REVIEW: Jessica L. Goldberg, Trade and Institutions in the Medieval Mediterranean

9780511794209iREVIEW: Jessica L. Goldberg, Trade and Institutions in the Medieval Mediterranean:  The Geniza Merchants and their Business World (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2012), hardcover, xxi + 426 pp.

Reviewed by Julie L. Mell, North Carolina State University, jlmell@ncsu.edu

This book is a careful study of the richest set of commercial documents from the Cairo Geniza. These documents, principally merchant letters, have long been recognized as invaluable for the history of medieval economic institutions, Islamic trade, and Jewish life in the Fatimid caliphate. They were first extensively studied by S. D. Goitein in his monumental A Mediterranean Society (Berkeley, University of California Press: 1967), and have since received repeated study, most recently by Avner Greif in Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy (New York: Cambridge, 2006). But Goldberg carries the interpretation of this Geniza material to a new level. Acutely aware of the fragmentary, selective, and random character of documents discarded in the Cairo Geniza, Goldberg grounds her study in a close analysis of the letters and their makers. She reconstructs the cultural and institutional conditions defining the production and use of mercantile letters in the eleventh-century Fatimid caliphate. She attends closely to the limits of their representative quality for historical analysis, and she creatively adapts prosopographical and statistical analysis to accommodate the fragmentary quality of her sources. The result of her tightly controlled focus on the eleventh-century corpus is an innovative study of Geniza merchants’ trade, institutions, and geographic networks with broad significance not only for Jewish history and Islamic studies, but for the history of economic institutions and the Mediterranean Sea as well.

The study focuses on 990-1080 C.E., the period with the densest concentration of commercial documents. From roughly 900 documents, two networks of merchants can be identified: the Ibn ‘Awkal group comprising 150+ merchants and the Nahray group comprising 400 merchants. These networks, Goldberg emphasizes, were not closed sub-groups defined by descent from the “Maghibīs” of North Africa, as has been recently suggested by Greif. The Geniza merchants were not the elites in the Jewish community, but a “middling sort” who formed “the professional, commercial, legal, administrative, and communal backbone of the Jewish communities in which they lived” (p.45). They resembled their Islamic counterparts in status, reputation, and family structures, and often collaborated with them. Their Jewishness marked them, but it was only one among a range of factors that might have aided a merchant in creating a trade network. The most important factors were a merchant’s reputation, knowledge, and connections.

Relationships of reciprocal agency, known as suba, stood at the heart of the Geniza merchants’ trade networks. Two merchants would designate each other as an unpaid agents for particular goods as often as they liked, with the understanding that the service would be repaid with a like service within a finite period of time. Previous scholars have contrasted the suba with European partnerships, particularly the commenda, describing the first as informal and communal, and the latter as formal and individualistic. Goldberg rejects this representation, noting that the suba was ‘informal’ only in that it was unwritten and unremunerated only in that it did not receive monetary pay. Each transaction was legally binding on an agent, upheld by both Jewish and Islamic courts, and necessitated reciprocal services. The network itself also ‘informally’ reinforced the system of reciprocal services through the high value placed on reputation. Geniza merchants also used partnerships and junior associates to manage their business. But, Goldberg argues, Geniza merchants found reciprocal agency a more effective institution for managing labor and compensation, because they retained full property rights at all times and had legal protection against agent misconduct.

Goldberg devotes a full chapter to the forms and functions of eleventh-century mercantile letters. Emphasizing that Geniza letters do not provide accurate information on price trends, profit margins, scale of trade, or proportions of local to long distance trade, Goldberg uses the letters to determine what merchants did and how they did it. In regard to the latter, Goldberg shows how merchants’ letters were not formal legal documents, but substitutions for direct speech, which allowed merchants to project their authority over goods and money across space. Half of all business letters concerned direct engagement with commodities and payments. Roughly 20% of letters concerned the behavior of business associates and 10%, business news. Above all, the letters confirm the significance and sophisticated role of reciprocal agency in the merchants’ trade: for letters were the “main mechanism for negotiating compensation and enforcing the informal labor contract of suba through reputation” (p.145). But one is left wondering whether the letters, because they were the principal mode for negotiating suba, may over represent the importance of reciprocal agency.

The letters also attest to what merchants did. The Geniza merchants traded in a wide range of goods, as one expects of medieval merchants: textiles, spices, food, basic household items (soap, wax, building materials), coins, as well as metals, books, and paper. But their routine activities contrast sharply with the traditional image of the Islamic merchant as a middleman, purveying pepper and pearls, gold and spices. Geniza merchants traded predominantly in the staples of agricultural produce, not luxury goods, and they acted as economic organizers, integrating sectors of the production process. Through a close study of the flax market, Goldberg demonstrates merchant involvement at every stage in the production process from the purchase of raw materials to semi-processed and processed goods. Merchants had a welter of choices to make about whether, when, and how to enter the production process, although their main task remained the transportation of regional materials to central markets, and to a lesser extent, the redistribution of goods from central markets back to secondary towns within the Islamic world. They helped “to create and maintain a vertical organization of regional economy around the central cities” and thereby sustained a “buoyant Islamic commercial economy in the Mediterranean” (p.339). They did bring extra-Mediterranean products from the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean into the Islamic Mediterranean. However, they rarely transported goods into Byzantium and never into “Latin” Europe. The reasons for this limitation lie in the role that legal and political institutions played in Islamic trade.

While Goldberg sketches the institutions structuring trade in Part I, she traces in Part II the shifting geographies of information, commodities, and individuals across the eleventh-century Mediterranean.  Goldberg tracks itineraries both for individual merchants and for Geniza merchants as a whole. She argues that the Geniza merchants strategically reduced their trade with Al-Andalus and the central Mediterranean in the later eleventh century as a result of the increasing political instability in the central Mediterranean. One wishes that Goldberg had elaborated on the political background to the shift in eleventh-century trade for the non-specialist, and had as deftly and deeply discussed the role of political institutions in trade as she did the legal institutions. But her findings on networks and the shifting geography of networks reinforce a central argument in the text countering presumptions that minority religious identity naturally fosters cross-cultural agency: “personal connections were central to long-distance trade, and hence individual agency must be at the heart of understanding both the nature and possibility of change” (p.333). Goldberg has transformed scholars’ vision of the medieval merchant in the Islamic world and made an important contribution to the field of Geniza scholarship, the history of Jews in Islamic lands, and the economic history of the Islamic Mediterranean and the Fatimid caliphate.

Goldberg’s study of the Geniza merchant also has important ramifications for Mediterranean Studies, European economic history, and Jewish Studies. Classic studies of the Mediterranean have focused on its ecology — its ecological unity in Braudel, La Méditerranée et le monde méditeranéen, (Paris: A. Colon, 1966), and its ecological diversity in Horden and Purcell, The Corrupting Sea (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000). Goldberg, in contrast, emphasizes the place of culture and institutions in shaping regions within the Mediterranean. Her work brings out the distinctive nature of the Islamic Mediterranean based on legal and cultural institutions, which spanned a diversity of ecological microspheres. She attempts thereby to counter the erasure of Egypt and Muslims in constructs such as Braudel’s ecologically unified Mediterranean of “wheat, olives, and grapes.” In place of ecological and cultural sameness, which denies a necessity for internal exchange, Goldberg posits a shared consumer desire spanning ecological diversity.  Egyptians, for example, could not plant olive groves, but Egyptians ‘needed’ olive oil. In place of Horden and Purcell’s model of micro-economies founded on micro-ecologies, which has no place for long distance trade, Goldberg substitutes zones of macro-economy. In a macro zone like the medieval Islamic Mediterranean, local and long-distance exchanges were meshed through trade networks, sustained by cultural, legal and political institutions.

The medieval commercial revolution has typically been described as a European phenomenon driven by Italian merchants and their investment partnerships. Islamic merchants have primarily been used, Goldberg rightly complains, as a foil for European developments. Goldberg moves scholarship beyond the simplistic economic models that contrasted the Geniza merchants of the Islamic world to the Italian merchants of the Latinate Christian world: Italian merchants did not drive Geniza merchants out of the Mediterranean in a zero-sum game, as Goitein proposed. Nor did Italian merchants have a monopoly on individualistic pursuit of profit or institutions that guaranteed trust. Individualism and institutionally based trust were present in the Islamic Mediterranean as well, but configured differently. The key difference, Goldberg argues, was between the political structures of empires and city-states, and the position of merchants within them. Italian merchant guilds were the political elites of their city-states and therefore controlled the means of violence; their ships were used equally to trade, make war, and prey upon other Mediterranean ships. Conversely they lacked a legal infrastructure beyond their own city-state. Islamic merchants were not part of the political elite and had no control over the state’s monopoly on violence. But they could rely on a legal infrastructure that spanned the Islamic Mediterranean. These differences explain Italian preference for partnership (commenda) and Islamic preference for reciprocal agency (suba).

In regard to Jewish history, Goldberg corrects inflated notions of Jewish dominance in long-distance trade and presumptions of religious cohesion in cross-cultural trade. Unlike the early modern European Jewish merchants of Livorno studied recently by Trivellato in The Familiarity of Strangers, (New Haven: Yale, 2009), the Geniza merchants were not cross-cultural agents, but embedded in their local Islamic environment. They did not forge ties with Jews in Latin Europe, because they relied upon Islamic institutions. Their Jewishness was but one factor among others that may have aided them in making business connections within the Islamic environment. But it neither predetermined nor ensured such ties, and it played no role beyond the Islamic Mediterranean. Goldberg conversely deals a deft blow to those who would dismiss the Geniza documents as irrelevant for Islamic history. Her work establishes the relevance of the Geniza documents for understanding the economic institutions of the medieval Islamic Mediterranean. Trade and Institutions in the Medieval Mediterranean is a path-breaking study, which should be widely read by Islamists, Europeanists, and Jewish studies scholars.

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