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Introduction: Commercial quarrels – and how (not) to handle them


The settlement of structural commercial conflicts of interest cannot be exclusively subsumed under the heading of dispute resolution. Even when a particular conflict opposing specific individuals or groups of interests could be settled, the broader underlying conflicts of interest would subsist and re-emerge. Both commercial and institutional or political actors would therefore rely on various techniques of conflict management, a process imposing restraint on the opposing parties while allowing sufficient leeway for business to be continued. Both conflict resolution and conflict management were devices of public and corporate governance, and therefore, following the late medieval tradition, instruments more or less based on established patterns of legal or quasi-legal models legitimised by accepted or conventional parameters of ‘justice’.

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1 For these three axes, see Greif, A., Institutions and the path to the modern economy: lessons from medieval trade (New York, 2006); Ogilvie, S., Institutions and European trade: merchant guilds 1000–1800 (Cambridge, 2011); Gelderblom, O., Cities of commerce: the institutional foundations of international trade in the Low Countries, 1250–1650 (Princeton, 2013); Gelderblom, O. and Grafe, R., ‘The rise and fall of the merchant guilds: re-thinking the comparative study of commercial institutions in premodern Europe’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 40, 4 (2010), 477511 .

2 Benson, B. L., ‘Justice without government: the merchant courts of medieval Europe and their modern counterparts’, in Beito, D. T., Gordon, P. and Tabarrok, A. eds., The voluntary city: choice, community, and civil society (Ann Arbor, 2002), 127–50; Bonoldi, A., ‘Mercanti a processo: la risoluzione delle controversie tra operatori alle fiere di Bolzano (secc. XVII–XVIII)’, in Bonoldi, A., Leonardi, A. and Occhi, K. O. eds., Interessi e regole: operatori e istituzioni nel commercio transalpino in età moderna (secoli XVI–XIX) (Bologna, 2012), 2958 ; Heirbaut, D., ‘Rules for solving conflicts of laws in the middle ages: part of the solution, part of the problem’, in Musson, A. ed., Boundaries of the law: geography, gender, and jurisdiction in medieval and early modern Europe (Aldershot, 2005); W. Decock, Theologians and contract law: the moral transformation of the Ius commune (ca. 1500–1650) (Leiden, 2013); Charles Angelucci and Simone Meraglia, Trade, self-governance, and the provision of law and order, with an application to medieval English chartered towns, Toulouse School of Economics Working Paper (2013). In the context of the present preface, any attempt to outline the growing bibliography on the subject is inevitably a desultory exercise. I may brevitatis gratia refer to two major research projects with which I have been directly acquainted over the past ten years: first, the series of conferences (with published proceedings) organised by the Centre d'Histoire Judiciaire in Lille (CNRS/Lille 2 University) on dispute resolution in different areas: the last volume in the series dealt specifically with commercial conflicts: Cordes, A. and Dauchy, S. eds., Eine Grenze in Bewegung: Öffentliche und private Justiz im Handels- und Seerecht/ une frontière mouvante: justice privée et justice publique en matières commerciales et maritimes [Schriften des Historischen Kollegs 81] (Munich, 2013). Secondly, the Frankfurt project Aussergerichtliche und gerichtliche Konfliktlösung, which is documented on the website,

3 See, for example, A. Cordes, ‘The search for a medieval lex mercatoria’, in V. Piergiovanni ed., From lex mercatoria to commercial law (Berlin, 2005), 53–68; De ruysscher, D., ‘Law merchant in the mould: the transfer and transformation of commercial practices into Antwerp customary law (16th–17th centuries)’, in Duss, V., Linder, N., Kastl, K., Börner, C., Hirt, F. and Züsli, F. eds., Rechtstransfer in der Geschichte –  legal transfer in history (Munich, 2006), 433–45.

4 New Diplomatic History is starting to incorporate such perspectives; see Ebben, M. and Sicking, L., ‘New Diplomatic History in the premodern age: an introduction’, Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis 127, 4 (2014), 541–52; Watkins, J., ‘Toward a new diplomatic history of medieval and early modern Europe’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 38, 1 (2008), 114 .

5 Blockmans, W., ‘Voracious states and obstructing cities: an aspect of state formation in preindustrial Europe’, in Tilly, C. and Blockmans, W. eds., Cities and the rise of states in Europe, AD 1000 to 1800 (Boulder, CO, 1994); Acemoglu, D. S., Johnson, S. and Robinson, J., ‘The rise of Europe: Atlantic trade, institutional change, and economic growth’, American Economic Review 95, 3 (2005), 546–79; Ertman, T., Birth of the Leviathan: building states and regimes in medieval and early modern Europe (Cambridge, 1997); Gelderblom, Cities of commerce; Stabel, P., ‘Economic development, urbanisation and political organisation in the late medieval southern Low Countries’, in Bernholz, P., Streit, M. E. and Vaubel, R. eds., Political competition, innovation and growth: a historical analysis (Berlin, 1998), 183204 .

6 The term ‘test case’ may sound anachronistic, but is warranted by arguments whereby a litigant (or his counsel) warns that other similar cases are waiting in the wings, dependent on the outcome of the case at hand. I have occasionally come across such arguments in various jurisdictions. For example, in the late medieval practice of the Great Council of Mechlin (with regard to the levying of the Zeeland toll on the Honte, the alternative estuary of the Scheldt between Brabant and the sea): Wijffels, A., ‘Flanders and the Scheldt question: a mirror of the law of international relations and its actors’, Sartoniana 15 (2002), 213–80; A. Wijffels, ‘Toll-free navigation on the Honte ca. 1466–1468: a legal consultation by J. Boods, Pensionary of Antwerp’, Bulletin [Commission Royale pour la publication des anciennes lois et ordonnances de Belgique] L (2009) [2012], 175–201. For an example in the early modern practice of the High Court of Admiralty in London (on the issue of the participation by English mariners in Dutch privateering ventures against Spanish and Portuguese shipping, after the Anglo-Spanish peace treaty of 1604): Wijffels, A., Alberico Gentili and Thomas Crompton: an encounter between an academic jurist and a forensic practitioner [Studia Forensia Historica, I] (Leiden, 1992).

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Continuity and Change
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