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Page:EB1911 - Volume 06.djvu/792

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COMMERCE


extended her repute more widely east and west, and increased both her naval and her commercial resources. It is enough, indeed, to account for the grandeur of Venice that in course of centuries, from the security of her position, the growth and energy of her population, and the regularity of her government at a period when these sources of prosperity were rare, she became the great emporium of the Mediterranean—all that Carthage, Corinth and Athens had been in a former age on a scene the most remarkable in the world for its fertility and facilities of traffic,—and that as Italy and other parts of the Western empire became again more settled her commerce found always a wider range. The bridge built from the largest of the islands to the opposite bank became the “Rialto,” or famous exchange of Venice, whose transactions reached farther, and assumed a more consolidated form, than had been known before. There it was where the first public bank was organized; that bills of exchange were first negotiated, and funded debt became transferable; that finance became a science and book-keeping an art. Nor must the effect of the example of Venice on other cities of Italy be left out of account. Genoa, following her steps, rose into great prosperity and power at the foot of the Maritime Alps, and became her rival, and finally her enemy. Naples, Gaeta, Florence, many other towns of Italy, and Rome herself, long after her fall, were encouraged to struggle for the preservation of their municipal freedom, and to foster trade, arts and navigation, by the brilliant success set before them on the Adriatic; but Venice, from the early start she had made, and her command of the sea, had the commercial pre-eminence.

The state of things which arose on the collapse of the Roman empire presents two concurrent facts, deeply affecting the course of trade—(1) the ancient seats of industry and civilization were undergoing constant decay, while (2) the The middle ages. energetic races of Europe were rising into more civilized forms and manifold vigour and copiousness of life. The fall of the Eastern division of the empire prolonged the effect of the fall of the Western empire; and the advance of the Saracens over Asia Minor, Syria, Greece, Egypt, over Cyprus and other possessions of Venice in the Mediterranean, over the richest provinces of Spain, and finally across the Hellespont into the Danubian provinces of Europe, was a new irruption of barbarians from another point of the compass, and revived the calamities and disorders inflicted by the successive invasions of Goths, Huns and other Northern tribes. For more than ten centuries the naked power of the sword was vivid and terrible as flashes of lightning over all the seats of commerce, whether of ancient or more modern origin. The feudal system of Europe, in organizing the open country under military leaders and defenders subordinated in possession and service under a legal system to each other and to the sovereign power, must have been well adapted to the necessity of the times in which it spread so rapidly; but it would be impossible to say that the feudal system was favourable to trade, or the extension of trade. The commercial spirit in the feudal, as in preceding ages, had to find for itself places of security, and it could only find them in towns, armed with powers of self-regulation and defence, and prepared, like the feudal barons themselves, to resist violence from whatever quarter it might come. Rome, in her best days, had founded the municipal system, and when this system was more than ever necessary as the bulwark of arts and manufactures, its extension became an essential element of the whole European civilization. Towns formed themselves into leagues for mutual protection, and out of leagues not infrequently arose commercial republics. The Hanseatic League, founded as early as 1241, gave the first note of an increasing traffic between countries on the Baltic and in northern Germany, which a century or two before were sunk in isolated barbarism. From Lübeck and Hamburg, commanding the navigation of the Elbe, it gradually spread over 85 towns, including Amsterdam, Cologne and Frankfort in the south, and Danzig, Königsberg and Riga in the north. The last trace of this league, long of much service in protecting trade, and as a means of political mediation, passed away in the erection of the German empire (1870), but only from the same cause that had brought about its gradual dissolution—the formation of powerful and legal governments—which, while leaving to the free cities their municipal rights, were well capable of protecting their mercantile interests. The towns of Holland found lasting strength and security from other causes. Their foundations were laid as literally in the sea as those of Venice had been. They were not easily attacked whether by sea or land, and if attacked had formidable means of defence. The Zuyder Zee, which had been opened to the German Ocean in 1282, carried into the docks and canals of Amsterdam the traffic of the ports of the Baltic, of the English Channel and of the south of Europe, and what the seas did for Amsterdam from without the Rhine and the Maese did for Dort and Rotterdam from the interior. By the Union of Utrecht in 1579 Holland became an independent republic, and for long after, as it had been for some time before, was the greatest centre of maritime traffic in Europe. The rise of the Dutch power in a low country, exposed to the most destructive inundations, difficult to cultivate or even to inhabit, affords a striking illustration of those conditions which in all times have been found specially favourable to commercial development, and which are not indistinctly reflected in the mercantile history of England, preserved by its insular position from hostile invasions, and capable by its fleets and arms to protect its goods on the seas and the rights of its subjects in foreign lands.

The progress of trade and productive arts in the middle ages, though not rising to much international exchange, was very considerable both in quality and extent. The republics of Italy, which had no claim to rival Venice or Genoa in maritime power or traffic, developed a degree of art, opulence and refinement commanding the admiration of modern times; and if any historian of trans-Alpine Europe, when Venice had already attained some greatness, could have seen it five hundred years afterwards, the many strong towns of France, Germany and the Low Countries, the great number of their artizans, the products of their looms and anvils, and their various cunning workmanship, might have added many a brilliant page to his annals. Two centuries before England had discovered any manufacturing quality, or knew even how to utilize her most valuable raw materials, and was importing goods from the continent for the production of which she was soon to be found to have special resources, the Flemings were selling their woollen and linen fabrics, and the French their wines, silks and laces in all the richer parts of the British Islands. The middle ages placed the barbarous populations of Europe under a severe discipline, trained them in the most varied branches of industry, and developed an amount of handicraft and ingenuity which became a solid basis for the future. But trade was too walled in, too much clad in armour, and too incessantly disturbed by wars and tumults, and violations of common right and interest, to exert its full influence over the general society, or even to realize its most direct advantages. It wanted especially the freedom and mobility essential to much international increase, and these it was now to receive from a series of the most pregnant events.

The mariner’s compass had become familiar in the European ports about the beginning of the 14th century, and the seamen of Italy, Portugal, France, Holland and England entered upon a more enlightened and adventurous Opening of a new era. course of navigation. The Canary Islands were sighted by a French vessel in 1330, and colonized in 1418 by the Portuguese, who two years later landed on Madeira. In 1431 the Azores were discovered by a shipmaster of Bruges. The Atlantic was being gradually explored. In 1486, Diaz, a Portuguese, steering his course almost unwittingly along the coast of Africa, came upon the land’s-end of that continent; and eleven years afterwards Vasco da Gama, of the same nation, not only doubled the Cape of Good Hope, but reached India. About the same period Portuguese travellers penetrated to India by the old time-honoured way of Suez; and a land which tradition and imagination had invested with almost fabulous wealth and splendour was becoming more real to the European world at the moment when the expedition of Vasco da Gama had made an oceanic route to its shores distinctly visible. One can hardly now realize the impression made by these discoveries