Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Art of the Deal

One of the very first posts on this blog years ago was about the collapse of the powerful Florentine banking corporation, the Bardi. One of he reasons often given for that collapse is the default by England's kings on repayment of loans used to fight their wars. The head of the London office for the Bardi was Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, whose job in 1347 was to deal with the results of the Bardi bankruptcy.

Still in (Italian) print!
Pegolotti (who flourished from 1310 to 1347) did something else, however, that would outlast him and the Bardi. He wrote a book, the Pratica della mercatura [Italian: "Mercantile practice"], that was a guidebook for years to come on international trade.

What is so valuable about the book? For a start, it has a glossary of all the terms used at the time in the field of mercantilism and taxes. It also contains a list of the 20 (!) languages it is good to have knowledge of if one wishes to be a successful merchant, everything from English and "Saracen" (Arabic) to several dialects of the Italian peninsula.

It lists several trading routes, everywhere from England to Persia to "Gattaio" (Cathay=China), and the stages one goes through to get to your destination. He also explains the business practices and customs of each of these places, to aid the merchant in successful dealing.

We also learn from Pegolotti what goods were to be had from each country, and where to go to find them. He lists, for instance, many monasteries in England and Scotland as sources of wool. Along with the goods, he explains the local systems of weights and measures, the local currency, and the formulæ needed to convert between them and one's own system.

Among the lists and tables included, we learn an enormous amount of detail about the 14th century:

  • Lengths of cloth
  • Fineness of gold and silver coin
  • Spices and their packing
  • Compound interest tables
  • Valuation of pearls and precious stones
  • Buying and selling grain
  • Shipping
  • Calendar tables
  • Fineness of gold and silver
  • Types and qualities of spices and other trade goods
No original manuscript exists, but the book remained in use, initially for its utility in international trade dealings, and now because of its historical value. The earliest copy we have is from over a century later, in 1472. An 18th century historian included the Pratica in a multi-volume history of Florentine finance. There is a 1936 edition that can still be found.

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