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How Normative were Merchant Manuals? Of Customs, Practices, Techniques and … Good Advice (Antwerp 16th Century)
Understanding the Sources of Early Modern and Modern Commercial Law (2016)
  • Dave De ruysscher
The materials analysed in this chapter provide a glimpse into the instructional and normative purposes of merchant manuals. It is evident that some of their contents were stricter than the ramework of official law and even went against merchants’ practices and common dealings. Ympyn’s treatise and others contain prescriptive parts that were advice, however, rather than a reflection of rules set forth by legislation or custom. Merchant guidebooks must be considered for the individual thoughts and choices of their authors, as a consequence, and are not always paraphrasing ideas of a merchant community. This chapter, then, provides a clear warning against viewing this ars mercatoria-literature as a historical source of conduct and of normative ideas concerning trade. In fact, the limited value of mercantile guidebooks in this respect adds to other evidence pointing in the direction of limited juridification of commerce, even in the sixteenth century. Not only was official law rather minimal, it seems that even normative practices of merchants were not abundant. Antwerp records dating from the 1500s demonstrate that customs of merchants were seldom mentioned in court-related documents and inquiries into customs; also academic literature does not mention them very often. Both the nature of commerce as well as a mercantile culture that carefully administered business provide arguments for this legal situation. An overarching academic and local law, which were imposed through judgments and by legal professionals, offers a possible explanation for the low amount of customs found in official documents; however, the latter were not brought forward, not even by merchants, in a setting that was generally custom-friendly. One can speculate that the historiography concerning trade norms in the later Middle Ages and early modern period will benefit from a more modest approach towards normative practices of merchants, which have often been inflated to transnational legal levels. In this regard, pursuing a broad perspective on the features of interactions in commerce clearly seems to be a prescription for modesty.
Publication Date
Winter 2016
Heikki Pihlajamäki, Albrecht Cordes, Serge Dauchy and Dave De ruysscher
Studies in the History of Private Law
Citation Information
Dave De ruysscher. "How Normative were Merchant Manuals? Of Customs, Practices, Techniques and … Good Advice (Antwerp 16th Century)" LeidenUnderstanding the Sources of Early Modern and Modern Commercial Law (2016)
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