Explaining the different functions of the North-Western European inns and the Mediterranean fondacos in the late Middle Ages
Travel in the late Middle Ages
Travel happened for many reasons in the late Middle Ages. Religious purposes, visiting family or friends and, of course, trade made people pack up and temporarily leave their homes. For a long time travelers found lodging with friendly farmers and clerics. But in the thirteenth century commercial places to rest became more common, and merchants travelling for business reasons found food and a bed hotels, inns and fondacos. However, fondacos are not synonymous with inns and hotels: in this aspect North-West Europe functioned differently from the Mediterranean. The factors explaining these different functions are interesting to study, because they tell us more about different times, places and people and their way of life, while also contributing to the larger story of Medieval and Mediterranean trade.
The Fondaco dei Turchi (Venice, Italy), photographed by
Didier Descouens 17 July 2011.
Not just a warm bed
In the Mediterranean, merchants were dependent on fondacos. These term was used for a variety of facilities, such as private or public warehouses, merchant firms, stores or boards of officers who regulated provisions. In most southern European cities, the interests of local merchants and administrators were reflected in the fondacos in the form of warehouses, lodging-houses and locations for business meetings. Afondaco was not just a place to rest and get a good meal;they often had more than one function, most commonly as a trading centre and as a place to stay for foreign merchants.
In North-Western Europe, however, inns and their innkeepers often acted as brokers between foreign sellers and buyers. These brokers were enormously important. Foreign merchants often had to offer their goods to native buyers first and after this, with permission and with natives as brokers, to other merchants. These foreign merchants were also dependent on the innkeepers who knew the local prices and circumstances that were crucial to the selling of merchandise. Italian traders regularly came together in North-Western European cities like Bruges or Antwerp. Trading centres existed here as well and brokers and merchants often came together at particular squares, but these did not have the same function as the Mediterranean fondacos.
The Cott Inn (Devon, UK), photographed by Totnesmartin on 23 June 2008.
An exciting source for our information about travel in the Middle Ages is the book Pratica della mercatura or Book of descriptions of countries and of measures of merchandise, by Francesco Belducci Pegolotti (flourished 1310-1347). This handbook for merchants about trade in different regions of the world gives an insight to travel in the early fourteenth century. It not only has a glossary of useful terms, but also describes the chief trade routes of its time and the relevant markets. The book was likely valuable in its time for merchants travelling through Europe and the Mediterranean. The fondacos mentioned above played an important role for travellers in the Mediterranean regions: all kinds of commercial goods were sold in such places, and Pegolotti also mentions the fondacos as locations for storage of merchandise, the keeping of accounts and the lodging of merchants.
North-Western European merchants visited Italy and the Mediterranean region until the fourteenth century, as exemplified by Pegolotti's handbook. However, after 1300, these merchants became more sedentary and stayed in the north-west, especially in the commercial metropoles. This can be explained by various reasons. High transport costs of trading over land made merchants take to the sea, which was also a safer route due warfare on the land. Innovations in business management and banking also decreased the need for North-Western European merchants to travel south.
The red dots represent nodes, the blue lines are the flow of resources and the red dot is a broker. Image made by writer.
Social Network Analysis
As mentioned before, the function of an innkeeper was that of a broker or node in a network of merchants. Their position can be explained using Social Network Analysis. This theory is a method to analyse the behavior of relationships between actors and the social context of these relationships. It is focused on relationships, which differs it from other methods of studying history. Social Network Analysis can be used for a variety of research questions and can be applied in many different ways. For instance, you can create actual networks of people or locations that were in contact with each other, or explain the contact between these nodes with the theory. The latter is the approach used here: the role of innkeepers within these networks can be categorized, analysed and explained.
A social network consists of a group of actors that are connected to each other. These actors are also called nodes. Each node in a network is connected to one or more other nodes. Brokers are the nodes who connect two networks with each other, as they alone have a relation with other nodes in a network. Thus these brokers have a huge influence on the flow of resources between networks. This is exactly what made innkeepers of great importance for merchants in the late Middle Ages: a travelling trader could not only be satisfied with a good rest and a filling meal, but required information as well, and both inns and fondacos offered this in their own ways.
Bibliography and further reading
Block Friedman, John, and Kirsten Mossler Figg. Trade, Travel, and Exploration in the Middle Ages. An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, inc., 2000
Burkhardt, Mike. “Networks as Social Structures in Late Medieval and Early Modern Towns: A Theoretical Approach to Historical Network Analysis.” In Commercial Networks and European Cities 1400 - 1800, edited by Andrea Caracausi and Christof Jeggle, 13–44. London; Brookfield, Vermont: Pickering & Chatto, 2014.
Constable, Olivia R. Housing the Stranger in the Mediterranean World: Lodging, Trade, and Travel in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.