The Fruits of Civilization (22-6) Trading Companies

Trading Companies

Besides opening a new phase of transport and economic relations between southern and northern Europe, the seagoing ventures inspired a shift in scale, both in commercial volume and business organization. Trading and financial companies replaced itinerant merchants.

European merchants until the 10th century were typically foreigners: anyone from the Levant, Jews included. With the revival of commerce, native Europeans increasingly took up the occupation.

The mercantile life was arduous: requiring stamina, courage, and business acumen. These medieval road warriors typically traveled in caravans for safety, bearing their own arms, or employing armed guards to ward off bandits. Travel by sea tempted piracy and risked shipwreck.

Under the simplest scenario a merchant’s entire capital was his merchandise. An early form of partnership arose in the 10th century – commenda – where 1 or more merchants provided the capital for another who traveled and traded. The money typically came from merchants too old to take the rigors of the road and the sea, and who could afford to do otherwise. Commenda were generally used for maritime trade. The practice evolved into investment capital; thus arose the concept of a company.

The Italians were early adopters of vera societá. By the 12th century Italian companies were combining commerce with banking. The Florence-based Bardi and Peruzzi companies were the biggest business organizations in the world before the great chartered companies arose in the 17th century. Both went bankrupt in the 1340s from extending too much credit to impecunious sovereigns like King Edward III of England.