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Sailing into Modernity: Comparative Perspectives on the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century European Economic Transition

Some Introductory Notes on the Project’s Findings

Maria Fusaro

The jurisdictional landscape concerning wages (and wage litigation) turned out to be substantially more complex than originally expected on the basis of both the secondary literature and the preliminary samplings which I had done in the archives when I was preparing the application.

What was clear to me since the beginning, and was confirmed by the project’s work, is that the classic literature on seamen’s wages describes a substantially simplified version of events, giving the impression of homogeneity in the contractual conditions available to seamen within each of the countries examined, but this homogeneity does not seem to have really existed on the ground. Instead we found important regional variations in these agreements, and it also emerged that these agreements were sometimes even renegotiated during the trip, usually – but not exclusively – in the light of new commercial opportunities emerging. For English and Dutch ships, which in the second half of the century were strongly engaged in intra-Mediterranean tramp-shipping, changes of destination were commonplace, which opened up for seamen the chance of renegotiating the amount of their wages, or some changes in their remuneration.

Regarding England, the project’s results stress the need to investigate further, and thus re-evaluate, the direct influence of political events within the on-going jurisdictional fight between the High Court of Admiralty and the common law courts throughout the course of the long seventeenth century. There is already an ample classic secondary literature on these issues, which is mostly concerned with a traditional ‘political’ interpretation of these issues analysed from the perspective of the English civil wars, and the ideological implications of the legal conflict within that background. What is needed now is a new approach that will revisit these issues from a legal and economic perspective, properly contextualising these developments within a wider Europe-wide interpretative frame.

For France the level of centralism which is assumed to be in place already at the beginning of the seventeenth century needs to be re-evaluated, as the resistance of old jurisdictions to the actions of the central government turned out to be quite stronger than acknowledged by the secondary literature. Here again there are promising signs that scholars are now turning to the beginning of the seventeenth century to investigate the roots of the momentous reforms which characterise the latter half of the century in France. Another important element to emerge from the documentation in Marseille, was the strength of the presence of English commercial operators – and shipmasters – within the city. To visualise this better, Bernard Allaire has prepared some images on the relevance of Northerners within some of the principal notaries active in Marseilles during this period. These can be downloaded on the project’s resources webpage.

  • This presence is analysed in: M.Fusaro and B. Allaire (CMMC, Nice), ‘Litiges maritimes et disparités légales en Méditerranée 1610-1659: les gens de mer nordiques face à la justice marseillaise’, submitted to Annales HSS.

For the Netherlands what emerged powerfully from the evidence is how much the fragmentation of the government of the United Provinces affected the management of the entirety of the maritime sector, whilst issues of defence and therefore related to ‘naval’ development were, understandably, more central to the government concerns and therefore more coordinated.

  • These issues are discussed at some length in the team members’ contributions in: M. Fusaro, B. Allaire, R. Blakemore and T. Vanneste eds, Labour, Law and Empire: Comparative Perspectives on Seafarers, c. 1500-1800, Basingstoke, 2015.

The Venice side of the research clearly showed how important disagreements existed between different state agencies regarding the divergent economic interests of the ‘city’ and the ‘state’. These divergences appear most clearly in the jurisdictional battles between various magistracies, and their investigation will have important consequences for future interpretations of the Republic’s political economy.

  • A preliminary analysis of this in: M. Fusaro, ‘Politics of justice/Politics of trade: foreign merchants and the administration of justice from the records of Venice’s Giudici del Forestier’, Mélanges de l’École française de Rome, MEFRIM, 126/1 (2014), available on Open Access on MEFRIM's website.
  • These issues are also discussed in M. Fusaro, Sailing into Modernity: Maritime Labour and the Political Economy of Early Modern Europe (1573-1729), manuscript currently under consideration by Cambridge University Press.

From the general institutional perspective we made important discoveries about the practice and nature of consular representation across the Mediterranean. In particular, the jurisdictional privileges granted to consuls – usually assumed to involve the right to adjudicate first instance civil cases – appear to have been substantially weaker in reality than the classic literature assumes. At the same time, the role of more informal methods of composition has emerged as a powerful and understudied aspect of such disputes, even when judicial courts were involved at some point. These discoveries have strengthened the original hypothesis regarding the importance of studying economic activities through the development of legal institutions, and the crucial role played by the practice of civil courts – as opposed to the jurisprudence – on the early modern development of international commercial law. On this issue I believe the results of this project – and further studies which will follow, will provide an important contribution to current debates on lex mercatoria.

  • Some initial considerations on this in : M.Fusaro and B. Allaire (CMMC, Nice), ‘Litiges maritimes et disparités légales en Méditerranée 1610-1659: les gens de mer nordiques face à la justice marseillaise’, submitted to Annales HSS
  • A more detailed treatment in M. Fusaro, Sailing into Modernity: Maritime Labour and the Political Economy of Early Modern Europe (1573-1729), manuscript currently under consideration by Cambridge University Press.
  • I shall continue to develop this issue of the diversity of maritime laws through a contribution I have been invited to provide for the international conference "Migrating Words, Migrating Merchants: Migrating Law", which shall take place in Frankfurt (19-21 September 2016).

From the economic perspective we discovered a diffused small-scale entrepreneurship amongst seafarers in both England and the United Provinces, evidencing a stronger agency on the part of lower-ranking crewmembers, who appear to be more active ‘partners’ in some of these activities than mere ‘waged’ personnel.  More research is required on this issue, but it is clear that to conceptualise seafarers purely as ‘wage labourers’, as much research has done, is problematic if not misleading.

  • The English evidence was particularly powerful on this issue, and a detailed analysis of these activities is in R. Blakemore, ‘Pieces of Eight, Pieces of Eight: Sailors' Earnings and the Venture Economy of Early Modern Seafaring’, submitted to the Economic History Review.
  • Similar considerations can also be made about the crews of the United Provinces, as can be seen in T. Vanneste, ‘“Useful at sea – a Nuisance ashore?’ Repositioning Dutch seamen in the Golden Age narrative’ (submitted to the Journal of Modern History).

The comparative evolution of seamen’s pay structure in Europe over the long seventeenth century (1573-1729), with its political and social implications highlighted the importance of continuing to investigate seamen’s peculiar wage systems (as opposed to the better known early modern corporate environment), as an important precursor of modern wage labour.

  • A detailed treatment of these issues is in M. Fusaro, Sailing into Modernity

An unexpected finding was the resilience of ‘Italian’ maritime trade throughout the seventeenth century which emerged powerfully from the evidence, as did the continuing involvement of Italian capital in commercial enterprises. The study of the strategies employed to keep open their traditional trade routes, even in times of war or increasing economic crisis, is a topic which certainly deserve further attention as it would contribute to the understanding of the resilience of the ‘Italian’ economy over the longue durée.

  • An introductory analysis of this in M. Fusaro, Sailing into Modernity. However, a more serial analysis is needed on these issues, and I am currently preparing a research project which will provide considerable quantitative data on this.

These pages are to be considered still a work in progress, some of the data will be published here, with a stronger analytical element only when all the essays which are based on their analysis will be published in their final version.