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Market ethics and credit practices in sixteenth-century Tuscany


  • Archival research for this article was funded by the British Academy, for which I am extremely grateful. Special thanks to Simon Middleton and Gary Rivett for commenting on preliminary drafts.


james e. shaw, Market ethics and credit practices in sixteenth-century Tuscany

This paper examines the moral economy of mid-sixteenth-century Tuscany, with a focus on the practices of credit and exchange at the quotidian level. Supplications for justice addressed to the duke and redirected to the Mercanzia (Merchants’ Court) provide rich evidence of the way that people negotiated the rules, ethics and practices of the market. Supplications presented narratives of exchange embedded in human circumstances and motivations, opening up the formal surface of contractual obligations to reveal the underlying ‘truth’ of these relationships. The role of credit in price formation raises questions about the prices recorded in documents, since loans might be disguised as sales of goods, or interest incorporated into the price. The sources also suggest that credit practices might be associated with a culture of gambling, where borrowers and lenders willingly took on additional risk. Poverty was a key reference among the mitigating circumstances appealed to by supplicants, and women were particularly prominent here. The sources cast light on the difficult structural conditions that might be faced by women, the legal protections that were available to them and the ways that these might be exploited.