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Factors for the Protection of Merchants in Early Medieval Northern Europe
Carsten Müller-Boysen (Translated by Stuart Jenks)

Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Volume 8 (2017): 210–215

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Journal of the North Atlantic C. Müller-Boysen 2017 Special Volume 8 210 Introduction Nowadays, no one blinks an eye when economic policy is executed. Every day, all over the world, one government or another passes laws, imposes taxes, collects customs and excise, doles out subsidies, and raises or lowers interest rates in order to nudge the money supply or correct inflationary tendencies. A number of these instruments of economic policy have been around for some time, so that we can trace their roots back to the Middle Ages. During this period, self-help measures by persons and institutions involved in trade life, which should ensure the economic success of trade and transport, played a greater role alongside government measures. In particular, more or less informal associations, founded by merchants for their mutual protection or for the enjoyment of rights held in common, were important factors in maintaining an environment in which trade could flourish. If we travel back in mind to the Early Middle Ages, we find ourselves in an era in which the nascent state was only beginning to build up the institutional matrix that would enable it to formulate and execute economic policy. Nonetheless, at the moment when, around 800 A.D., Northern Europe first appeared on the radar screens of continental chroniclers, it becomes evident that it already constituted an economy that—aside from the depredations of the Scandinavians, which gave the era its title “Age of the Vikings”—was characterized by substantial foreign trade. Thus, the question arises as to whether these commercial activities were fostered by political measures undertaken by territorial lords. Equally, one wonders whether Northern European merchants created their own institutional matrix to ensure their own security and profits, or whether they adapted pre-existing institutions to the task. Let me first of all set out what I mean by “early medieval trade in Northern Europe”. The time frame is easy to determine: it runs from the beginning of the Age of the Vikings, often dated from the plundering of Lindisfarne in 793,1 to the origins and growth of the Hanse in the 12th–14th centuries. Geographically, early medieval Northern European trade encompassed an immense area. From Greenland in the far northwest, it extended over the North Atlantic islands, Ireland, and England to Scandinavia, and from there eastwards to Novgorod (ON hólmgarðr) and south to Constantinople (ON mikligarðr). Goods whose origins lay north of the Polar Circle were traded alongside merchandise from the Rhineland. Seafaring merchants (ON farmenn) played a central role in the long-distance trade of the era. They were unquestionably a footloose lot, sailing the high seas of Northern Europe with very little interference from the state, which in any event scarcely can be said to have existed, and concluding lucrative deals with their merchandise, while not being unalterably adverse to pillage, if need be (Müller-Boysen 1987:254–257). Since these far-flung activities physically removed them from their clans, they were on their own when trading. The farther afield they strayed, the more urgently they needed effective protection of life and goods. Early medieval Northern Europe was a dangerous place for a lonely travelling merchant transporting expensive merchandise. Thieves and pirates cast a covetous eye on his goods. If a merchant’s ship was wrecked, he had to reckon not only with the loss of his merchandise and vessel, but also— should he manage to reach dry land—with being bludgeoned to death or sold into slavery, even in peacetime. Armed conflict raised the ante: previously impregnable trading centers proved quite unable to guarantee a merchant’s personal safety or protect his goods. No foreign merchant arriving in a strange place could be certain of enjoying legal protection. Even if this were the case, that did not mean that he was on an equal footing with the natives in legal actions. Even if the law was on his side, he stood alone in Factors for the Protection of Merchants in Early Medieval Northern Europe Carsten Müller-Boysen* (Translated by Stuart Jenks) Abstract - The very first historical sources which shed light on economic life in early medieval Scandinavia demonstrate that measures were being taken in order to provide for the security of trade. Merchants themselves made efforts to develop cooperative forms of organization designed to provide the greatest possible protection for life and goods when they were on the move. Kings and other territorial lords were also interested in removing threats to merchants and markets within their dominions, particularly since vigorous trade meant higher tax income for them. Early medieval Northern Europe witnessed the execution of economic policies designed to succor trade and direct it in orderly channels. Debating the Thing in the North: The Assembly Project II Journal of the North Atlantic *Landesarchiv Schleswig-Holstein, Prinzenpalais, D-24837 Schleswig, Germany; Carsten.Mueller-Boysen@la.landsh.de. 2017 Special Volume 8:210–215 Journal of the North Atlantic C. Müller-Boysen 2017 Special Volume 8 211 court, lacking oath-helpers who, had he been at home, would have been drawn from his clan and whose statements under oath were essential to back up his word and win the case. Hence, the foreign merchant was at a disadvantage in court, irrespective of whether he had to defend himself against a charge or demand compensation for a crime against his person or his goods. Worse yet, if he was unlucky enough to die in a strange place, his property was lost to his heirs. And if he had been the victim of homicide, there was no one with the legal standing to demand compensation for his death. In view of the daunting variety of risks to which a foreign merchant was exposed, it becomes apparent that effective protection had two aspects: 1. On the one hand, a merchant had need of physical protection against violence directed at his life or his property. 2. On the other hand, he needed legal protection, which would guarantee the inviolability of his person and his goods and punish those who attacked or robbed him. Moreover, he required a recognized legal standing when venturing abroad, one that would enable him to prosecute his claims in foreign courts. Building a legal framework for commerce also meant increased security for all merchants. Creating a legal framework for the security of merchants and merchandise in a region such as early medieval Northern Europe—where monarchies were still struggling merely to exist and were far removed from being able to effectively deal with the problem of security and order—meant that those active in commerce were left to their own devices, so that self-defense loomed large. Merchants soon realized that mutual self-protection in more or less formal associations was the best way to ward off the myriad risks of their profession and provide for their common security. Associations and Partnerships Whenever merchants came on board a ship in which they intended to sail to far-off markets, they founded a sworn association for the duration of the voyage. Within the purview of this cooperative, they fulfilled two functions that were derived from the traditions of maritime law in Northern European legal systems. Since they accompanied their goods on the voyage, they were not only freighters, but also members of the crew, with all the rights and duties accompanying that status. The general obligation of all passengers on a ship to take an active part in defending the vessel if it came under attack lent the sworn association of merchants on board the character of a mutual defense organization (Slesvig Stadsret § 57, 58; Magnus Hakonarsons By-Lov IX:§ 7; Jónsbók IX:§ 9).2 Commercial partnerships constituted a second, separate, and very common form of self-protection. These were founded as a joint-stock partnership between the parties (ON félag). The defense aspect of the partnership came to the fore if and when one partner died. In that case, the merchandise owned by the partnership was not forfeit to the crown or land-owner, since ownership was invested in the other partner because the partnership’s capital was held in common (Magnus Hakonarsons By-Lov IX, § 22). The surviving partner could lay full claim to the firm’s merchandise and transport it back home, thus securing the deceased’s share for his heirs, as numerous examples demonstrate (Vápnfirðinga saga chapter 4:31). Had the deceased been done to death by violence, his partner was legally in a position to demand compensation for the crime from the culprits (Grágás § 97), thus providing the heirs of his deceased partner with an indemnification for the loss of their relative. Commercial partnerships were not uncommonly comprised of a sleeping partner, who provided the capital, but stayed at home, and an active partner, who provided no capital, but invested his labor, accompanying the firm’s merchandise to market. The defense aspect of these partnerships lay in the fact that it gave the sleeping partner an opportunity to diversify his investments, putting his capital into a number of partnerships. This reduced the risk of loss, just as was the case with ships owned by several partners in common (Konungs skuggsjá 14). Guilds In contradistinction to commercial partnerships, which were generally entered into only for the duration of a single voyage, guilds (ON gildi) were associations for life, in which the economic aspects were kept in the background and the sworn obligation to assist and defend one’s brother members was decisive (Anz 1998, Bisgaard and Søndergaard 2002, Müller-Boysen 1990:66–81). This aspect was so paramount that the oath was solemnly repeated each year at the guild’s feast. On the one hand, the guilds fulfilled a deterrence function in that no insult, much less a crime committed against a brother member of the guild could be tolerated, and all members were duty bound to avenge it. On the other hand, there was a host of duties to assist one another. Thus, if a member became endangered or suffered economic loss (e.g., in the case of loss of merchandise or an emergency at sea), his fellow members were required to assist him. Moreover, Journal of the North Atlantic C. Müller-Boysen 2017 Special Volume 8 212 membership in the guild enhanced the legal position of each of its members in court, since they could count on their brother members to be their oathhelpers (Müller-Boysen 1990:66–81). In addition, conflicts between guild members were ironed out internally, which was undoubtedly advantageous (Anz 2002:24–25). It was precisely the functions of deterrence, assistance, and legal support that made guilds attractive for merchants, since whenever they journeyed abroad, they had, of necessity, physically to remove themselves from the security net provided by family and friends at home. Since the guild was an artificial clan, which one joined of one’s own free will and which provided the active support of a clan irrespective of where the individual was at the moment, it provided a powerful shield for long-distance merchants. It is difficult to state with any confidence where and when Scandinavian guilds originated, but there can be no doubt that by the second half of the 11th century they were well established (cf. Bugge 1913:132, Christensen 1966:160, Müller-Boysen 1990:81, Seip 1960:320). Protective Measures Not only were journeys to far-off markets hazardous for long-distrance merchants, but so were day-to-day dealings in the market place. Simply put, not all commercial disputes were settled peacefully. There were more than enough traders who were prepared to use violence to secure their commercial interests, so that a merchant’s life and property were constantly exposed to considerable danger (cf. Müller-Boysen 1987:254-257). If no third party could guarantee that commercial dealings would remain peaceful and enforce that guarantee, then those engaged in trade could at least agree to keep the peace among themselves, thus providing mutual security (Lehmann 1893). Those present in the market place committed themselves to maintaining the peace among one another, at least as long as trading was going on. In the Nordic world, there existed a corresponding formal peace agreement (ON grið), in which those present in a particular place pledged to one another that they would forswear violence for a stated period of time (cf. Bøe, Lárusson, Hafström and Wessén 1960:463-467). This institution seems not to have been limited to those of Nordic descent and legal culture, but there seem to have been corresponding possibilities of coming to a peace agreement even when non-Scandinavians were involved (Müller-Boysen 1990:89–91). Again, there existed the possibility of withdrawing to a place where the peace was guaranteed for other reasons before conducting business. Markets, for instance, tended to spring up in the vicinity of the assembly areas of the Thing or at religious sites, where all persons were required to behave peaceably (cf. Heimskringla - Óláfs saga helga chapter 77:109; Laxdoela saga chapter 12:22). Private-order institutions were not the only alternative open to long-distance traders hoping to establish a framework of security for commerce. Northern European territorial lords also made efforts to protect commerce and trade within their dominions. The earliest written sources, dating from the 9th century, spotlight how fiscally beneficial flourishing trade could be for a territorial lord (Annales regni Francorum a. 808:126). That was surely the crucial inducement for lords to take measures to protect merchants, measures that I feel quite justified in regarding as instruments of economic policy (Müller-Boysen 2007:180). These protective measures could take the form of assuring individual merchants of personal royal protection. Such a policy entailed the consequence, of course, that should such a person be injured or killed, the crown would act in the interest of the victim, demanding compensation or imposing penalties. There are some indications that Scandinavian kings entered into commercial partnerships with merchants, founding joint-stock companies (Heimskringla - Prologus:6–7, Óláfs saga helga, chapter 66:83–84, chapter 133:227–229). One is justified in viewing these partnerships as a potent form of commercial protection, since the merchant in question possessed a partner who had much more impressive means at his disposal to defend and further the common interests of the firm than did a partnership comprised of just 2 merchants alone. Other measures can be viewed as active attempts to ensure law and order. A territorial lord might, for instance, impose a market peace on places where trading was conducted and enforce it, in particular by appointing a market reeve, empowered to enforce law and order in his name. Officials called comes or praefectus vici were demonstrably active in the early medieval emporia Birka and Haithabu; since they possessed coercive powers (Rimbert chapter 11:32– 33, chapter 19:39–42, chapter 31:63), it is likely that they enforced law and order in the market place. In addition, territorial lords at times proclaimed a guarantee of security for all peaceable merchants, be it for a part (Annales Fuldenses a. 873:78) or for the whole of their dominions. Finally, combatting robbers and plunderers, particularly Vikings, can only be seen as an active attempt to ensure law and order, one which redounded to the advantage of merchants. Such measures ranged from the interdiction of undertaking a Viking expedition from the territory of the lord (Annales Bertiniani a. 836:12, a. 838:16) to punishing thieves Journal of the North Atlantic C. Müller-Boysen 2017 Special Volume 8 213 and robbers among the lord’s own subjects (Orkneyinga saga chapter 4:7–8; Heimskringla - Hákonar saga góða chapter 7:120–121, chapter 8:158–160; Helmold von Bosau chapter 49:96–97). The earthworks which enclose Haithabu on the leeward side bear witness to the massive effort undertaken to defend this emporium and to protect merchants and commerce Müller-Boysen (1990:99– 105). It is inconceivable that such a massive bastion could have been built by anyone other than the Danish king. Only a monarch would have it in his power to coordinate the labor necessary to construct it and keep the workers sheltered and fed. Moreover, the written sources tell us that the king was very much interested in enhancing his income from customs and excise (Annales regni Francorum a. 808:126). Fortifications designed to protect trade existed in many forms. Aside from erecting earthworks around a settlement, one could fortify a hilltop or some other defensible place, providing the populace with a place of refuge in case of attack, to which merchants could also repair with their goods. To protect settlements against attack from the sea or navigable rivers, barricades could be erected which governed the approaches. Finally, one could mount sentries to keep watch and give warning—with signal fires, for instance—of the approach of hostile forces (Orkneyinga saga chapter 66:149, Heimskringla - Hákonar saga góða chapter 20:176). Commercial Law The first step of territorial lords towards providing legal protection to merchants was to guarantee them a special legal status designed to cater to their needs when they were on the move or to create a local jurisdiction which takes account of the interests of foreign merchants in the settlements where they pursued their business, e.g., a Bjarkey law (cf. Wessén 1956:655–658). A first example of this is a privilege with which Olav the Saint at the beginning of the 11th century gave special rights to Icelanders who were staying in Norway (Diplomatarium Islandicum I No. 21:64–66; cf. Norges gamle love indtil 1387:437–438). There were several aspects: • a legal status which gave foreign merchants equal standing in court or possibly even superior status, • regulations designed to secure a deceased merchant’s goods for his heirs,3 • a guarantee of freedom of movement, and • freedom from oppressive customs and duties.4 The security of contracts was, of course, important for every merchant. He had to be certain that any contracts he entered into would be fulfilled and that sales contracts would not be cancelled subsequently. Records of medieval Scandinavian law contain 2 fully developed institutions that might well be interpreted as manifesting the desire to provide for the sanctity of contracts. First, the legal framework of commercial partnerships in the High Middle Ages was not limited to the structures discussed above, which forsaw that either both merchants would trade together or that only the active partner would (Amira 1882, Lehmann 1908, Pappenheim 1889), but there was also a third structure, in which a merchant would consign his goods to a travelling merchant for sale (Jónsbók IX:§§ 22–23, Magnus Hakonarsons By-Lov IX:§§ 21–22). Note that at the very moment when these structures were given legal form in written law they could look back on a long tradition documented in inscriptions on runic stones (Ruprecht 1958:69–71,186; Müller- Boysen 1990:129–130). A second element of commercial law, which was remarkably detailed for its time, was comprised of the rules governing the sworn association of all those aboard a ship (Müller-Boysen 1990:136–145, Pappenheim 1930). This shipboard association consisted of the ship’s owner and the merchants travelling along. All these persons had a dual function as freighters of the ship and as its crew. Among other duties, they were obliged to take an active part in defending the vessel if it came under attack. Once the oath was sworn, binding skipper and merchants alike, the ship’s owner relinquished his exclusive control over the ship and was duty bound to bow to the collective will of the other members on all matters concerning the voyage (loading and unloading, route, etc.). The duties of the merchants on board towards the skipper extended beyond the duration of the voyage, in particular when called upon for assistance. Conflicts aboard the ship could be settled internally, and the shipboard association would punish any legal injury inflicted on it. Once the ship reached port, of course, the merchants competed with one another for trade, although it was expected that they would not attempt to disadvantage one another. Conclusion It goes without saying that any attempt to portray the measures undertaken to protect trade and traders in early medieval Northern Europe will have numerous gaps. Nonetheless, the very first sources which detail the activities of Scandinavian monarchs reveal that they were very interested indeed in promoting trade and were ready and willing to take measures to further the security of commerce. Developments following the end of the Age of the Vikings Journal of the North Atlantic C. Müller-Boysen 2017 Special Volume 8 214 demonstrate that a considerable variety of steps were undertaken to provide the world of commerce with sufficient security for the conduct of business. The commercial flowering of early medieval Northern Europe, which contrived to supply native and foreign goods to a substantial portion of the populace and to connect the Orient with the West, can only be understood as the result of the success of longdistance merchants in developing and utilizing various forms of self-protection and of territorial lords in removing barriers to trade and providing security and legal protection to merchants within their dominions. These measures allowed trade to flow in orderly, secure channels, to the greater profit of all participants. Literature Cited Primary Sources Annales Bertiniani. G. Waitz (Ed.). Monumenta Germaniae Historica. SS rer. Germ.V. Hannover, Germany. Annales Fuldenses. F. Kurze (Ed.). Monumenta Germaniae Historica. SS rer. Germ.VII. Hannover, Germany. Annales regni Francorum. F. Kurze (Ed.). Monumenta Germaniae Historica. SS rer. Germ.VI. Hannover, Germany. Diplomatarium Islandicum. Íslenzkt fornbréfasafn […] Bd. I 834-1264. Kaupmannahöfn, Reykjavík, Iceland. Grágás. Islændernes Lovbog i Fristatens Tid […]. V. Finsen (Ed.). Kjøbenhavn, Denmark. Heimskringla. B. Aðalbjarnarson (Ed.). Íslenzk Fornrit XXVI-XXVIII. Reykjavík, Iceland. Helmold von Bosau. Chronica Slavorum. B. Schmeidler (Ed.). Monumenta Germaniae Historica. SS rer. Germ. XXXII. Hannover, Germany. Jónsbók. Kong Magnus Haakonssons Lovbog for Island […]. Ó. Haldórsson (Ed.). Odense, Denmark. Konungs skuggsjá. Speculum regale. Kjøbenhavn, Denmark. [Magnus Hakonarsons By-Lov] Den nyere By-Lov eller Bjarkö-Ret, udgiven af Kong Magnus Haakonssön. Pp. 179–290, In R. Keyser and P.A. Munch (Eds.).Norges gamle love II. Christiania, Norway. Norges gamle love indtil 1387. R. Keyser and P. A. Munch (Eds.). Christiania, Norway. Laxdoela saga. E. Ó. Sveinsson (Ed.). Íslenzk Fornrit V. Reykjavík, Iceland. Orkneyinga saga. F. Guðmundsson (Ed.). Íslenzk Fornrit XXXIV, Reykjavík, Iceland. Rimbert. Vita Anskarii. G. Waitz (Ed.). Monumenta Germaniae Historica. 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Gilder, lav og broderskaber i middelalderens Danmark. University of Southern Denmark Studies in History and Social Sciences Vol. 247. Syddansk Universitetsforlag. Odense, Denmark. 394 pp. Bugge, A. 1913. Altschwedische Gilden. Neuere Arbeiten über schwedische Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte. Vierteljahreschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte 11:129–156. Bøe, A., M.M. Lárusson, G. Hafström, and E. Wessén 1960. Grið. Pp. 463–467, In KLNM V. Kulturhistorisk Leksikon for nordisk middelalder fra vikingetid til reformationstid 1956–1978. Rosenkilde og Bagger, København, Denmark. Vol I–XXII. Christensen, A.E. 1966. Birka uden frisere. Pp. 17–38, In Årbog 1966. Udgivet af Selskabet Handels- og Søfartsmuseets Venner, Helsingør, Denmark. Iuul, S. 1956. Arvekøb. Pp. 257–258, In Kulturhistorisk Leksikon for nordisk middelalder fra vikingetid til reformationstid 1956–1978. Vol. I. Rosenkilde og Bagger, København, Denmark. Lehmann, K. 1893. Kauffriede und Friedensschild. 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Wessén, E. 1956. Bjärköarätt. Pp. 655–658, In Kulturhistorisk Leksikon for nordisk middelalder fra vikingetid til reformationstid 1956–1978. Vol. I. Rosenkilde og Bagger, København, Denmark. Endnotes 1On the historical classification of the Viking Age and on the relationship between trade and robbery in this period, see Müller-Boysen (1987). 2For an analysis of the evidentiary value of the commercial regulations in early medieval Northern European law codes, see Müller-Boysen (1997:87–102). 3In Denmark, merchants were able to protect themselves against the payment of a trade levy from the fact that their inheritance fell to the crown in the event of death, cf. Iuul (1956:257–258). 4For a conspectus of the relevant legal precepts, see Müller-Boysen (1990:109–115).