THIS IS the second volume to appear in English in the
great series by Fernand Braudel, the most noted of French economic historians, on the history of early capitalism. A third volume is yet to come. It is hard and, for that matter, quite inappropriate to restrain one's enthusiasm. His books are wonderful. There are histories in which the information is in the service of a theory of economic, political or social change. And there are those which give you a great deal of narrative and factual information for its own sake. Braudel is concerned to show that capitalism, in this volume the merchant capitalists of the pre-industrialist era, was the great motivating and unifying force in the development and spread of European civilization. But never does he neglect a fact. He tells in almost incredible detail who these merchants were, whence they came and where they operated, how much money they made, their place in the social and political hierarchy of the time, and of the world of peddlers, fairs, elementary retail shops, currency and stock exchanges, merchant companies and shipping routes in which they participated.
There are times, it must be said, when the reader is more than a little overwhelmed by the author's flow of fact --one is amazed, on occasion, that so much could be retrieved from the commercial past, not only of Italy, France and the rest of Western Europe but from the Americas, India and the Far East. And the conclusions of other historians are also kept under review; there is a continuing and generally tolerant discussion of views different from those of the author. In consequence, neither this book nor its predecessor, The Structures of Everyday Life--on the agriculture, fishing, food, drink, housing, energy, entertainment of people at large in the years from 1400 to 1800--are to be read in one continuous gulp. They must be taken a chapter or less at a time, and one must be reconciled to the certainty that there will be far more information than the normal brain can possibly absorb and remember.
What will be absorbed and remembered is a dazzling array of insights and observations on life and commerce in the age of merchant capitalism, including much that is fascinating and some that is surprising. At the peak of its activity in the 16th century, more than a hundred thousand people were huddled together in the colossal silver mining camp of Potosi in the high Andes. In 1614, as support to the considerable business of the money exchanges, 400 different currencies were in circulation in the Netherlands. In France, more monetarist in these matters, there were only 82. "There was no known region of Europe, even the very poorest, where the most unlikely currency might not find itself trapped." In the 17th and 18th centuries a great network of Indian (Banyan) merchants spread its activities over India and into Persia and beyond, extending its operations even to Moscow. "In 1723 the widow of an Indian merchant in Moscow asked permission to be burned alive alongside her husband on his funeral pyre. Her request was refused. At once 'all the Indian factors, disgusted by this act, decided to leave Russia, taking their wealth with them!' Faced with this threat, the authorities gave in!"
A solid and less surprising theme running through all of these pages--from the mines and sugar plantations of the New World to the spinners and weavers, iron mongers and diverse artisans of Europe and the producers of spices and textiles in the Indies--is that, without exception, it was the merchants who made the money. Prices might be high or low; merchant margins were almost always good. Merchant success also depended on "one condition . . . above all others . . . the recipe (was) given by Claude CarriMere, writing about fifteenth-century Barcelona--'The best way to make money in big business . . . (is) to have some to start with.' " In urging the civilizing role of merchant capitalism, Braudel makes clear that it was not without adequate compensation. Also, a valuable point of emphasis, he tells in a final and engaging chapter how well the money served to establish the great merchant families in the social and political hierarchy of the time. There could be, as in England, a measure of disrepute from being "in trade"; with enough cash, he leaves no doubt, this handicap could be overcome.
The number so privileged, Braudel notes, was not great. He quotes Adolphe Thiers in 1848: ". . . in a state like France, out of twelve million families . . . we know that there are . . . two or three hundred at most who can be called opulent." A hundred years earlier Jean-Francois Melon had been equally explicit as to statistics and rather more reassuring as to the social effect: "The luxury of a Nation is confined to about a thousand men as against twenty million others who are just as contented as the former, as long as a sound Police enables them to enjoy the fruits of their labour in peace."
Braudel, though certainly not the first, has little time for Werner Sombart's case that it was the Jews and their freedom from confining religious restriction that gave the initial impetus to merchant capitalism--"this is to re-echo Max Weber's theory about Protestantism, for which there are the same good and bad arguments." He does agree that the great merchants "often belonged to foreign minorities, whether by nationality (the Italians in the France of Philip the Fair or Francois I and in Philip II's Spain) or by religon--the Jews, the Armenians, the Banyans, the Parsees, the Raskolniki in Russia or the Christian Copts in Muslim Egypt. Why should this have been? Clearly any minority will have a tendency to stick together, for mutual aid and self-defense . . . (also) a minority may easily feel oppressed or discriminated against by the majority and this may in turn dispense it from being over-scrupulous in its dealings with the majority in question."
I hope I have sufficiently urged the richness of Braudel's books; it would be a serious error to pass over two other points. One is the easy grace of the writing; it never loses itself in technicality, but, at the same time, it is resourceful and never lacking in clarity and precision. One feels always in the company of a careful and conscientious scholar. Perhaps more surprising is the quality of the illustrations. These, the result of a major exercise in research in itself, are spaced elegantly through the text, here a page, there a half page, all succinctly captioned and always appropriate to the story. Not often and not previously in my experience has such good historical research writing been served by such good bookmaking.