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Prologue: the two worlds of Christendom

[From, Byzantine East & Latin West: Two Worlds in Middle Ages and Renaissance, Harper Torch books, New York 1966]


Up to perhaps the twelfth century Constantinople was Europe's chief centre of commercial activity. And, as such, its gold coin, termed bezant by the West, was for long accepted as the standard of exchange throughout Europe. Given these economic connections between East and West -interrupted to be sure but never wholly destroyed by the Arabic invasions- it is of no little interest that the western guild system closely resembles, in certain respects, the system, which for long obtained at Byzantium.

As we know from the tenth century Byzantine Book of the Prefect, all Greek traders and merchants of the capital (and probably of the other cities as well) were organized into corporations or guilds which were under the direct control of the eparch or prefect of Constantinople. Cattle traders, butchers, fishmongers, bakers, spice and silk merchants, the latter of both raw and finished silk, shipwrights, even notaries, money changers and goldsmiths-all had to belong to the guild organization. As in the later western system regulations were carefully prescribed: no man could belong to two guilds, the hours of wages and labour were carefully regulated, attempts to forestall or corner the market were forbidden, along with disclosure of the secrets of manufacture.(56)

An important distinction is the fact that, unlike the West where the authority of the state had virtually disappeared, the Byzantine system was not primarily intended to serve the interest of the producers and merchants, but mainly to further governmental control of economic life in the interest of the state. What the actual degree of Byzantine influence may have been on the western guilds has not yet been determined. And of course one cannot overlook the fact that guilds, although with a different purpose, existed already in the late Roman world, the Byzantine being an extension of the Roman. More important perhaps is the fact that similar circumstances might well have evoked similar kinds of responses even in areas distant from one another. Yet until a careful and detailed comparison of the medieval guilds of East and West is made, it is hard to believe that the long familiarity of the Italian maritime republics with Byzantine economic life -many Italian cities possessed commercial colonies in Constantinople itself- had nothing to do with the development of western guild organization and practice.


56. - Ε. Freshfield ed., Roman Law in the Later Roman Empire: Book of the Eparch (Cambridge, Eng., 1938). Α recent article on the guilds is S. Vryonis, 'Byzantine "Demokratia" and the Guilds in the Eleventh Century', Dumbarton Oaks Papers, XVII (Washington, 1963) 289-314. See esp. 289-93 and bibl. in notes 5 and 13. Also Lopez, 'Silk Industry in the Byzantine Empire', Speculum, XX (1945) 184 ff:

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