Mike Carr, Merchant Crusaders in the Aegean, 1291-1352 (Fissel)

Mike Carr,

Merchant Crusaders in the Aegean, 1291-1352

(Boydell, 2015) 214 pp. $99.00

Merchant Crusaders

Mike Carr has written a monograph designed to “cut across the sub-genres of economic and crusading history” (p 6). He qualifies and corrects common assumptions about the conduct of the Crusades by revealing profound diversity among Islamic actors on one hand, and rivalries both subtle and profound within Greek and Latin Christianity on the other. What emerges in chapter one is a fragmented Aegean world where the constituencies are neither monolithic nor binary, something medievalists would expect. A broad readership, however, requires proper contextualization of the Crusades, which this tome achieves by detailing the nuanced internecine struggles and unusual alliances that might surprise the non-specialist. The landscape resembled the post-1650 Mediterranean world (or East Asian waters in the 1600s), where varieties of mercantilism blossomed. Economics, not religious affiliation or cultural identity, dominated the Eastern Mediterranean. The author does not so much minimize religious ideology in crusading warfare as describe the commercial purlieu in which the Crusades were fought. Carr does not invoke Marx, but a Marxian interpretation of historical causation fits his scenario.
Carr’s second chapter traces how a fractious Latin West redirected its assailment of the Byzantines and Mamluks toward “Turks,” necessitating that the Latins attune their perceptions of “Turks” with reality. Chapters three and four recount military history, primarily focused on the naval leagues that harnessed the economic resources of what the author terms “merchant crusaders,” groups largely originating in Italian civic environments such as Genoa and Venice. Merchant crusaders balanced and reconciled their economic interests (i.e. a lucrative trade with Mamluk Egypt) with the papacy’s military and diplomatic initiatives. Chapter three details the leagues of Christian Europe that fought in 1333-34 and 1343-52. Chapter four then examines how the Latins forged a naval superiority in the Aegean, with particular attention to the logistical dimensions of merchant crusader campaigns.
Essentially, fiscal considerations necessitated a new crusading strategy, which originated in commercial sanctions formulated by the Holy See during successive Crusades prior to 1291. Paradigms existed, for example in a precedent of 1198 wherein Innocent III accommodated trade in a theater of war. For centuries warriors and merchants not only co-existed in the Aegean but also intermingled. Why then should have the Crusades extinguished mercantile traditions and profitable associations? The Latin rivalry with Byzantium, one would argue, derived more from commercial and strategic competitions than from theological and liturgical division (as deeply felt as the latter might be). Intensive infighting among Christian polities had been a feature of the Eastern Mediterranean since the eleventh century. For example, the Genoese tensions with Byzantium stretched back at the very least to the flotillas sent by that Italian city to the Holy Lands circa 1097-1099, and with the successful reinforcement of Genoa’s privileges in Acre and Tyre in the 1100s. Strategically, it might appear that Latin Christendom’s intervention in the Holy Land shielded Constantinople from Islamic expansion. However, the buffer came at the cost of a growing mercantile hegemony (and naval supremacy) enjoyed by Western Europeans.
Carr pieces together in chapters five and six (cleverly drawing from archival evidence such as indulgences) an Aegean mosaic of commercial venture interspersed with unpredictable violence. Genoese and Venetian merchant crusaders preferred sabotaging each other’s mercantile designs to combating Islam. Chapter six, entitled “Cross-Cultural Trade in the Aegean and Economic Mechanisms for Merchant Crusaders,” divulges how the “commercial priorities of these merchant crusaders were far removed from those of the traditional crusading powers of Western Europe and consequently posed new problems for the Church . . . . [T]rade licenses . . . became a prominent feature of papal crusading policy” (p 119). Total embargo was abandoned. Naval power now rested upon the commerce that total embargo previously had crippled. If the first phase of crusading was financed by princes whose wealth was grounded in agriculture, Carr’s merchant crusaders funded sea power through mercantilism.
In effect, the papacy first harnessed Genoese “clan” entrepreneurship via the Zaccaria family. Then, as Venetian maritime power eclipsed that of Genoa, the papacy faced a dilemma. Venice possessed particularly longstanding mercantile arrangements with Islamic polities. A new doctrine was fashioned, arguing that “. . . the prosperity of the Republic was derived from overseas trade and not from lands, fields, and vineyards . . . as was the case with most other states” (p 124). If Venice’s naval power was to be exploited for the benefit of crusading, then the Venetian predicament had to be addressed:   “. . . a difficult balance between the facilitation of trade with the beyliks [of Anatolia] on the one hand, and the enforcement of the papal embargo and military action against the Turks on the other” (p 125). Trade licenses subsidized the expensive naval league crusading expeditions, and became institutionalized as a source of papal income and maintenance for papal military forces (i.e. the Smyrna garrison, costing more than 30,000 florins for a year’s occupation). Chapter six concludes: “[L]icenses should be regarded as the product of the attempts of both merchants and the papacy to reconcile the otherwise opposing notions of crusade and economic embargo in Muslim lands” (p 142). The surviving data supporting these conclusions is spotty, but Carr’s circumspect scrutiny and illation convince. The post-1291 papal licenses broke new ground because they were trade concessions designed to finance war, effectively yoking military enterprise with free enterprise.

In the eastern Mediterranean, distinctions between war finance and trade were purposely blurred on a scale unprecedented in recent centuries as a result of “a wider policy of using trade licenses to shift the focus of anti-Muslim military endeavours.” (p 123). These instruments later would be applied against Islamic power in southern Iberia in the 1320s and “come to form an integral part of papal-merchant strategy against the Turks in the 1340s” (p 123). Maritime trade and amphibious warfare increasingly overlapped and comprised two sides of the same coin. Ultimately merchant crusader naval leagues found themselves in the business of transporting passengers, confiscating cargoes and awarding prize money. The scope of papal licenses widened (though with much diplomatic exertion) to Latin trade with Egypt, and their frequency accelerated as well, especially under Pope Clement VI. These measures were especially urgent given the coincident trade wars against the Mongol Ilkhanate.
Rather than overemphasizing the actions of nation-states and city-states, and their diplomatic exchanges with the papacy, Carr’s framework is fundamentally geographical. Mediterranean studies, inspired by Braudel and his disciples, have advanced mightily global history, as readers of De Re Militari know. Much of that success resulted from the willingness of scholars of the Mediterranean to cross political boundaries and examine the interactions of different but intimately interrelated cultures, which is precisely what Mike Carr does here. Those synergies were economic and military, primarily the former, and the topography of the Mediterranean patterned human actions. State formation is a case in point, for example Carr’s insightful treatment of how institutions and governments coped with the apparent contradictions of religious war and economic survival.
Several years ago the distinguished historian N.A.M. Rodger delivered a paper in Greece in which he cautioned early modernists regarding the inherent anachronism of focusing disproportionately upon “success stories,” in other words upon those polities that ultimately became nation-states and/or world empires. Rodger cited two instances: the Genoese naval republic and the Papal States. Mike Carr’s volume is superlatively informative on both these examples. Many early modernists, one can fairly say, underappreciate the degree to which Genoa affected the course of Mediterranean (and European) history as it was eclipsed by Venice economically and other Italian city-states culturally, all in retrospect of course. As for centralization and administrative reform, the hallmarks celebrated by early modernists, the Papal States excelled in those features of state formation. Carr’s exposition goes a long way in explaining how the vitality of Genoa and the Papal States, lauded by Rodger, came about.
The reviewer expresses one hope about the future of this field. Carr’s research is superb. However, he cites (apparently) only two Turkish historians, both of whom were deeply embedded in the American university establishment. Since the nature of “Turkishness” (and Turkish identity, by implication) is a central question addressed in this book, we could all benefit greatly by closer association and greater familiarity with scholarship produced in the Republic of Turkey. Turkish academicians are generally multi-lingual and frequently publish in a variety of languages. And the vigor and level of participation in Turkish academe is, frankly, amazing. Professorial salaries are not always substantial there, and Turkish archives are managed rather differently than those in Western Europe. A cursory survey through academia.edu reveals the staggering numbers of highly qualified Turkish intellectuals who are contributing to our understanding of the medieval and early modern worlds. A book such as the one under review underscores the desirability of closer cooperation between “European” and “Turkish” scholars.

Mark Charles Fissel
Augusta University

[Rodger footnote: The paper, first published in “a provincial Greek journal” in 2003, has now been more widely disseminated in N.A.M. Rodger (ed.), “The military revolution at sea”, in Essays in Naval History, from Medieval to Modern, Ashgate Variorum, Farnham, Surrey UK 2009, especially pp 60-61.]

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