annales-style research on the major trade in spices usually underlines the predominance of noblemen, particularly those belonging to the old nobility (case vecchie), in the main commercial institutions, such as the consulates and their ruling councils. Indeed, recent works on fifteenth-century Aleppo and Alexandria show that patricians [End Page 157] held the biggest share in the total investment. The nobles’ grip on investment and on the overseas trading guilds remains unimpeachable.1
Yet, this information does not tell us much about the actual composition and the functioning of Venetian networks. Apart from their economic domination, could Venetian noblemen alone have implemented an efficient system of mutual support and business collaboration? This study of a particular network—that of the merchants in Alexandria from 1418 to 1420—attempts to assess the role of such lower-rank participants as Jews, Greeks, colonial subjects, and foreigners within the exclusive commercial networks of the Serenissima.2
Given the growing historical interest in trading diasporas and cross-cultural forms of economic organization, the network approach adopted herein privileges the importance of social linkages instead of social status, focusing on patterns of human interaction. Scholars working in other areas of the Mediterranean have paid attention to the interactions of colonial subjects and other local merchants along the main long-distance networks of Genoa and Venice. But the view of merchant networks in the Mediterranean as mixed and collaborative remains marginal in the literature. Although the Venetian nobility became dominant in the Alexandrian business community during the late 1410s, members of the patriciate had a limited presence in Egypt until the beginning of the fifteenth century, after which they necessarily had to cooperate with with many individuals of lower status. In the medieval Mediterranean, uprooted individuals seldom left meaningful traces of their alliances and strategies. To cope with this problem, the network approach adopted in this article aims at placing everyone—rich and poor, noble and common, et al.—on the same level.3 [End Page 158]
The large majority of the merchants operating in Alexandria, Egypt, between 1418 and 1420 came from either the Venetian metropolis or from its colonies. Since in those years, other communities were temporarily banned or discouraged for political reasons from trading with Egypt, the resulting picture allows us to glimpse the interaction between all members of the Venetian trade diaspora, within which an important distinction should be drawn. Apart from Venetian noblemen and citizens, this diaspora also included a number of Greeks, Jews, naturalized foreigners, Christian and Jewish renegades, migrants, and exiles, all of whom are defined herein as lower-rank Venetians.
The complete series of seventy-eight notary...