Luca Clerici, University of Padua, Italy, and École Normale Supérieure, Paris, France – UMR 8546 AOROC
Provisioning the marketplace: Shopkeepers, hucksters, and direct sellers in early modern Italy (Vicenza, sixteenth century)
The case of Vicenza’s food market during the sixteenth century is very interesting, both because of the wealth of this Venetian mainland town (thanks to the wool and the silk industry), and because of the rapid growth of its population (from 21,268 inhabitants in 1548 to 36,547 in 1617). It is known that in medieval and early modern towns, when foodstuffs and other basic goods were concerned, a particular attention was devoted to selling and especially reselling activities, in order to protect consumers from regrating and from what were considered unnecessary rises in prices. Nonetheless, acting mainly in urban and socially differentiated contexts, public authorities had to take into account not only consumers’ demands, not least to preserve social peace, but also those of sellers. Foodstuffs were often sold not only by the members of craft guilds, but also by many other categories of resellers or direct sellers, and, in this case, the variety of supply channels was carefully preserved by public authorities, in order to foster an abundant and cheap supply. Nevertheless, it produced a very complex discipline, chiefly because of the attempt to identify and separate the different groups involved in the same trade, which led to frequent conflicts between these groups. However, these very conflicts constitute an interesting vantage point to better understand the strategies and practices of the many actors who had a part in foodstuff retailing.
The trade of cheese and butter – sold by the members of two craft guilds, that of cheesemongers (who were shopkeepers) and that of the so-called ‘resellers’ (hucksters selling a wide range of foodstuffs), and by other sellers who were not enrolled in any guild – is an example of this plurality of actors. The principle of reconciling the different needs and interests of the town’s people, sellers, and municipality was operating, for example, in the letting of public shops in the areas of central market squares. Cheesemongers’ shops were situated under the town hall, and in a proclamation published in 1550, the town’s rectors and deputies prescribed to observe guilds’ statutes (also containing rules which were effective for anyone and not only for members) and, in particular, those of cheesemongers, ‘since it is suitable, to the general benefit and convenience, that the guilds’ statutes are observed, so that the guilds’ members are able to pay, by their work, the rents of their shops and other burdens’. Thus, protecting guilds from other sellers (in this case, hucksters selling butter and cheese in forbidden places, times, and ways) meant also protecting communal income. Shops were very lucrative, and the municipality progressively enlarged their number, both by buying the existing private ones, and by constructing new ones. But hucksters and direct sellers increased the number of sellers, thus increasing competition, to the buyers’ benefit. The municipality took into account these two facts. In 1534, for instance, the town’s council used the same term, utility, to refer both to the ‘municipality’s utility’ (civitatis utilitas), that is the income deriving from shop rentals, and the ‘public utility’ (publica utilitas), that is the supply deriving from the presence of hucksters and direct sellers in the market area.
Moreover, direct sellers, most of whom came from the countryside and were qualified as ‘poor’, sold their goods at lower prices than cheesemongers, and probably also than hucksters. Of course, cheesemongers complained about price competition, but it was not easy to solve the problem, because on the one hand lower prices benefited costumers, and in particular poor consumers, but on the other hand it was also in the costumers’ interest to rely on a regular supply, as that guaranteed by shopkeepers. Nonetheless, lower prices attracted hucksters in the market square assigned to direct sellers, wishing both to compete with shopkeepers by charging lower prices, and to buy up the goods sold by direct sellers and resell them at higher prices elsewhere. The situation was further complicated by the fact that hucksters not residing in the town were sometimes assimilated to direct sellers, since they both came from outside Vicenza, and sometimes to urban hucksters, since they both were resellers. We may thus observe a very complex situation, where all solutions to old problems entailed new problems and conflicts. This may however prove helpful in better understanding the articulation of urban provisioning systems, and the role played not only by public authorities, but also by intermediate bodies, such as craft guilds, or by informal groups of sellers.
Clerici, ‘Le prix du bien commun. Taxation des prix et approvisionnement urbain (Vicence, XVIe–XVIIe siècle)’, in I prezzi delle cose nell’età preindustriale / The prices of things in pre-industrial times, ed. by the Datini International Economic History Institute of Prato, Firenze, Firenze University Press, forthcoming.
Clerici, ‘L’approvisionnement du marché urbain: conflits et négociations (Vicence, XVIe siècle)’, in Il commercio al minuto. Domanda e offerta tra economia formale e informale. Secc. XIII–XVIII / Retail trade. Supply and demand in the formal and informal economy from the 13th to the 18th century, ed. by the Datini International Economic History Institute of Prato, Firenze, Firenze University Press, 2015, pp. 39–68.
Clerici, ‘Market, civic virtues, and civic bargaining in the medieval and early modern age: some evidence from sixteenth century Italy’, International Review of Economics, 59(4), 2012, pp. 459–475.
See also: https://unipd.academia.edu/LucaClerici