Portugal, Commercial Diplomacy & Trade 1143-1488

A review of Portugal and the Medieval Atlantic. Commercial Diplomacy, Merchants, and Trade, 1143-1488 by Flávio Miranda.

Portuguese overseas trade has been mainly associated with the age of overseas expansion. This dissertation addresses the topic of Portuguese trade in the Atlantic from the mid-twelfth until the end of the fifteenth century, a period which has received much less attention. One of the main reasons has been the paucity of sources within Portugal. Most of the evidence on the organization of trade, formal and informal mercantile institutions (including jurisdiction), and the flow of goods abroad, has unfortunately perished. This means that in the European context, Portuguese medieval trade has been one of the least explored areas.

The empirical lacunae have proved to be a great challenge for conducting the research, but the author has turned the disadvantage into a clear strength of the dissertation in at least two ways. Throughout the study, the author applies carefully conducted source criticism, and confronts the available sources with methodological possibilities. In this analytical take, the dissertation can be seen as exemplary in the field of research on medieval commerce. Second, the necessity arose to combine sources from various countries and archives in order to complement the Portuguese evidence, and embed the analysis in general discussions on the development of European trade. The author shows how dispersed and fragmented evidence can turn into more than a sum of pieces. He presents his core arguments in the chapters in dialogue with literature on the commercial revolution, the role of institutions in trade, and the impact of politics on trade and traders.

The main body of the thesis is organized into five chapters. The first one sketches the political and socioeconomic background of medieval Portugal, arguing that in the pre-expansion period, relatively few people were involved in overseas trade and those who did, usually combined it with agriculture or craftsmanship. Nevertheless, merchants were present in urban institutions and were active in commercial diplomacy. Flávio Miranda makes the important observation that the rights and privileges of merchants were the result of both bottom-up and top-down processes (p. 52); it is a correlation which is often too easily forgotten by respectively political and economic historians.

The second chapter focuses on the evolution of the commercial expansion until the Treaty of Windsor of 1386, and the effect the outbreak of the Hundred Years’ war had on Portuguese trade. The author suggests that the war stimulated the rapid development of the diplomatic skills of Portuguese merchants, a phenomenon of adaptation to crisis which has been observed elsewhere, for instance by Stephan Selzer in the context of the conflict between the Prussian towns and traders with the Teutonic Order in the fifteenth century (‘Nachholende Professionalisierung. Beobachtungen zu den Gesandten des Preußischen Bundes in den Auseinandersetzungen mit dem Deutschen Orden (1440-1454),’ in Jörg and Jucker (eds), Spezialsierung und Professionalisierung. Träger und Foren städtischer Außenpolitic. Wiesbaden: L Reichert, 2010, pp. 121-142.) Also, considerable space is in this chapter is devoted to the 1353 statute and the 1386 commercial treaty with England. He presents a different interpretation of it than other historians, namely that it had an adverse rather than a stimulating effect on the relations.

Chapter 3 turns to the interaction of the Portuguese with England, Zeeland, Flanders and France, until the decline of Bruges as a commercial centre in the second half of the fifteenth century. It discusses the impact of the imports from Africa, the conquest of Ceuta at the Strait of Gibraltar (1415) and the discovery of Madeira, pointing out that especially the latter clearly stimulated business as sugar from the island would in time find its way to markets in Europe.

In the fourth chapter, trade patterns are examined in terms of types of commodities, the fluctuating volume of trade and the position of merchants in the commercial centres on the Atlantic and North Sea coasts. All quantitative parts of the analysis are conducted with source critical caveats. The author suggests that qualitative evidence points in the direction of more intense trade than the quantitative sources lead us to believe. Moreover, he turns to the main institutions of Portuguese trade: the marine insurance (bolsa de comércio), and abroad the feitoria and nation. Since there were no commercial guilds in Portugal, these institutions, along with the impact of traders in city councils, must be seen as cornerstones of the collective action of Portuguese traders. The author points out that classical elements of New Institutional Economics analysis, like the role of law, insurance, trust and mechanisms to secure rights still need to be explored in the context of medieval Portuguese economy in general.

The final chapter of the thesis places the trader central: in the context of his (and in one section, also her) business strategies, partnerships, and commercial conflicts. A selection of biographies offers a glimpse into individual cases. Unfortunately, as the author underlines, there has been too little evidence to conduct a fully-fledged prosopographical or social network analysis. Comparison between merchants and seafarers in this chapter shows that the latter were much more prone to break the law, for instance through smuggling or bringing counterfeit goods into circulation. The author suggests that it was the power of contracts, and the (urban) institutions in the ports to which the Portuguese ventured as well as several interventions of the Portuguese king, reduced the risk of cheating and friction.

The dissertation fills a part of the void of our knowledge on medieval Portuguese overseas trade, and its place in European pre-modern economy. A publication of the thesis would allow to include the data and the conclusions into the ongoing discussion on the role of commercial, urban and state institutions in shaping this economy. On Portuguese ground, it can trigger new research on Portugal’s trade in the Mediterranean and a re-evaluation of the medieval Portuguese economy in general. Hopefully, the dissertation will appear in print soon.

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz
Institute for History
Leiden University

Primary Sources
Archival sources (Portugal, France, Bruges, The National Archives in London)
‘Calendar of Patent Rolls’
‘Calendar of Close Rolls’
‘Hansisches Urkundenbuch’
‘Cartulaire de l’ ancienne estaple de Bruges’

Dissertation information
University of Porto. 2012. 273 pp. Primary Advisors: Luís Miguel Duarte, Hilario Casado Alonso

Image: Map of Europe by Diogo Homem (1563). Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze. Wikimedia Commons.

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