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8-08-2015, 00:33

Town life and trade

The Byzantine countryside was still a source of considerable wealth, as may be seen in the great fortunes that large proprietors were able to amass. The vitality and wealth of which this society was still capable are more evident in the cities, whose role and population underwent a true transformation. For one thing, although the capital retained its importance, a number of provincial cities emerged as centres of government, primarily in the European provinces, since Asia Minor was, for all intents and purposes, lost within the first three decades. The defence of the cities by their inhabitants at the time of the Catalan attack and later undoubtedly contributed to the growing sense of independence of the urban populations.42 Some cities acquired imperial privileges which guaranteed a certain degree of self-government in matters both administrative and fiscal. As for the population of the cities, we lack firm numbers; Constantinople and Thessaloniki may have had 100,000 inhabitants each.43 It included, as ever, members of the aristocracy, but also groups that are much less visible in the sources: people with landed property, both urban and rural, who might be termed the local gentlefolk, who had some comfortable level of affluence and a certain political role, sometimes exercised through offices in the government of the city, including offices in the church.44 A third group includes merchants and artisans, whose existence is attested in a large number of cities, including Thessaloniki, Adrianople, Ainos, Raidestos, Serres, Ioannina, Arta,Mistra,Monemvasia and Sozopolis. The inhabitants of the coastal cities, in contact with Venetian and Genoese merchants, had commercial activities which were more developed than those of cities of the hinterland.However, the less visible commercial activities of towns and cities of the hinterland must not be neglected. The role of the cities and urban populations in trade must be seen in conjunction with the larger economic realities of the period. Primary among them is the fact that, until the middle of the century, the cities of Venice and Genoa, as yet untouched by the crisis that affected northern Europe, were predominant in a trading system which they had established, and which included the eastern Mediterranean, Italy and western Europe. For the countries of the eastern Mediterranean and above all for Byzantium which had given substantial commercial privileges to these cities, the result was that their exchange economy functioned within this larger system, and with a specific role: Byzantine exports to the west consisted primarily of foodstuffs and raw materials, and its imports consisted primarily of manufactured products, among which textiles and ceramics were particularly important. Nevertheless, it should be stressed that this set of economic relations created secondary systems of exchange, in which native merchants participated actively: it was they, for the most part, who carried the merchandise along the land routes; they sailed from port to port in the Aegean, had active economic and financial relations with the Italians, and even, in the case of the Monemvasiots, a booming sea trade of their own. Secondary and dependent this role may have been, but it was significant. Thessaloniki, for example, was the hub of a trade network that included the Balkans west of the Strymon river, as well as Serbia, and reached the sea both in Thessaloniki itself and in Dubrovnik; an important part of the city population consisted of sailors and merchants (see below, p. 846). Other cities, like Adrianople, had merchants who were involved in a second subsystem, including Constantinople, Thrace and Bulgaria, and who had transactions with the Genoese in the towns of the Black Sea.45 What the Byzantine merchants could not do was to engage in long-distance trade. The markets of Italy were almost closed to them.46 As for the Black Sea, Byzantine traders probably had an uninterrupted presence here; that of the Monemvasiots should be particularly noted. The Byzantine presence became fairly massive in the 1340s, when the merchants of Constantinople profited from the conflict between Genoa, Venice and the khans of the Crimea, massive enough to provoke a war with Genoa, and a peace treaty (1352) that included a clause severely limiting the access of Byzantine merchants to Tana and the Sea of Azov. Merchants and bankers were an important group in Constantinople in the first half of the century. Apart fromthe participation of theByzantines in the regional trade which was connected with Italian commerce, there was trade between cities and their hinterland, fuelled partly by the fact that the peasants had to pay their taxes in coin, and partly by the commercialised production of landlords. There was also trade in foodstuffs between different parts of Macedonia.47 Local production of woollen cloth is attested in Serres and Thessaloniki.48 But this was small-scale production, for we hear mostly of imports of western cloth. In those cities where commercial activity was most developed, the merchants (along with other urban inhabitants, including bankers and artisans) were, in this period, identified as a distinct social group. They were usually called the mesoi, literally, the ‘middle group’, being between the landowning aristocracy and the people.49 They appear to have been conscious enough of their economic interests; they vociferously opposed Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos when, in 1347, he asked for contributions to rebuild the army and the fleet. While presumably a fleet would safeguard their commercial interests, especially in the Black Sea, it may be that their affairs were too deeply intertwined with those of the Italian merchants for them to wish to jeopardise them.50 This is also the first time in Byzantine history where the literature mentions merchants (or those who become rich through trade) in a way which juxtaposes them to the aristocracy, but certainly includes them among the rich, in the traditional division of rich and poor.51 The salient characteristics of the Byzantine city of this period, then, especially of the cities most involved with trade, are the following. They are the place of residence of members of the high aristocracy, who also hold political power. A segment of the population, involved in trade, is economically strong but does not participate in the governance of the city. There is in this relatively structured society a growing division between rich and poor, within the close confines of the city. There are, finally, times of insecurity, risk and stress, connected with political troubles. Thus after 1328 Andronikos III had to give relief to creditors impoverished by the civil war, forgiving them the interest on loans. A number of people made a great deal of money, but social tensions were present, and obvious to contemporary observers, from Thomas Magister (Theodoulos Monachos) in the 1320s to AlexiosMakrembolites in the early 1340s, who bitterly complained that the rich would have appropriated even the sun if they could, and deprived the poor of its light.