Research Spotlight: Every Man is Now in the Market: Commercialization and Christianity in Medieval Liguria, 1250-1300

In a special collaboration with the College of Arts and Sciences, this week’s Research Spotlight features a graduate student from the FSU Department of History.

In my master’s thesis, “Every Man is Now in the Market: Commercialization and Christianity in Medieval Liguria, 1250-1300” I discussed the close positive relationship between the piety and charity of everyday laypeople in and around medieval Genoa and the emergent commercial economy. I consulted sources such as notarial contracts, confraternal documents, leases, contemporary literature, and hagiographies (lives of saints). Ultimately, I argued against interpreting medieval merchants and commercial laborers as profit-driven “proto-capitalists” who found themselves and their commercial ambitions opposed to those of the medieval Christianity. To the contrary, public demonstrations of piety and religiosity were quite common among individuals involved in commercial occupations. I argued that the attitudes of individuals involved in the commercial economy of thirteenth-century Genoa were not antithetical to medieval Christianity, but instead contributed to a type of “Christian commerce” that imbued commercial activity with Christian principles of charity and moral business principles.  To be a good merchant required being a good Christian, and it required achieving a favorable reputation in the eyes of one’s neighbors and community.  Moreover, this ideology was predominantly spread at the community level, by local traders, artisans, and businessmen, rather than being imposed upon an unwilling commercial community by the Church hierarchy, monks, or the popular mendicant friars.

Scholarship on Genoa, particularly in English, often focuses on the city’s robust economic history, highlighting the success of the Genoese in establishing commercial ports throughout the Mediterranean between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, but this economic focus sometimes leads to viewing the medieval Genoese as “proto-capitalist” at the cost of downplaying their religiosity. I hoped to counter this in my work by shifting the focus to the religious activities of commercial laypeople and highlighting the direct relationship between commercial growth and the religious and charitable initiatives taken by the Genoese laity. Of these initiatives, some were common to other medieval cities, while others were unique to Genoa. For example, in my first chapter I discuss the emergence of Genoese craft organizations (arti). These were collectives of individuals within a particular line of work, such as dyers or tailors, who grouped together to advance the status of their respective trades. Unlike the monopolistic and politically driven craft organizations of Florence or Siena, the early Genoese crafts were largely voluntary, lacked the power of monopoly over their trades, and had no political power until the fourteenth century. Their focus was entirely on implementing moral guidelines for work and pricing, in addition to requiring members to respect religious holidays. My favorite example is in my third chapter, where I discuss hospitals. Genoa had dozens of small hospital institutions in the thirteenth century, most of which were staffed by laypeople who donated their property to the hospital to live and work in it. In one example, that of Santo Stefano, I find numerous leases in which dyers, tailors, and blacksmiths rent tracts of land directly from the hospital for their workshops, but also align themselves with the hospital by serving as voluntary witnesses and advocates for the hospital in legal disputes. Overall, my goal in this project was to direct attention toward the efforts and concerns of everyday people in the medieval period who did not leave behind extensive personal writings, and to argue that as commercialization advanced, Christian charity and morality did not fall to the wayside.  

Lee Morrison is a Masters student in the Department of History at FSU. His research focuses on the religious and social history of medieval Italy. You can learn more about Lee here.

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