The Merchant in the Baroque Period

The word ‘Baroque’ instantly conjures up the images we’ve seen in so many films: white wigs and outrageous clothes, all against the magnificent backdrop of a splendid palace.

Very few people think of merchants, and yet it was precisely these merchants who procured the flour used to powder wigs and bake bread, who imported exquisite fabrics from China and who paid for part of the royal construction projects with their taxes while also financing the remainder by loans.

Although we know about the important role played by the powerful merchant guilds during the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Sun Kings of the Baroque period, both great and small, outshine their financiers.

And yet, it was during the Baroque period that every ruler realised that they were dependent on their country’s economy. If today, nations rely on income, wage and trade tax; if it isn’t the military, but rather the economy, that plays the central role in politics, then it is because of the lessons we learned during the Baroque period.

So, let’s journey back to the period following the Thirty Years’ War. We’ll be taking a look at what merchants did back then, what kind of goods they traded and how their role was viewed by their contemporaries.

Station 1 – The Merchant and His World

The merchants of Late Medieval Europe sparked a process of change known as early capitalism or the Commercial Revolution. In the long term, this process would rob the nobility of their monopoly on leadership. With powerful trade organisations such as the Hanseatic League and incredibly wealthy merchant dynasties such as the House of Medici and the Fugger family, a process was set in motion that culminated in the French Revolution.

The reason for this was a new power: capital, which the nobility notoriously lacked. The merchants used this capital to secure influence even at the very highest level. By doing so, they became part of the European elite that determined the fate of the early modern period. What activities did these merchants engage in and what should a good merchant be able to do? Two manuals written for merchants offer an insight into their everyday lives.

1.1 What Makes a Good Merchant

Jacques Savary: Der vollkommene Kauff- und Handels-Mann, Oder allgemeiner Unterricht Alles, was zum Gewerb und Handlung allerhand beydes Frantzösischer und Außländischer Kauff-Wahren gehört.
German first edition, published by Johann Hermann Widerhold in Geneva, 1676.

A wealthy merchant at his desk – portrait of Amsterdam merchant Daniel Bernard by Bartholomeus van der Helst. 1669.

What did merchants do in the Baroque period? Essentially, the same thing they do today: they purchased goods in one place, transported them to another and sold them there at a higher price. Whether they traded within one city or crossed borders, perhaps oceans, to do so, depended on the nature of their goods and on their capital. Only the more significant traders were considered to be merchants in the strict sense of the word. They assumed a key role in local government (unlike shopkeepers, pedlars and hawkers).

Successful merchants no longer travelled with their goods themselves, but instead, worked with their capital. They managed their business from a local counting house with the help of an international network. They formed an upper middle class whose influence extended far beyond city limits through marriages and business alliances.

Whether you remained a small shopkeeper or rose to the level of international merchant depended on luck and how well you managed your business. And that involved much more than simply buying and selling goods.

We can gain an understanding of the challenges faced by the merchants of the Baroque period by taking a look at what is probably the most important work on this profession: Le Parfait Négociant by Jacques Savary, published in 1675. The MoneyMuseum in Zurich was able to acquire the German first edition last year from Antiquariat Hohmann. Le Parfait Négociant (English: ‘The Perfect Merchant’) is a manual in which the author summarises everything a merchant needed to know. The wealth of details made the book a standard work that was reprinted and translated time and again.

Savary’s observations tell us a great deal about the merchants’ area of activity, self-perception and environment: during the Baroque period, they were far more than ‘just’ traders. They ran ‘manufactories’, large workshops that produced popular products through the division of labour. Their networks were based on factors – agents– who conducted business in key trading cities on the merchants’ behalf. A great merchant was a shipowner, freight forwarder, banker and investor all in one. Nowadays, we’d be more inclined to describe them as ‘entrepreneurs’.

Savary summarises the qualities one needs to become a ‘perfect merchant’ as follows: godliness, honesty, a friendly nature, logical thinking and a solid fundamental knowledge of mathematics.

The writer, Jacques Savary (1622-1690), attained great wealth as a cloth merchant before being recruited by French Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert as a kind of expert for the Ministry of Economics. Savary helped to shape the reforms that Colbert initiated.

Savary’s observations focus on his home country, France, a hub of economic development since Louis XIV. Many German merchants traded there and used the information that Savary provided. That’s why the German translation, which we have here, appeared just one year after the French first edition was published.

In 67 chapters, Savary covers many topics, including the legal framework, bookkeeping, inventory and training apprentices, as well as matters relating to banking, customs duties and transportation. Savary’s book taught merchants how to establish a manufactory, manage it and control distant trading posts. Last but not least, Savary provided everything a merchant needed to know about how to declare bankruptcy.

Let’s take a look at the first chapter: what did apprentices learn before being accepted into the merchant guild? They practised identifying defective goods and packing the goods in such a way that they would not be damaged during either storage or transportation. They were taught how to organise a warehouse and how to treat customers. Arithmetic was on the curriculum, as were the various currencies and units of measurement.

Johann Christoph Weigel – an Armenian merchant

It was important to master foreign currencies and units of measurement, as the world of merchants was an international one. They travelled far and wide and maintained contact with colleagues of many different nationalities and faiths.

1.2 Half of Knowledge is Knowing Where to Find It

August Friedrich Wilhelm Crome: Handbuch für Kaufleute.
Published in Leipzig by Siegfried Lebrecht Crusius, 1784.

Illustration of the Frankfurt Trade Fair of 1696.

In the Baroque period, each political entity had its own laws, rules, terminology and practices. Even in large nations such as France, trade law was not uniformly regulated. If a merchant didn’t know the customary procedure for the area in which he was trading, he could quickly make a loss.

Those who wanted to trade successfully needed specialist knowledge about their target area: which goods were being produced, which goods were in demand? What kind of transportation options were there and how much would they cost? What taxes, fees and duties would have to be paid? You won’t find these details in Savary’s work.

This gap was filled by manuals, which were printed in increasing numbers from the late 17th century onwards. These manuals supplemented the knowledge that individual merchants were able gain through their networks.

But we shouldn’t imagine that every merchant owned one of these manuals. There was usually just one in each trading post, from whose pages the apprentices could copy out, by hand, whatever they thought they would need for their career.

Our example dates from 1784 and was published by August Crome under the title Handbuch für Kaufleute (‘Manual for Merchants’). Unlike Savary’s book, it is structured systematically, like an encyclopaedia.

Crome listed the ‘47 most important factory and trading towns in Germany’, providing strictly organised information on their history, population size, geography, political circumstances, trade laws, dates of the ‘Jahrmärkte’ – similar to what we’d call trade fairs today – and the goods they produced. This information was accompanied by tables for converting the most important currencies and details on transportation.

His main innovation was a kind of directory of traders and craftsmen who might become business partners. Since this information naturally becomes outdated very quickly, Crome planned to publish a new edition of his manual every year. Although there was great demand for Crome’s book, too many errors had found their way into the details. The subsequent volume also contained many errors. No further updated editions were published.

Crome was not a merchant; he was an economist and statistician. His best-known work is probably his ‘Product map of Europe’, in which he listed the most important raw materials and products of all European nations for the first time. For instance, the goods considered typical for Switzerland at the time were: cattle, sheep, wine, fruit, wood, marble, alabaster, mineral water and iron.

In the foreword, Crome explains why he wrote his manual: he understood that merchants wanted to keep their trade secrets to themselves in order to have an advantage over the competition. But according to him, if trade is to be promoted, it cannot be allowed to degenerate into a secret science: ‘information and publicity in commerce’ are ‘just as essential and socially beneficial’ as ‘free competition’.

Let’s check how precisely Crome knew his stuff: here’s an excerpt from the chapter on Zurich. He considered the most important product of this prosperous city, which he writes is ‘governed by the spirit of freedom’, to be silk. He lists the city’s most important silk manufacturers, along with their specialities, such as ‘silk ribbons in the latest fashion’, ‘Organsin’ (= organza) and ‘Schnupftücher’ (= handkerchiefs). He also mentions the two 8-day trade fairs, of which the first was held 14 days after Pentecost and the second on 11 September, the feast day of Saints Felix and Regula.

Station 2 – Merchant and State

The Thirty Years’ War radically changed European thinking. It sealed the victory of the state in the modern sense. This state was ruled by a government that wielded absolute power, not only controlling all laws, but also the private lives and religion of its citizens. However, there was one thing that the horrors of the war hadn’t changed: the will of rulers to expand their sphere of power by any means necessary.

Once the Thirty Years’ War had demonstrated how essential expensive artillery, highly trained professional soldiers and strong fortifications were for successful warfare, it became an existential issue to generate the funds for it. As a result, every ambitious prince strove to improve his country’s economic output. Finding the most effective way to do so became a key subject of economic thought and its various schools.

The first book at this station focusses on the most important school of economic thought in the Baroque period: mercantilism. It demonstrates how this theory, developed in France, was adopted on German imperial territory in the form of cameralism. The second book illustrates the fact that most of the money made through the economic reforms went to the military.

2.1 Mercantilism and Cameralism

Wilhelm von Schröder: Fürstliche Schatz und Rentcammer.
Published in Leipzig in 1721 by Thomas Fritsch, first edition: 1686.

Louis XIV and Colbert visit the royal Gobelins Manufactory, detail.

The absolute ruler Louis XIV and his finance minister Colbert have become virtually synonymous with mercantilism for us. In simple terms, you could say that advocates of mercantilism tried to produce as many goods in their own country as possible. The desired positive balance of trade boosted tax revenue and overall prosperity. The local population played a key role as cheap labour.

Where private citizens lacked the know-how and capital, the state acted as a business operator. Some state manufactories of luxury goods are still legendary to this day: Aubusson with its tapestries, or Sèvres, where royal porcelain was produced for customers who could pay for it. The economic measures established by Louis XIV were also adopted in Germany.

When it comes to Germany, however, we often don’t hear about ‘mercantilism’ (named after ‘mercator’ for ‘merchant’), but rather ‘cameralism’. The term ‘cameralism’ comes from the German word ‘Kammer’, meaning ‘chamber’ or ‘treasury’. In the 17th century, the ‘Kammer’ was a combination of ministry, administrative body and fiscal authority. The most important difference between mercantilism and cameralism is the particular focus that cameralism places on agriculture. There are historical reasons for this: after the Thirty Years’ War, Germany was much more badly destroyed than France. In order to rebuild the country, its leader first had to establish the conditions required to feed a rapidly growing population.

Wilhelm von Schröder, whose book we will be presenting at this station, is considered one of the most important German theorists of cameralism. His book Fürstliche Schatz- und Rentkammer (‘Royal Treasury and Pensions Chamber’) is a classic work of national economics. It was first published in 1686 and reprinted eight times by 1835.

The book is dedicated to the emperor, which is unusual for an author who came from an upper-class, Saxon (and therefore Protestant) civil service household. But Wilhelm von Schröder converted to Catholicism at some point before 1673. By doing so, he forfeited his right of residence in Saxony. At the imperial court in Vienna, he secured a new position as the head of a state manufactory. This job allowed von Schröder enough time to write several fundamental works on cameralism.

We can identify the paradigm shift brought about by the new economic policy on the very first page: a prince should not rely on his subjects in economic matters, but should instead take measures himself to promote the economy.

In the foreword, we find out why this is so important: a ruler can only collect taxes where there is something to collect. He must therefore enrich his subjects so that he can take money from them, which they can afford to spare. In order to know where and to what extent this is possible, von Schröder recommends carrying out an accurate tax estimate and provides the basic principles for doing so.

A further paradigm shift is the appreciation of frugality in princes. In the Middle Ages, a prince’s reputation depended on generosity; now, people valued a ruler who could fill up the country’s coffers through frugality. But very few princes actually put this idea into practice. After all, they needed lavish parties and grand buildings to prove that they could afford it – especially when they could not afford it.

Many rulers facing financial difficulties hoped that some chemist – back then, they were called alchemists – would develop a secret formula to produce gold or silver artificially. This didn’t seem like an impossible prospect. Those who had seen valuable porcelain created from earth, feldspar and quartz also believed in the possibility of chemically producing gold. The fraudsters who took advantage of the princes’ greed helped to give alchemists a bad reputation, until chemistry became established as an independent science in the 18th century.

2.2 He Who Holds the Last Taler Has Won

Französische Kriegs-Wirthschafft, oder Auszug aus denen Königlich-Frantzösischen Kriegs- und Verpflegungs-Ordinanzen, Die Kriegs-Wirthschafft betreffend … Aus Dem Französischen ins Teutsche übersetzet
Printed without any indication of the year (after 1677), place or author (‘by a lover of the general German fatherland’)

France’s territorial expansions under Louis XIV – image: FlyingPC / CC BY-SA 3.0

‘Try to remain at peace with your neighbours. I have loved war too much. Do not copy me in that, or in my overspending … Lighten your people’s burden as soon as possible.’ These are the words that Louis XIV said to his successor on his deathbed. This is a remarkable insight for a king who had dramatically expanded the state territory of France and ruined his country in the process. Louis XIV had originally set out to reform France’s finances, and until a certain point, he had done so very successfully.

He used the surpluses generated to raise a powerful army, which he used to wage one war of aggression after another. But with each attack, more enemies rallied, who then had to be fought off with an even bigger army. In the 1667 War of Devolution, there were 72,000 soldiers under arms; by the beginning of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1701, this number had risen to 380,000. This army swallowed up around 50% of state revenue during peacetime, such as in 1683, and as much as 75% in years of war, such as 1688.

By way of comparison: in 2020, Switzerland’s military costs were just 0.8% of its gross domestic product; similarly, the USA and Russia spent no more than 3.7% and 4.3% respectively on armaments in 2020.

France’s economic power therefore became a key criterion of its military strength. In other words, for the princes of the Holy Roman Empire who were under attack, it was a matter of strategic importance to know how high their enemy’s war costs were in order to calculate how long he would be able to sustain his war. Our book, written by a ‘lover of the general (= united) German fatherland’, commits military treason, so it is understandable that neither the location nor the year of printing is provided.

The book compares the costs of war under Henry IV (1589-1610) with those of Louis XIV. Every German prince knew that, due to a lack of resources, Henry had to make a compromise in the struggle for the French throne (‘Paris is well worth a mass’). Comparing his expenditure with the significantly higher war costs under Louis XIV gave them hope that he would not be able to sustain his aggressive foreign policy for much longer.

This publication is therefore a form of motivational propaganda, with the aim of encouraging the German people not to give up in the war against Louis XIV. The booklet provides us with interesting details on the costs that had to be financed through economic policy in the Baroque period.

Let’s take a look at how much it cost to pay a company of foot soldiers in 1651.

Rank Quantity Daily wage per soldier Total daily wage
Gulden Kreuzer
Captain 1 30 kr 30 kr
Lieutenant 3 15 kr 45 kr
Officer cadet 1 12 kr 12 kr
Sergeant 3 6 kr 18 kr
Private 50 3 kr 2 fl 30 kr
Total 3 fl 15 kr

If we consider that a battalion consisted of 16 companies, and that these 3 1/4 gulden were the soldiers’ daily pay, it becomes clear how exorbitantly the military costs added up.

We also discover what France did with its wounded soldiers: they were forbidden to beg in the capital, Paris, on pain of death. Instead, they were sent to the frontier garrisons, where they had to feed the local people along with the garrison troops. The Hotel des Invalides, built by Louis XIV for his veterans, was not completed until 1676.

Each soldier had to use their pay to buy their daily rations, but there wasn’t enough money for them to do so. This meant that private citizens were forced to meet the needs of soldiers at fixed prices. The costs they incurred as a result could be written off from their taxes in consultation with the army administration.

The comprehensive brochure on French military costs had an index to help readers find the information they were looking for.

It was of critical military significance to have an idea of the enemy’s military costs, as clearly illustrated by the laconic statement with which our German patriot has the finance minister Sully end his essay: ‘and he who holds the last taler has won.’

Station 3 – Goods

When we think of merchants, we automatically imagine a proud ship carrying treasures from overseas back to the home port. In actual fact, this spectacular long-distance trade only accounted for a tiny part of daily business at the average counting house. Merchants didn’t get rich with silk and nutmeg. They earned their real money with the products that large communities needed every day.

Grain, wine, beer, salt, fish, wood, wool and fabrics – these were the goods that merchants were most concerned with. This station is dedicated to these everyday goods and the people who produced them. Our first book will take us to Venice – at a time when its long-distance trade had become unprofitable and successful traders had gone into the agricultural business. Our second example demonstrates how far advanced the division of labour was in the Baroque period. Illustrations from a famous book of sermons offer a glimpse into the workshops where the traded goods were produced.

3.1 From Farms to World Heritage Sites

Andreas Palladio, Die Baumeisterin Pallas, Oder Der in Teutschland entstandene Palladius, übersetzt von Georg Andreas Böckler.
Nuremberg, 1698, printed by the Endter publishing house

Villa Barbaro in Maser, started around 1557. Photo: Wikipedia.

Those who set out today to visit the ‘Brenta villas’, which are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, do not realise that these buildings were originally constructed to serve as the centres of extremely efficient and profitable farms. Since Venetian long-distance trade had ceased to be profitable in around 1500, investors switched to the production and trade of food. The overpopulated cities of Northern Italy were hungry for the corn, wine, fish and poultry being produced on the Venetian terraferma. The owners of the farm estates were earning such good money from their products that they could afford to have elaborate manor houses built out of marble. To do this, they enlisted one of the most famous architects of his time, Andrea Palladio (1508-1580).

Andrea Palladio created the original archetypal villa, which, at the time, was not the luxurious detached family home we know today, but rather a manor. The architect adopted the term ‘villa’ from the Latin. Even back in ancient Rome, this word was used to describe an estate that consisted not only of a splendid building for the owner, but also of many integrated farm buildings. In his book on architecture, the first German edition of which (printed in 1698) the MoneyMuseum was able to acquire from Antiquariat Müller in 2020, Palladio presents the model for his Brenta villas: the idealised plan of a Roman villa. It included a kitchen, cowsheds, a winepress, an oil press, a wine cellar, granaries, stables, sheep pens and hutches for small animals, as well as a hayloft and bakehouses.

We have to imagine that a successful Venetian estate would have been similar to this – with grain and oil production, winegrowing, livestock breeding and dairy production.

Here we have a floor plan of the estate of Marcus Zeno in Cessalto, which is still preserved to this day. It was originally built for the purpose of managing the family vineyards, which is why Palladio planned large rooms for the winepress and the wine cellar.

The reason this estate architect had such an influence on modern architecture is that, in his book, Palladio systematically organised all known information on the art of construction: from the foundations and building materials to the design of the floor plan and façade. That’s how a work becomes standard literature.

Our copy was translated into German by architect Georg Andreas Böckler, and also includes comments which adapt the text to German standards. There are many other translations, including into Spanish, Dutch, French and especially English.

Capitol in Washington. Photo: Martin Falbisoner, cc by-sa 3.0.

The English-speaking world was introduced to Palladio through the mediation of brilliant British architect Inigo Jones. He shaped the architectural style now known as palladianism. There is a certain irony in the fact that many world-famous centres of power were inspired by Italian farmhouses.

3.2 A Glimpse into the Workshop

Abraham a Sancta Clara, Etwas für Alle, Das ist: Eine kurtze Beschreibung allerley Stands- Ambts- und Gewerbs-Persohnen: Mit beygeruckter Sittlichen Lehre und Biblischen Concepten, Durch welche der Fromme mit gebührendem Lob hervor gestrichen, der Tadelhaffte aber mit einer mässigen Ermahnung nicht verschont wird.
Printed in three volumes in Würzburg for Christian Weigel in Nuremberg, 1711-1733.

Abraham a Sancta Clara (1644-1709)

With his around 600(!) publications, Abraham a Sancta Clara is among the most significant and well-known preachers of his time. This Discalced Augustinian monk knew how to tailor the message of Christ precisely to his target audience. With wit and reason, lots of stories, wordplay and parables, the popular preacher appealed to his listeners’ real lived experiences. He himself had shared the everyday life of the lower classes. As the eighth of ten children of an innkeeper in the Swabian Alps, he understood their troubles and hardships.

His best-known work is the three-volume Etwas für Alle (‘Something for All Persons’), which is still reprinted time and again to this day. In this work, the monk writes reprimands and lessons for moral edification, aimed at countless professions known at the time. The text falls somewhere between satire, sermon and doctrine of estates. It is the book’s illustrations, above all else, that make it an irreplaceable historical source, as they realistically depict the everyday life of the professional groups addressed in the text.


This image takes us right into the everyday life of a brush binder. It illustrates the fact that every craftsman also acted as a trader. They sold their goods directly to private customers. At the same time, they worked with intermediaries: pedlars took their goods to the surrounding villages. Merchants purchased larger quantities to sell at trade fairs.

Customers weren’t served in a shop, as they are today. Most workshops had a large window that could be transformed into a sales counter by means of a folding shutter. All the brush binders in the city were located in very close proximity to one another. Competition only existed with regard to quality; pricing, wages and training policy were agreed upon within the guild.

The local craftsmen were only undercut by the swindlers who did not belong to the guild and often worked in the villages. Their products could only be sold within a city if it was at a trade fair, and they were also subject to the city’s import duties.

This image of a sewing needle manufactory illustrates how specialist the craft had already become by the second half of the 17th century: on the right, the apprentice carefully turns the wheel to produce an even, thin wire. At the central table, the craftsman cuts the needle and gives it an eye. At the desk in the background, the manufactory owner negotiates with a merchant, who probably wants to purchase a large order of needles.

In the past, every blacksmith had made nails. But in this craft too, the division of labour and piece work made production cheaper: in the background, an apprentice carries long rods, the semi-finished product. These rods are cut down to nail length and wrought by the two blacksmiths in the foreground.

Textiles have been produced through the division of labour since the High Middle Ages. Here, we see one of the many steps to the finished cloth: the cloth shearer uses his special tools to cut away the protruding remnants of wool fibres.

Finally, let’s take a look at the apothecary’s shop. In the Baroque period, this too was both a shop and a craft workshop in one. In the foreground, we see a worker grinding up the ingredients of a medicine in a mortar, while the apothecary sells something to a customer in the background.

Sancta Clara’s text served primarily to provide its readers with moral guidance, as illustrated by the image caption: ‘Just like the apothecary’s house, which hands out remedies for bodily sickness, so for the pain that grieves us, for the suffering that afflicts our souls, there is a store of remedies waiting in the word of God, we need only take it.’

Station 4 – Trade Routes

Those who traded goods also had to transport them. Thus, the goods moved along the major trade routes between the metropolises of Europe and reached even the furthest isolated farms via narrow mule tracks, in pack baskets on the pedlars’ backs. Rivers offered a cost-effective and considerably safer alternative to the many roads riddled with deep potholes: it’s no coincidence that every major trading city is situated on a navigable river. Or of course, on the coast, as plenty of large-scale trade was also conducted by sea. Ever since those brave sailors had found foreign continents and long-sought naval routes to Asia, long-distance traders had been bringing exotic goods to Europe via the brand-new trade routes across the Atlantic. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Mediterranean Sea was deserted – quite the contrary. The first work we’ll be presenting at this station is an atlas, which documents how quickly the knowledge of distant lands increased since the 16th century. Our second book illustrates the technical side of sea travel – adapted to the conditions on the Mediterranean.

4.1 Overseas Trade Routes

Johann Baptist Homann, Neuer Atlas bestehend aus einig curieusen Astronomischen Mappen und vielen auserlesenen allerneuesten Land-Charten über die Gantze Welt.

Published in 1710 in Nuremberg.

With the Age of Discovery, a whole new world opened up before Europe – and the gateway to this world was the Atlantic Ocean. Not only had explorers finally found an overseas route to India and China, enabling merchants to start trading in the goods produced there, which were highly sought after in Europe – the new continent of America had also been discovered, which drew in merchants with its profitable raw materials and agricultural products. Colonies and commercial settlements were established on these distant coasts, while ships travelled for months on end, transporting goods between the continents. All of a sudden, the Europeans’ world had grown much bigger.

Contemporary maps illustrate how rapidly Europe claimed foreign lands as their own. This atlas from 1710 shows how detailed people’s knowledge of the new worlds had already become. This map series was published by Johann Baptist Homann from Nuremberg. He was neither a major explorer, nor did he own any exclusive map material. Instead, being an efficient businessman, he adapted existing maps and marketed them, ensuring that they were always tailored to his customers’ requirements. Thanks to his attractive rates, he dominated the German market: each individual atlas was compiled and designed precisely in accordance with the buyer’s specifications, meaning that the customer had full cost control over the final product.

The buyer of our copy could afford to have his specially compiled collection of 60 maps lavishly decorated and coloured. Here, we see the splendid cover image. The fact that the Eastern countries are shrouded in dark night, with owls and bats flying in the air, should be understood to be purely symbolic. Europe, on the other hand, is illuminated by the sun. The imperial eagle watches over a flock of birds. Europe occupies the central position on the globe, along with Africa, which had already been known to Europeans for a long time. Amphitrite, the wife of the God Poseidon, holds a trade ship in her hand. This, together with the staff of Hermes, forms the visual focus of the image. The staff, with its two intertwined snakes, ended up becoming the overall symbol for profitable trade.

Different regions of the world were known to varying degrees, as we can see from the maps. For example, the Europeans’ knowledge of the American West Coast, which had barely been explored at that point, was rudimentary – for example, from this map, we would have to assume that California is an island.

Hardly anything was known about the land in the North American Arctic, although the bays and islands in the waters south of it had been thoroughly explored. There is an explanation for this: in this area, sailors were looking specifically for a navigable north-west passage that would have drastically shortened the trade ships’ route to the Pacific, and therefore to Asia. However, this route was not found until 200 years later.

The regions from which the products known as ‘colonial goods’ were purchased, on the other hand, were well known. On the plantations of Caribbean islands, businessmen who had originally come from Europe grew sugar cane, tobacco and coffee, products that attracted affluent customers at home.

A poster for a slave auction, 1769

The enormous demand for colonial goods created an increased need for labourers who would work on the plantations under conditions that no free worker in the colonies was willing to accept. And so, slaves became another traded ‘commodity’.

Depiction of the slave trade from the perspective of the Yoruba.

Merchants from various European and African nations engaged in this profitable business. African ‘suppliers’ captured prisoners, before selling them to European traders, who then shipped the slaves overseas. It is estimated that, between 1500 and the mid-19th century, around 10 to 12 million Africans were deported to America to be sold there. The Benin Bronzes, which have now become highly controversial, were made from raw materials that the King of the Yoruba received in exchange for the slaves he sold to the USA.

4.2 The Fight for Mediterranean Trade

Bartolomeo Crescenzio (Romano), Nautica Mediterranea: nella quale si mostra la fabrica delle galee…si manifesta l’error delle charte mediterranee…s’insegna l’arte del navigar …Et un Portolano di tutti i porti da stantiar vascelli co i loghi pericolosi di tutto il Mare Mediterraneo.

Second edition, published in Rome by Bartolomeo Bonfadino, 1607

Brave seafarers had been trading with the inhabitants of the Mediterranean coast since the 2nd millennium BC. As the contact zone between three continents, ‘il mare nostro’ remains a trading hub to this day. For centuries, Italy profited from its geographic location in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea and grew rich from it. But that all changed in the 17th century. Protestant trade ships from England and the Netherlands challenged the monopolies of the Italian merchants. In addition to that, the Ottomans were conquering one key trade centre after another. Of course, Italy was not prepared to give up its profitable business. The Pope, as the country’s most important earthly ruler, became a propagandist for the struggle against the Ottomans. The Ottoman Wars were therefore caused not only by religious, but also economic – and of course, power political – factors.

The book we’ll be presenting here takes us right into the middle of this military conflict. It summarises everything there was to know about sea travel on the Mediterranean in the 1600s: shipbuilding and weather conditions, navigation, the most important ports and, of course, the dangers posed by the ‘unbelievers’.

Nautica Mediterranea was first published in 1602, during the peak of what is known as the ‘Long Turkish War’. Its writer, Bartolomeo Crescenzio Romano, was the commander of the Papal fleet and therefore a proven expert in seafaring on the Mediterranean. He dedicates his book to Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, the nephew of Pope Clement VIII, who held the positions of both Chamberlain of the Papal Treasury and Grand Prior of the Roman branch of the Order of Malta. The latter had settled on the island of Malta in 1530, where they fought against piracy and Turkish privateers. In order to do so, it needed financial support, which brings us to the actual purpose of this book.

It is not a manual for captains. Captains learned their craft from scratch and didn’t need any books to tell them how to navigate. The book was aimed at the political elite of the Holy Roman Empire, who had the power to approve or disallow taxes at the Imperial Diet. By describing sea travel on the Mediterranean in such detail, Romano left his readers fascinated by the subject. The Italian language posed no obstacle – on the contrary: thanks to the Grand Tour, Italian had become widely spoken among the secular princes and their officials. This book is therefore not merely a reference book, as it first appears to be. It also served as intelligent propaganda, encouraging its readers to financially support the Ottoman Wars. The fact that it also tells us a lot about sea travel is a nice bonus today.

The author devotes the first book to the subject of shipbuilding. On other, stormier seas, trade was dominated by large sailing ships such as cogs, galleons and fluyts. But sailors on the Mediterranean still used the galley, which had been used since antiquity, or its modern upgrade, the galleass. This was because the frequent lack of wind on the Mediterranean often made it impossible to make any progress without oars.


Although the sailors crossing the Mediterranean did not have to cover such great distances as they would on the Atlantic, or sail for as long without any contact with land, it was still important for them to be able to use the stars or the sun to determine their direction and position.

The fifth book focusses on how one should deal with Barbary corsairs and defeat the force of the Turks. In it, the Pope claimed the role of a crusader against the unbelievers, while implicitly condemning the Protestant English and Dutch, who traded with them.

We must not forget that pirates from the coast of North Africa were actually hijacking ships and even raiding villages on the coasts of Italy and Southern France, enslaving crews and villagers. Merchant ships shielded themselves in large, armed convoys, while cities built their own defences. Here, we see a plan of the heavily fortified port of Civitavecchia. First built by Trajan, this port still served a base for the Papal navy during the Ottoman Wars.

American ships off the coast of Tripoli on 3 August 1804, painting by Michele Felice Cornè

The Mediterranean and its maritime trade remained crucially important in the 19th century, as illustrated by one nice detail: in 1801, the newly independent USA fought its first war on the Mediterranean, against the corsairs. For 15 years prior to that, the USA had paid them up to 20% (!) of its annual government revenue as protection money.

Station 5 – Money and Bills of Exchange

Station 5 focusses on the question of how the early modern merchants financed their business. After all, during the Baroque period, innovations were established in the financial sector that we still use to this day: public limited companies and stock exchanges, paper money, cashless payment transactions and much more. We’ll be looking at a tiny snapshot of the rapidly changing monetary environment. First, a money changer’s book from Antwerp illustrates the complexity of cash transactions at the markets. Then, Johann Caspar Herbach’s introductory work on the use of bills of exchange provides an insight into the intricacies of cashless payment and credit systems.

5.1 Money Makes the World Go Round

Ordonnancie ende instructie voor de wisselaers.
Printed by Hieronymus Verdussen in Antwerp, 1633.

Marinus van Reymerswaele: The Money Changers

At the great trading centres of Europe, merchants came together from across the entire known world. And of course, they brought all their own coins with them. By that, we don’t mean a national means of payment, like before the Euro. In 17th-century Europe, there were more than 400 currencies with various denominations. There were coinage unions, which tried to bring some order to the chaos, but they only ever found short-term solutions, and only in areas that were relatively easy to manage. After all, minting coins was too lucrative a business for anyone to give it up by choice. And so, anyone who was granted the right of coinage minted their own coins, whose designs also changed frequently.

The governments dictated exactly which small-denomination coins could be used at their markets, but gold coins, such as the ducat, and large silver coins, such as the taler, were accepted as a means of payment everywhere.

In order to value these coins correctly, merchants and money changers referred, in cases of doubt, to a sort of encyclopaedia of circulating coins. Apprentices, who couldn’t afford these books, drew the coins they saw by hand. Our book is a printed compendium entitled Ordonnancie ende instructie voor de wisselaers. It was published in 1633 in Antwerp. The Spanish coat of arms of the front cover indicates that Antwerp was part of the Spanish Netherlands.

The money changer’s book exclusively contains gold and large silver coins that were in international circulation. It includes and depicts around 1,700 types, with both the obverse and reverse. The images are actual size, and there are also comments explaining what the denominations are called, who they were issued by and how they should be valued.

This work served as an invaluable tool for traders, helping them to filter out fakes and calculate prices. Incidentally, the book is made even more handy by its unusual size: it is the same size as a typical cash book at the time, which merchants could carry around with them in their coat pocket.

These pages feature gold coins: ducats and double ducats from Kaufbeuren, Lübeck, Riga, Bern, the Savoy ruler of the Italian town of Saluzzo and from Mantua. Although gold coins played no role in everyday transactions due to their high value, they were ever-present for merchants, especially those trading across long distances.

Particularly popular coins, identified by the fact that their weight and fineness remained the same for decades at a time, were especially gladly accepted. The coins that were popular at the time this book was printed, for example, were the Dutch ducats with the standing knight.

Among the coins depicted on this page are coins of Emperors Maximilian and Charles V. Maximilian died in 1519, Charles in 1558. The fact that these coins still featured in a book published in 1633 tells us that they were still in circulation.

Of course, there were also Swiss coins circulating in the Netherlands. On the right-hand page, we see testones (= 1/3 taler) from Schaffhausen, Bern, Lucerne and St. Gallen. The book tells us that they have to be valued in exactly the same way as the testones from Hagenau, Palatinate and Bavaria.

5.2 The Bill of Exchange: A Substitute for Cash

Johann Caspar Herbach: Einleitung zum gründlichen Verstand der Wechsel-Handlung: worinnen nicht allein vom Ursprung derselben, Erfindung der Wechsel-Briefe (…) wie auch von denen vornehmsten Banchi zu Europa (…) dann von denen berühmtesten Messen (…) ausführlich gehandelt, sondern auch eine General-Wechsel-Reduction, wie die vornehmsten Europäischen Plätze gegeneinander wechseln.

The Courtyard of the Old Exchange in Amsterdam, painting by Emanuel de Witte

Published in Nuremberg in the author’s own publishing house, 1716. First edition.

As early as the High Middle Ages, some shrewd merchants had noticed that cash alone was not enough to do big business. That’s why, from the end of the 12th century onwards, an alternative to cash developed: the bill of exchange. It provided, on the one hand, a useful means of cashless payment, while also making it possible to grant loans without violating the Church’s ban on interest. Since a bill of exchange was always issued between the different currencies of the different trading centres, i.e. currencies that needed to be exchanged (hence its name), there was theoretically a certain foreign exchange risk for the issuer, which is why the bill was approved by the Church.

During the 16th century, the bill of exchange spread throughout Europe. One key requirement for this development was the introduction of exchange banks, where any bill of exchange could be presented and converted, with a certain exchange loss, into cash. The bills of exchange, issued by various banks and trading companies, were converted at rates that were directly related to the reputation of the institution issuing the bills. Amsterdam, with its ‘Wisselbank’ (‘Exchange Bank’), became the centre of European exchange trade. But even in provincial towns, bankers knew what they could pay for a bill of exchange because the major money markets regularly published lists of how much they paid for the most important bills.

Even at the time, people found the system of bills of exchange complicated. When Johann Caspar Herbach, a Nuremberg-born spice wholesaler, published a reference book in 1716 entitled Einleitung zum gründlichen Verstand der Wechsel-Handlung (‘Introduction to a full understanding of the bill of exchange in trade’), it was gratefully received. The MoneyMuseum not only managed to purchase the rare first edition from Antiquariat Hohmann, but also the considerably expanded second edition. It was a great success, as reflected by the large number of further editions.

The title engraving depicts a personification of the exchange system, wearing a crown and sitting on a sort of heavenly throne. The personifications on the right-hand side hold an hourglass and a compass in their hands to symbolise the close link between the bill of exchange, time and distance. Lavishly clad citizens and a nobleman wearing an allonge wig offer up their cash to the personification of the exchange system. In the background, we see a port with ships and carts bringing and taking away goods for trade.

But how does the exchange system actually work? This is explained in Herbach’s book.

The system was based on the bill of exchange. This bill confirmed that a merchant had paid amount A in place B in order to have amount X available in place Y, which he could either withdraw in cash or exchange for goods. Those who still use traveller’s checks may imagine the process to be quite similar.

The bill of exchange had to accurately document all the most important details. To ensure that issuers of bills of exchange didn’t make any mistakes, Herbach’s work told them exactly how a bill of exchange should be formulated and what information it needed to include.

Internationally active bankers accepted the bills of merchants they knew personally at the rates that were regularly communicated by the national trade fairs. Herbach outlines the profits or losses that merchants could expect by providing contemporary rate sheets from Leipzig and Vienna, dated 22 January 1715 and 16 March 1715 respectively. First, these rate sheets list the most important trade fairs, on whose dates bills of exchange could be issued. This is followed by a list of key trading centres, with the bills of exchange being payable after 14 or 15 days.

Not every banker accepted every bill of exchange. After all, at some point, all bills of exchange ultimately had to be presented somewhere they could be cashed. Herbach provides detailed information on how this was done in different cities. Because it happened time and again that a bill of exchange was protested because the issuer refused to cash it.

At this point – and no later – the injured party would need a thorough understanding of the legal situation. In order to help his readers, Herbach not only published the laws of the notable financial centres of Venice, Amsterdam, Hamburg and Nuremberg, but also translated the Italian and Dutch text into German.

Back then, just like nowadays, the language of bankers contained a great deal of specialist lingo that required explanation. For that reason, Herbach provides his readers with a veritable treasure trove of definitions and explanations of terms.

The Catholic Church did not officially abolish its ban on interest until 1917. As an enlightened author on a modern monetary system, even Herbach felt obliged to justify the assertion that this trade in money could not be the work of the devil. He did so by proving that there had actually been instances of interest and money in the Bible itself.

Station 6 – The Moral Side of Trade: How Much Profit is Socially Acceptable?

They are age-old questions: is it acceptable for someone to earn money without doing so by the sweat of their brow? Should they be allowed to earn money from goods that were produced by the hands of another? And is it morally justifiable for that money to be used to make even more money over the course of generations?

These questions were answered with a resounding ‘no’ by the Catholic Church, not for the first time but probably most momentously, during the High Middle Ages. The clergy objected to the fact that capital was shaking up the hierarchy that they believed was pleasing to God.

Even though trade and the resulting profits have steadily increased since then, and even though the Church became the greatest beneficiary of capitalism, for centuries, clergymen and their secular descendants have propagated the idea that profit per se is disreputable. Every merchant, every entrepreneur who operates at a profit is morally suspect.

The two books we’ll be presenting at this station reflect a society’s thoughts on the extent to which a merchant’s profits can be godly – or ‘socially acceptable’, as we’d say today.

6.1 The Merchant: A Scapegoat

Georg Zeaemann, Zwantzig Thewrungs vnd Wucher Predigen.
Printed in Kempten in 1632 by Christoph Krause.

Medal denouncing usury, from 1923. Künker eLive (2021), 8355

Every final price is made up of various components: acquisition costs, transport costs and markup. Before a product reaches the end customer, both the producer and the shipper, as well as at least one intermediary, have earned money from it.

While the costs of the producer and shipper are easy to trace, the markup is something undefined, intangible. Particularly when prices rise so high that the average consumer can no longer afford the end product, the trader is quickly suspected of having set their markup disproportionately high.

The usurer is a cheap scapegoat to use when the average consumer doesn’t want to understand the complex political and economic context of inflation. Our image is from the year of the hyperinflation of 1923. But it wasn’t so much the usurers who drove up the prices, but rather the lost war, the financing of the Ruhr campaign, the cheaply produced paper money and, last but not least, the German people themselves, who had enthusiastically bought fixed-interest war bonds and thus made the First World War economically viable in the first place. However, all this was far more complex than an ordinary citizen was willing to deal with. It was therefore easier to shift the blame onto a fat-cat usurer.

A leaflet from the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War

It was a similar story for the contemporaries of evangelical theologian Georg Zeaemann, who published his collection of sermons in 1632 during the peak of the Thirty Years’ War. These collections of sermons were a good stroke of business. They were purchased by clergymen, who used them to make lighter work of drafting their Sunday sermons. Interesting topics were a selling point and, just like the tabloid newspapers of today, the theologians of the 17th century knew that what their listeners loved hearing about above all else was the sins of others.

Prices had actually risen enormously during the Thirty Years’ War. This was due to the high costs of the war, which the imperial princes raised by drastically devaluing their currency. The public blamed the coin usurer we see depicted on this contemporary publication, smirking with his bulging moneybags.

But the currency devaluation wasn’t the only problem: the Holy Roman Empire also had to contend with war and its impact on agriculture. The area of farmed land had shrunk drastically, while the level of risk involved in transporting goods was increasing rapidly due to the marauding troops. The Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus, who invaded Germany in 1630, made the situation a great deal worse. But accusing a champion of the Protestant faith was, of course, out of the question! So, people looked for someone else to blame.

Georg Zeaemann knew what his flock wanted to hear: how bad the inflation was and what terrible consequences it was having. He identifies the usurer as the sole cause of the evil, or a punishment of God, culminating in his conclusion that, in order to end inflation, one must simply lead a godly life.

Zeaemann’s texts offer different variations on this theme. Again and again, he describes the evil activities of the usurer or ‘Kornmauscher’, a term meaning ‘corn usurer’, from which derives the modern German verb ‘mauscheln’, meaning ‘to scheme’. According to Zeaemann, these usurers were solely to blame for the fact that rye now cost 60 gulden instead of 6, 7 or 8.

This equation of usurers with Jewish people carries an anti-Semitic undertone whose impact is still felt today; it is an association that spontaneously sprang to the minds of many of Zeaemann’s contemporaries. This unjustified prejudice is rooted in the fact that Jewish bankers were not subject to the Christian ban on interest. As a result, princes systematically summoned them to their courts and gladly entrusted them with their finances. The ‘court Jew’ therefore became an easily dispensable scapegoat, whom the prince would have executed in order to assuage the people’s anger.

So, who is to blame for all the evils of inflation? The buyer or the seller? Just like any successful consumer magazine, Zeaemann took the side of the majority: the customers. He formulated a position that is identical, or at least similar, to what you can read in any tabloid paper or hear shouted at any demonstration today: Another who cheats his neighbour says or thinks to himself: So what? He wanted it that way. Why was he so foolish and dim-witted?After all, a great deal of injustice occurs in matters of money. And those who wish to get rich simply do not look at it.

6.2 The Good Small Traders, the Bad Wholesalers and the Evil Bankers

Rudolf und Conrad Meyer (Kupferstiche), Die menschliche Sterblichkeit unter dem Titel Todten-Tanz in LXI Original-Kupfer.
First printed in Zurich in 1650, republished in Hamburg and Leipzig in 1759.

Whereas nowadays it is journalists who pose as the guardians of public morality, in the early modern period, this task fell primarily to religion. One particularly popular medium for any form of social critique was the dance of death. It served as a reminder to all the living that every life ends in death, beyond which the Last Judgement awaits. In the Middle Ages, dances of death usually adorned the walls of churchyards, but in the early modern period, they evolved into a literary genre. The appeal of this medium was based on the fact that it characterised the different social classes in their typical sins, and that the very highest level of society was just as subject to its critique as the very lowest. A dance of death consisted of complementary images and texts. It is one of the precursors of the modern comic.

Our example was produced in Zurich after the Thirty Years’ War. Conrad Meyer (1618-1689), who was, along with his brother Rudolf, responsible for the copperplate engravings of the dance of death, received his training from Matthäus Merian, who remains the most famous engraver of the period: with his systematically collected and published cityscapes, Merian was one of the most successful publishers of his time.

Similarly, the dance of death produced by Conrad and Rudolf Meyer was not primarily intended as a work of art, but rather as an easily marketable product. It appealed to an affluent audience of laypeople who, during the dark times at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, were immersing themselves in biblical messages in order to secure their own salvation. The fact that our dance of death was reprinted over a century later with the original images illustrates just how popular this literary genre was.

It is not that the people of the early modern period were masochists who enjoyed frightening themselves with the idea of their own horrible deaths. On the contrary, the dance of death gave them the comforting sense that they, as upstanding citizens, would get into paradise, while all their evil fellow countrymen would end up in hell.

This panel of the dance of death tells us how the typical wholesale merchant was viewed in the Baroque period. Of course, the merchant’s wealth is built on ‘cunning and trickery’, although even the poem can’t avoid mentioning that both ‘strength of mind’ and ‘constant work’ were required in order to attain it.

The pedlar, on the other hand, who carries goods to the farmyards on his back, is presented by the dance of death as being virtually the embodiment of honesty. For him, death becomes a form of redemption. One is tempted to ask whether there weren’t any dishonest pedlars in the Baroque period and why there are consumer protection regulations that apply specifically to door-to-door sales if it is only honest people who sell their goods at the door.

Similarly, bankers are only presented in the dance of death in the form of the usurer. He is the worst of the worst, who only lends his money out of pure greed. The borrowers, on the other hand, are all oppressed and innocent. There is no mention of the fact that, without financiers, the technical developments of the modern age would not have been possible.


We hope that this exhibition has helped to paint a slightly more realistic picture of the achievements of merchants in the early modern period. Without them, the modern economic world as we know it today would not have been possible.