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Sites, Places, Spaces: Merchant Practices in the Mediterranean (from the late Middle Ages to Modern Times)

Workshop co-hosted by ‘Ramses2’, the ‘Social Sites Network' and ‘U.M.R. Telemme’
7-9 June 2007

Maison Méditerranéenne des Sciences de l’Homme, Aix-en-Provence, France


Programme & Abstracts

 Programme Flyer (PDF Document)

I. Summary

The workshop intends to explore exchanges in the Mediterranean from the Middle Ages to modern times, in particular their spatial dimensions. It aims at a deeper understanding of how social practices of exchange contributed to the creation and shaping of spaces and specific sites. Sites and spaces of exchange are here understood as socially constructed by agents and at the same time as fundamental elements directing merchant practices. Shaped and constructed by mercantile practices, space also forms and constrains practices; consequently, space is never neutral. The spatial dimensions of merchant practices might thus be investigated from various angles: by analyzing social sites, that is sites that have been created or appropriated, or are transitory or permanent; by assessing the impact of political-judicial structures, institutionalized or accustomed as what the early modern mercantile literature terms “place”; finally, by exploring the creation of larger economic spaces, focusing on its processes, agents and routines.

The connections between site, place and space within the context of merchant practices will form the core of our analyses. Since academic periodizations have proven problematic (Middle Ages / early modern), the workshop will span the longue durée. Mediterranean exchanges took on different dimensions depending on whether the observations originated, for instance, from thirteen-century Pisa and Genoa (and later from other early modern European cities and ports), or, on the contrary, from al-Andalus and the Geniza of Cairo in the eleventh century. Thus, the effect of such perspectivity should form part of our analyses of the multiple dimensions of exchange and merchant practices, characterized by polyvalence, simultaneity and discontinuity: the polyvalence of sites, for instance, which were created and bestowed by agents who attributed to them different and variable functions, permanently or temporarily; the simultaneity of exchanges in this Mediterranean world of encounters, in particular across cultural and religious borders, requiring economic actors to cope with different religious, cultural and legal contexts; and the discontinuity of the rhythms of exchange due to discrepancies and contrasting evolutions which often lack evident correlation, alternating with periods of great intensity of exchanges, creating effervescences and frictions that might generate new social sites or eradicate others. These multiple dimensions may influence the scope of our analysis of the spatiality of exchanges in various ways.


II. Organizers

Wolfgang Kaiser
Professeur d’histoire moderne à l’Université de Paris I (Panthéon – Sorbonne),
Directeur d’Etudes à l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris),
U.M.R. Telemme (Maison Méditerranéenne des Sciences de l’Homme, Aix-en-Provence)

Gilbert Buti
Maître de conférences en histoire moderne, Université de Provence (Aix-Marseille I),
U.M.R. Telemme (Maison Méditerranéenne des Sciences de l’Homme, Aix-en-Provence)

Maison Méditerranéenne des Sciences de l’Homme
5, rue du Château de l’Horloge
F- 13094 Aix-en-Provence cedex 2


III. Co-sponsors

“Sites, Places, Spaces” pools the resources and activities of three distinct academic institutions and initiatives:

1) Ramses2 Network of Excellence / Réseau d’excellence
WPS 3.1. Commercial exchanges / Echanges commerciaux (coord. J.-Y. Empereur, W. Kaiser, B. Salvemini),

2) ‘Social Sites – Öffentliche RäumeLieux d'échanges 1300-1800’
This international academic network was established among members from the Universities of Dresden (Susanne Rau and Gerd Schwerhoff), Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne (Wolfgang Kaiser) and Warwick (Beat Kümin) in March 2003. Supported by an ‘Academic Collaboration’ grant from the Leverhulme Trust, it investigates perceptions of space in premodern Europe, with reference both to contemporary awareness and modern theoretical approaches. ‘Sites, Places, Spaces’ forms its third workshop. For further information see

3) U.M.R. Telemme (Temps, Espaces, Langages en Méditerranée)
Groupe Pratiquer l’échange : circuits, parcours et ressources (coord. G. Buti et W. Kaiser),


IV. The conceptual framework

Social Sites

The town, and maybe even more so, the port, described as a piazza permanente, had an important role in exchanges occurring within urban settings and from one “place” to another. These exchanges were materialised in an architectural morphology and, potentially, in the reshaping of the sites of commercial transactions within urban spaces structured by closely interrelated institutions, laws and jurisdictions equally subject to historical change. If the creation and differentiation of specialized transaction sites (bourse, loggia), constituted an evolution that refers to Europe in general, there might have been equivalent but distinct phenomena in the Mediterranean world. We may think of the appropriated architectural forms and transit places for the lodging of merchants and storage of their goods, such as the fondaco, which is of antique origin, but was inspired by Byzantine models and the Islamic traditions of dar el-wakāla, khân or funduq.

Moreover, these appropriations were not unilateral, from the Levant to Venice, and they also comprised a more ephemeral uses of sites (and objects) in the Mediterranean context. The simultaneous frequentation of sites or their successive usage for competitive or heterogeneous purposes coexists with the functional differentiation of spaces. Including both aspects in our analysis allows us to go beyond a simple opposition between the tendency to institutionalise activities and the existence of an “informal” sector considered as marginal. Institutions produce spaces, yet the different usages, dislocated from institutionalized transaction sites, also create new institutional forms, by defining “third spaces”, be they material, temporal or normative. This analysis of social sites and their various practices refer to another spatial dimension, that of a structured space which, by modern agents, is called the “place”.


Mercantile Places

The “place” describes the judicial and institutional environment of mercantile practices within one site or an ensemble of sites (marché, bourse etc.). It is thus a space that is formally constructed. Lewes Roberts’ work The Merchants Map of Commerce (London, 1638) opens with a description of the conditions of a “place” for the pursuance of the mercantile art. Political power defines an institutional framework, which protects, secures and unifies commercial conditions, but at the same time constrains some agents, and excludes others; it thus reveals the violence of institutions and the restrictions on accessibility to the “market”. Moreover, the exchange between places was based upon the idea of a plurality of markets. Political power exercising authority over a territory defined the conditions governing access to markets (for instance through the Stapelrecht) in the same way as it defined and delimited property rights and the judicial instruments that enforce them.

Furthermore, those markets or segments of markets as well as the constraints imposed upon agents were not solely the result of political will. They were also created through the interactions of merchants, who are not merely intermediaries between producer and consumer. We should be fully aware of these institutional dimensions of exchange, analyzing all forms of structuration through repetitive merchant practices, including those developed in the so-called “shadow economy”, which is also framed by values, ways of acting and constraints imposed by institutionalised usages and official regulations.

In the Mediterranean, encounters or associations between mercantile actors, in several places, deriving from different traditions, and within heterogeneous institutional frameworks, pose also the problem of how to guarantee, for instance, the reliability and permanence of so-called “transcultural” exchanges. By a kind of meta-confidence in the capability of the partner’s community to guarantee that its members act in accordance with the norms of this specific community? By creating hybrid forms that stabilise exchanges in a “frontier zone” or “no man’s land”? Or, on the contrary, by placing faith in the technical procedures of exchange, in which each single act comprises a link in a complex chain operation from place to place? At the same time, the economic agents who we are studying are in fact acting within one or several ‘time-spaces’ in the Mediterranean and beyond. This also invites us to consider the spatiality of exchanges in terms of these spatial-temporal constructions.


Economic Spaces

The notion of economic space opens up several analytical dimensions. It is, for instance, the space of a port which, embedded in a network system, links a hinterland with the space in which its products are commercialised. The centrality of port cities and their agents must be approached with caution since their inland counterparts might play an equally important role. For example, was Lyon the hinterland and market of Marseilles, or was Marseilles simply the port of Lyon? Should we not remember that the most influential agents in Mediterranean exchanges did not necessarily reside in the area but, for example, in the seventeenth century, rather in London or Leghorn?

Economic space is expressed through practices materialized in customs, habits and routines – economic space is a relational space. We may think of the traditional forms and trajectories of maritime navigation, directly (en droiture) or from port to port (en caravane), which had their specific rhythms and trajectories, partly determined by the agents themselves whose motivations remain implicit and can only be elucidated, in the case of the caravane, by a detailed analysis of the context of each port. What are the connections between such implicit routines and more general considerations on the links between different levels of commerce and on the exchanges from place to place? How did actors become aware that they were acting within a system of “places”, and what kind of reflections developed from this awareness? The understanding of the mechanisms of commerce, of a system of “places” or of the general idea of the “market” is usually thought to be the privilege of theorists of economic ideas. This crucially neglects the role of “practical” agents, whose reflections are deeply rooted in their commercial experience or, perhaps, in the concrete memory of sites. These elements may have influenced the evaluation of risk and decision-making processes, which, without a close reading of the agents’ experiences, may appear ‘irrational’. This does not exclude questions of how abstract levels of thinking transforms the practical knowledge upon which it is based. Is it a matter of a gradual transformation of a shared knowledge or has the reflection on the “market” surpassed a threshold to an abstract level of thinking and thus provoked the break implied by the term métaphysique de l’échange as it appeared in the French debate of 1770 on the liberty of commerce of calico and grain, opposing Turgot to Galiani and Diderot?

Addressing Mediterranean exchanges through their spatial dimensions and spatial-temporal rhythms permits a reconsideration of a whole range of problems: an analysis of the links between agents, social practices of exchange and the production of interrelated spaces and particular sites; a comprehension of the institutional structures of all practices of exchange; an exploration of the connection between routine and explicit reflection in the production of social knowledge as well as of the relation between the latter and abstract ways of thinking. Similar lines of thought might transform, or at least re-orientate, our perspectives not only on the Euro-Mediterranean region but more generally on the spatial-temporal practices and the structuring of the mercantile art, which have belatedly been subsumed under ‘economy’.