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The Medieval Supercompanies: A Study of the Peruzzi Company of Florence.

Based on a thorough analysis of published primary sources, this study of the Peruzzi Company has three principal themes. First, commodity trading in grain along the Florence-Naples axis accounted for the phenomenal size and prosperity of medieval super-companies such as the Peruzzi, Bardi, and Acciaiuoli. In exchange for cash advances to the king of Naples, the companies received exclusive privileges to export grain from the kingdom to the populated cities of northern Italy. Second, though commodity trading in wool with England was important, it was never as central to the operations of these companies as was the cash-for-grain nexus with the South. Business with the papacy was never very profitable either. However, business connections with the Curia offered the companies important access to ecclesiastical networks and to potential clients among the aristocracy. Third, the total amount of financial resources available to these super-companies at any one time was not as great as many historians have previously assumed. Consequently, the author argues convincingly, it is a myth to believe that excessive loans to Edward III of England were primarily responsible for the collapse of the Bardi and Peruzzi Companies in 1343.

The structure of this analysis of the Peruzzi Company consists of two parts. Part 1 ("Anatomy of the Medieval Super-Company") provides a general overview of the super-company, which Hunt defines as "a private profit-seeking organization operating several lines of business in very large volume in multiple, widespread locations through a network of permanent branches" (38). Included among the topics explored are the early history of the company, the nature of its operations and structure, and accounting methods. Part 2 ("History of the Peruzzi', Company From its Reorganization in 1300") takes the reader from the period of greatest prosperity (1300-24) to its collapse (1340-43) and aftermath. Led by able leaders who understood the lucrative potential of offering cash loans to monarchs in exchange for the rights to export grain to north Italian cities, buy and sell English wool,

and import cloth to the Angevin kingdom, the Company was most successful between the years 1308 and 1310. However, because the Company possessed limited resources, it had continually to engage in an elaborate "juggling act" (71) which required it to recycle payments from old loans into funds available for new loans.

After 1325 the Company entered a period of sustained decline. The most important reasons for this development were the declining profitability of the grain trade, the growing administrative success of monarchs to raise cash on their own (rather than through the super-companies), and poor leadership within the Company. Other factors also played a role, among which were the loss of papal business, a series of political and fiscal crises in Florence, and the lack of central control of the fourteen foreign branches from Florence.

My criticisms of this book are minor. First, having worked in the area of grain storage for two years in the developing world, I am aware that significant amounts of grain can be lost to rats and mold. The author does not seem to have addressed this issue of spoilage. Was not spoilage an important factor affecting potential profit margins? Second, the absence in the introduction of a section exclusively devoted to a critical and detailed description of the primary sources is regrettable. Its inclusion would have enhanced the quality of the book, especially for those readers who are unfamiliar with Sapori's edition of the Peruzzi Company documents.

Nevertheless, this book should be required reading for social and economic historians of thirteenth and fourteenth century Europe. Its convincing thesis that commodity trading in grain was the central activity of the super-companies underscores the importance of urban food provisioning to the political economy of northern Italy. Hopefully, it will further accelerate and widen current archival research into this vital area of economic and social history.

GEORGE DAMERON St. Michael's College
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Author:Dameron, George
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1997
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