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.

Henri Pirenne

Medieval Cities

Venice, whose influence was felt from the very first, has a well recognized and singular place in the economic history of Europe. Like Tyre, Venice shows an exclusively commercial character. Her first inhabitants, fleeing before the approach of the Huns, the Goths and the Lombards, had sought (in the fifth and sixth centuries) a refuge on the barren islets of the lagoons at Rialto, at Olivolo, at Spinalunga, at Dorsoduro. To exist in these marshes they had to tax their ingenuity and to fight against Nature herself. Everything was wanting: even drinking water was lacking. But the sea was enough for the existence of a folk who knew how to manage things. Fishing and the preparation of salt supplied an immediate means of livelihood to the Venetians. They were able to procure wheat by exchanging their products with the inhabitants of the neighboring shores. Trade was thus forced upon them by the very conditions under which they lived. And they had the energy and the genius to turn to profit the unlimited possibilities which trade offered them. By the eighth century the group of islets they occupied was already thickly populated enough to become the see of a special diocese.

At the date when the city was founded, all Italy still belonged to the Byzantine Empire. Thanks to her insular situation, the conquerors who successively overran the peninsula—first the Lombards, then Charlemagne, and finally, still later, the German emperors—were not successful in their attempts to gain possession. She remained, therefore, under the sovereignty of Constantinople, thus forming at the upper end of the Adriatic and at the foot of the Alps an isolated outpost of Byzantine civilization. While Western Europe was detaching herself from the east, she continued to be part of it. And this circumstance is of capital importance. The consequence was that Venice did not cease to gravitate in the orbit of Constantinople. Across the waters, she was subject to the attraction of that great city and herself grew great under its influence.

Constantinople, even in the eleventh century, appears not only as a great city, but as the greatest city of the whole Mediterranean basin. Her population was not far from reaching the figure of a million inhabitants, and that population was sin- gularly active. She was not content, as had been the population of Rome under the Republic and the Empire, to consume without producing. She gave herself over, with a zeal which the fiscal system shackled but did not choke, not only to trading but to industry. For Constantinople was a great port and a first-rate manufacturing center as well as a political capital. Here were to be found every manner of life and every form of social activity. Alone, in the Christian world, she presented a picture analogous to that of great modern cities with all the complexities, all the defects but also with all the refinements of an essentially urban civilization.