wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Iris Origo

The Merchant of Prato

The only public office he ever held in Prato was that of gonfaloniere, and in Florence he remained completely aloof from politics. But if anyone had accused him of indifference to the public good, he might well have replied, not only that: every hour was taken up by the press of his own affairs, but chat the real power in Europe was still held, not by priors or castellani, but by merchants like himself. It was with their money that wars were waged and allies purchased; it was their friendship that foreign princes sought. Like wily old spiders in the corner of their webs, these sedentary merchants still controlled, from the warehouses of Por S. Maria and Calimala, the fortunes of Europe. As for Darini himself, it is true that he never became either as rich or as powerful as the greatest merchants of the dngento and early trecento. The interest of his story lies rather in the fact chat it was possible for a man like him, with little capital and no backing, to obtain a firm footing in international trade at all.

A mere glimpse at his vast correspondence shows how wide his net: was flung, and how very frequently, in spite of war, plague, robbers, and bad roads, even the smaller trading-houses of the fourteenth century managed to communicate with each other across the whole of Europe. The files of Barcelona and correspondence with the Balearic branches and with trading centres in Spain, Portugal and Italy, but dealings with Paris, Bruges and London, Germany and Barbary, Montpellier, Avignon, Aries, Marseilles and Aiguesmortes. Moreover, all these letters have one thing in common: every event they report-a battle or a truce, a rumour of pestilence, famine, or flood, a view to its effect upon trade. When Visconti's troops descended upon the fields of Tuscany just before the harvest, and it was plain that a famine must ensue, Tuscan merchants were not concerned with the defence of their territory, but with swiftly buying up Genoese wheat. When peace was at last signed, the merchant who sent the good news did not so much rejoice at the deliverance of his city from Gian Galeazzo's ruthless rule, as at the thought that 'God be thanked, journeying will be safe again'. When, further afield, the Hundred Years War was interrupted, in 1408, by a three years' truce between England and Flanders, Datini's Florentine correspondents in Bruges lost no time in sending him the good news: 'Now many English merchants will settle here, and we shall trade much more with them.' But when, two years later, hostilities broke out again, the repercussion on trade was immediate. 'The fair here took place on the seventh, but never was there so sad a one; and all for default of the English, who ever spend most at this fair and who may not be here, because of their war with the French.'

When a new campaign was about to open in northern France, Milanese cuirasses and Toledo blades were hastily packed into bales and forwarded on mule-back from Avignon to Paris. And when, after a victory, public rejoicings were foretold in London, a member of the Barcelona company hastily set forth from Spain to England, carrying with him a precious load of rubies, diamonds, and pearls. So vital, indeed, was it to merchants to receive such tidings before their competitors, that Paolo da Certaldo warned them always to master the contents of their own letters from abroad before giving to their fellow-merchants anything that had come for them under the same cover. 'For those letters might hold matters that would injure your trade, and thus the service you had done to a friend might turn to your own disfavour.'