Friday, September 18, 2009

Genoa, Venice, the Crusades, and Capitalism

            Genoa and Venice- not exactly renowned centers of trade in the twenty-first century. But they had everything going for them in the 13th century. Location was certainly key, since Venice’s port opened to the eastern Mediterranean and Genoa opened to the western portion. The two cities were often at war with one another and constantly in fierce competition. Both were gateways to the Orient and the Muslim world. As Abu-Lughod said, “both cities played pivotal roles in joining Europe to the ongoing world economy of the east” (102).

            Technology was clearly key in the power of these two cities, particularly the technology that allowed them to improve their transportation of goods via sea routes. And although the Italians were reluctant to participate in the Crusades so as not to alienate their trading partners, the fact that fellow Europeans went to the Holy Land was surely advantageous to Genoa and Venice, creating in potential customers the desire for exotic goods from the East. These European ventures to the East “changed the role of the Italian merchant mariner cities from passive to active” (108). At this time the two Italian giants were building larger, more sophisticated ships, attacking and plundering other vessels, searching for new routes, and establishing small colonies in ports they found useful. While the Crusades continued, these enterprises continued to be profitable.

            Ironically, however, the Pope, whose predecessors had encouraged the invasion of Muslim territory, decided belatedly that contact with the Islamic world should be minimal. But in this case the capitalistic spirit overtook religious zeal. Genoa and Venice chose to ignore the papal injunction against trading with “infidels”, with the result that the entire city of Genoa was excommunicated. Without concrete repercussions, however, the pope’s decision was futile.

            Capitalism is something usually associated with the eighteenth century Adam Smith, was alive and well in the thirteenth century world system. Genoa and Venice had free enterprise systems in place in which merchants were practically free to do as they pleased with the added bonus of having the city-states’ governments to defend their right to do so. In many ways, however, the two cities differed- in Venice, the state was strongly influential in trade decisions, while in Genoa, a “laissez-faire” attitude was adopted and private citizens were much more involved than the government.  What I found interesting was that most Venetian citizens had invested in sea trade, so that “capital was being accumulated by more than the top elite” and “in Genoa participation was even broader” (118). Considering the time period, this was a remarkable thing, something we may expect today with the ease of investment in the stock market or real estate, but not something all too common in those days.

            I’d like to return now to Abu-Lughod’s thesis, which was that Europe was not in fact more advanced than the Middle East and Asia. In Chapter Four, it seems that the European ego was boosted by some minor victories during the Crusades and certain technological advancements that made trade with the East easier. Muslims, however, eventually pushed back the Crusaders, reclaiming their land and winning over the European barbarians who had fallen to eating human flesh (supposedly due to the fact that food was scarce).  And while the Italians felt superior and believed that they were getting the better deal in terms of their trade with the Islamic world, their Muslim counterparts did in fact have to advantage of not having to cross the Mediterranean to sell their goods. In fact, they did not rely on European trade the way that Italians needed them. Muslim traders could easily have only traded with East Asia, rendering their trade with Italy unnecessary.

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