: Fellowship and Freedom. The Merchant Adventurers and the Restructuring of English Commerce, 1582–1700. Oxford  2020. ISBN 978-0-19-879447-9

: Migrating Merchants. Trade, Nation, and Religion in Seventeenth-Century Hamburg and Portugal. Berlin  2019. ISBN 978-3-11-046993-6

Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Mary Lindemann, University of Miami

In the seventeenth century, contemporaries tended to regard merchants and commerce with considerable misgiving even distaste; they feared commerce as destructive of the fibre of society and characterised merchants as “fundamentally untrustworthy morally vacuous creatures”. Only in the eighteenth century, and then only incompletely, did such negativity give way to a new sense of commerce as “the most solid basis of civil society”.[1] Perhaps this old bias has contributed to a long-term gap in historical scholarship on merchants qua merchants. Economic scholars have certainly been long interested, for example, in the relationship of the commercial revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to more modern forms of capitalism, but only more recently have historians engaged more extensively with merchants as a social group[2], Historians have become increasingly aware of the contributions of merchants not only to economics but also, for example, to science and intellectual life.[3] Individual merchants of grand format and the financiers who underwrote the fiscal demands of military expansion and empire have found numerous biographers, such as Perry Gauci’s work on William Beckford.[4] Yet the lives of merchants in associational and social groups entwined with, and influenced by, larger social, political, cultural, and religious frameworks, have until recently received considerably less attention. There now exists, however, a “flourishing […] literature on premodern merchant corporations which has re-evaluated their importance in spreading markets, and laying the foundations of modern European empires” (Leng, p. 5). Some of the best known examples of these group analyses focus on early joint-stock corporations, such as the Honourable East India Company and, especially for the seventeenth century, on religious migrants and refugees, such as the New Christians who fled the Iberian Peninsula in the face of religious persecution.[5] Thomas Leng and Jorun Poettering’s books are impressive additions to this new rush of works on premodern merchants.

Leng’s study of the Merchant Adventurers and Poettering’s volume on “migrating merchants” are especially welcome because they are sensitive to the variety of merchant types within an organisation or as a group and because they anchor their analyses to the commercial revolution of the seventeenth century. Both authors, in addition, advance robust revisionist arguments: about a company member versus the free-trading merchant (Leng) and about the supposed dominance, and allegedly unique mercantile acumen of Portuguese Jews in northern Europe (Poettering). Interestingly, and not incidentally, the great mercantile entrepôt of Hamburg looms large in both studies as one of the mart-towns where the Merchant Adventurers stapled unfinished English woollen cloth and as the focal point of migration from and to Portugal. In the process of developing these revisionist positions, both authors address other major themes in early modern history and adroitly weave these into nuanced and full-bodied portraits of the members of the Fellowship of Merchant Adventurers and of the Portuguese and Netherlandish (non-Lutheran migrants from the southern Netherlands) migrants to Hamburg and, in the latter case, also to Portugal. It is too simple to reduce these well-crafted and meticulously researched works to single arguments even such very important ones. Still the two central interpretations draw Leng and Poettering into major historical and historiographical debates while advancing our understanding of the multiple factors involved in economic and social change.

Thomas Leng traces the transition of the Company of Merchant Adventurers from its 1582 removal from Antwerp through 1700. In the intervening years, the Company experienced (and to some extent also shaped) the several stages of the seventeenth-century commercial revolution. He rejects the “well-worn narratives of the early modern period as witnessing the rise of individualism and the death of community” (p. 317). This long accepted meta-narrative, according to Leng, undervalues the persistence of the “associational character of merchant life” that continued well after the decline of corporations like the Merchant Adventurers (p. 317). Newer companies, such as the English East India Company, were apparently the way of the future. He observes, however, that the mart-trading system on the one hand and the rise of commercial freedom on the other “do not respectively represent the future and the past of English commerce” (p. 317).

Poettering’s study of “migrating merchants” covers roughly the same period but homes in on other factors and advances different, albeit equally sweeping, arguments that underlie her revisionist positions on the character of groups (mostly but not exclusively mercantile) that migrated to and from Hamburg. She holds that “merchants who plied the trade route between Hamburg and Portugal […] led lives profoundly marked by the experience of migration” (p. 260). While that may first seem an equally shop-worn and even obvious interpretation, her detailed demographic, economic, social, and religious analyses of the ways in which various groups – Hamburgers, Netherlanders, and Portuguese New Christians – came to be migrants, experienced varying degrees of assimilation, and adapted to their new homes, do much to undermine existing but until now insufficiently examined ideas, for instance, of the Sephardim in Hamburg. Actually, as she points out, the New Christians who converted back to Judaism never referred to themselves by that term. She casts a sharply observant gaze on the dissimilar position of the refugees from the southern Netherlands and has much to say about the often ignored situation of Hamburgers in Portugal.

Leng revises a picture of how liberal commercialism conquered what were oftentimes viewed as monopolistic corporations, while Poettering give us a nuanced treatment of three important migrant groups who experienced migration and assimilation quite differently. We find out, for example, that contrary to those scholars who have argued for the special mercantile skills of the Sephardic Jews and their great wealth, they were by no means the most successful merchants in Hamburg nor even the richest and best-connected migrants: the Netherlanders were.[4] What all migrants shared, however, was the fact that wherever they settled, they always remained foreigners and always clung to the companionship of their own people (the nation of her title). What strengthened this desire to preserve links with their nation had much to do with how open their hosts proved. Here her results, based on a wide selection of sources from archives in Hamburg, Lisbon, Antwerp, and Amsterdam, throw into sharp relief how much the migrant experiences diverged. Moreover, and despite her title, not only (or perhaps even principally) did mercantile status or abilities decide their fates; far more critical were religion and the willingness, or reluctance, of their new found lands to welcome them. The Portuguese Jews suffered no official persecution in Hamburg but they remained a group apart possessing a permanent status as a religious and social minority. They could never hold office nor become citizens, and Hamburg significantly restricted their trade and their ability to own immovable property.

The more religiously mixed group of Netherlanders enjoyed considerably better circumstances assured by an agreement forged in 1605. The Lutherans among them slowly integrated into Hamburg society, became citizens, and held political office. The Reformed Netherlanders, however, remained distinct but soon became an economic elite in the city and not only in comparison to other migrants. Whereas both the Portuguese Jews and the Netherlanders had fled religious persecution, the Hamburgers and the Netherlanders in Portugal (the latter often travelled back and forth on business) enjoyed considerable freedom, acceptance, and protection from the Inquisition. “They were socially respected; they learned the language quickly, and many of them [especially among the Hamburgers] easily assumed the religious identification of the majority” (p. 265); they frequently joined Catholic lay brotherhoods to advance their social status. Moreover, the promise of mercantile benefits rather than flight from religious persecution accounted for the migration of both Hamburgers and Netherlanders to Portugal.

These are the big arguments Leng and Poettering advance and that they develop in carefully organized chapters, proceeding mostly chronologically in Leng’s case and mostly thematically in Poettering’s. Each author identified and mined large, often difficult, and scattered source collections. Both Leng and Poettering pay close attention to the dynamics within these communities as well as between these communities and the broader societies in which they were embedded. Neither portrays merchants solely as homines oeconomici. Leng presents an excellent case for understanding the Merchant Adventurers as a social and cultural community bound together by rules, practices, rituals, and family connections. Indeed, he devotes the entire first part of his book to the process of “becoming a merchant adventurer” and of policing the often “disorderly brethren” within the Company as a whole, Problems cropped up mostly frequently in the mart-towns on the continent especially, but not only, in Hamburg and its German hinterlands. Poettering stresses the multiple, overlapping identities – political, religious, social, and cultural – migrating merchants possessed and acquired. The interaction of these others identities often influenced their activities as merchants and accounts not only for their commercial success or failure, but also for how they lived within, and regarded, their new homes.

Leng carefully delineates the broader economic changes that created the Merchant Adventurers and that accounted for its success in the early 1600s and also explained the increasing troubles it experienced in the century’s later decades. Particularly rich and informative are the opening chapters that follow the route by which a neophyte merchant became a Merchant Adventurer. Equally impressive are the pages devoted to the life and business of Merchant Adventurers both in England and in the several mart-towns, the latter story increasingly focused on members of the corporation in Hamburg. The final chapter of his first part, titled “Disorderly Brethren?”, examines the successes and failures of the corporation’s regulatory mechanisms; more importantly, it documents the growing fissures within the membership and, particularly, those that troubled the relationships between the English office and the members in the mart-towns. Many internal divisions arose around the problem of the merchants who “straggled” outside the system of mart-towns thus sounding a leitmotif heralding greater consequences to come. Part Two details the various external threats the corporation faced, among them the need to retain royal support (not always forthcoming) and the charges of being a monopolistic enterprise harmful to the greater good of the kingdom. The author lays equal weight on the exogenous and endogenous threats of free trade and the growing political and religious divisions of the mid seventeenth century that roiled the once smoother waters of cooperation within the Company. Even when the corporation’s political clout diminished appreciably in the wake of the Glorious Revolution, mercantile associational life neither disappeared nor became a relic of a bygone age, hopelessly outdated and inefficient in a world shaped by a more liberal commercialism. If associational life took on new aspects, it nonetheless survived by adapting.

In composing this history, Leng could not rely on the records of the Company itself; they have not survived. Rather he identified a mass of other relevant materials, including a vast correspondence between merchants and with the Company. These letters reveal a great deal about relationships within the Company, the tensions that developed around the regulatory system, and the continued, if often waning, sense of community. Also valuable here were account books, port books, and the register of the Company’s church in Hamburg. Leng drew his most illuminating information from the correspondence and records of six “mere merchants” (those whose livelihood came exclusively, or almost so, from trade) “who came of age during three successive eras in the Company’s history” (p. 27) supported by a larger cast of main characters and many more bit players. In integrating personal histories into the framework of larger political and economic changes over the course of the century, Leng brilliantly illustrates how broader issues affected individuals but also how, while still huddled within the carapace of the corporation, individuals conflicted and compromised with one another.

In analysing the effects of migration on merchants in Portugal and Hamburg, Poettering, too, plunged deep into a vast reservoir of sources located in several places. Like Leng, she also centers her analysis on individual experiences and does so quite adroitly. Nonetheless, the greater part of her argument rests on aggregate data, principally economic and demographic, that deal with social groups but also present statistics on the true state of mutual trade – her many charts, tables, and appendices are particularly enlightening. The three parts of Migrating Merchants cover political and legal contexts; migration, life, and trade; and solidarity and identity. Delicately and convincingly done is her analysis of the relative success or lack of success various groups experienced in adjusting to their new environment and in conducting their businesses. Whereas Leng weighs equally the effect of exogenous and endogenous factors on the Company and that, in combination, determined the final decline of the Merchant Adventurers, Poettering “ascribe[s] the reasons for remaining foreign not primarily to the merchants themselves, but to external factors,” such as the willingness of authorities to permit migrants to convert, to carry on trade unrestricted, or, for example, to allow them travel back and forth with relative freedom. Her evidence leads her to conclude, in distinction to the findings of many other scholars, that “there was [nothing] [. . .] intrinsically advantageous about membership in a merchant diaspora” (p. 3).

Anyone interested in early modern commercial life, or, for that matter, any early modernist, will greatly profit from reading these fine books. They bulge with information but, more than that, each author throws fresh light on received wisdoms and offers important revisionist perspectives on the tenor of merchant life, the process and meaning of the commercial revolution of the seventeenth century, the lives of migrating merchants (as much a topic of Leng’s book as Poettering’s), and on toleration in Europe’s economic centers. For different reasons, however, each book is sometimes a little difficult to digest, and that is often due to their strengths: the richness of the material. There is, I hasten to add, no lack of clarity about major interpretations; both authors show skill in signposting and both write especially good conclusions to chapters. The in-between parts are sometimes, however, a bit hard going. Leng’s detail is impressive, but sometimes a little too dense for easy comprehension. Poettering’s habit of breaking chapters into short titled sections disturbs her narrative (a characteristic of German dissertations) and there is more than a little repetition in places of material previously covered. But these are quibbles. Both authors have produced excellent examples of business history and ones that will not only excite business and economic historians. The authors’ skillful integration of social, political, and cultural history into the seemingly more prosaic world of trade, their ability to keep individuals in focus and not allow them to be submerged by economic trends, as well as their robust, well-documented interpretations, make these books significant contributions to the historiography of early modern Europe writ large.

[1] Junko Thérèse Takeda, Between Crown and Commerce. Marseille and the Early Modern Mediterranean, Baltimore 2011, p. 4; Amalia D. Kessler, A Revolution in Commerce. The Parisian Merchant Court and the Rise of Commercial Society in Eighteenth-Century France, New Haven 2007, p. 3.
[2] For example, Perry Gauci, The Politics of Trade. The Overseas Merchant in State and Society, 1660–1729, Oxford, 2001; Gauci, Emporium of the World. The Merchants of London, 1660–1800, London, 2013; David Harris Sacks, The Widening Gate. Bristol and the Atlantic Economy, 1450–1700, Berkeley, 1991; and my own work on The Merchant Republics. Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Hamburg, 1648–1790, Cambridge, 2015.
[3] Harold M. Cook, Matters of Exchange. Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age, New Haven 2008.
[4]For example, Perry Gauci, William Beckford, First Prime Minister of the London Empire, New Haven 2013
[5] E.g. Philip J. Stern, The Company-State. Corporate Sovereignty and the Early Modern Foundations of the British Empire in India, Oxford 2012; Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert, A Nation Upon the Ocean Sea. Portugal’s Atlantic Diaspora and the Crisis of the Spanish Empire, 1492–1640, Oxford 2008, ch. 6; Francesca Trivellato, The Familiarity of Strangers. The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period, New Haven, 2012, and G. Yogev, Diamonds and Coral. Anglo-Dutch Jews and Eighteenth-Century Trade, Leicester, 1978.
[6] Pace Hermann Kellenbenz whose several very fine works from the 1950s examined the Sephardim in Hamburg and the trade between Hamburg and the Iberian Peninsula. See, for example, Sephardim an der unteren Elbe: Ihre wirtschaftliche und politische Bedeutung vom Ende des 16. bis zum Beginn des 18. Jahrhunderts, Wiesbaden 1958; Unternehmerkräfte im Hamburger Spanien- und Portugalhandel, 1590–1625, Hamburg 1954, among many other works.

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