But before the business classes of the eighteenth century can be described, it is necessary that the general economic trend be traced from ancient times and that whatever facts about the social classes, social status, and social mobility or social class stability are available be outlined. It has already been indicated (1) that business activity thrived early in Italy, (2) that the business leaders there constituted an aristocratic class, (3) that business enterprise was introduced into northern Europe by persons who knew it as a hereditary occupation. It remains to be shown (1) that the commercial aristocracies, the merchant gilds, were not greatly subject to influx from the outside, and (2) that they became the precursors of the modern business classes. That is to say, the bourgeoisie who superceded the nobility, in part, in western Europe was composed of families of long experience in modern large scale capitalist enterprise. Throughout the period under review, any evidence of established commercial aristocracies would go to substantiate the theory of social class stability, continuity, and rigidity.Next Page
Capitalism, meaning a store of wealth "which can be directed into new and more profitable channels as occasion arises," 41 was beginning to emerge at Ravenna as early as the fifth century. 42. The businessmen of the Italian and Hansa towns, and the inter-linking cities of Frankfurt and Strassbourg, are referred to as a "capitalist merchants." 43 The capital fund was first nurtured by the Hansards and Italian merchants." 44 Knight, et al., state explicitly: 45
With the rise of national states, the financial capitalism which had grown up in northern Italy began to look less like that of the ancient world, and to take on an aspect more familiar to us . . . . This was nearly two hundred years before the times conventionally spoken of as "modern."
Already it has been shown that there was a definite transference of business acumen from the Roman Empire to medieval Italy and from medieval Italy northward. There is no reason to repeat the details here. The following may serve as a "transfer medium" from Italy to northern Europe: 46
In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the chief commercial center was in the cities of Italy, whence the merchants sent out their goods and their agents to the towns and markets of northern Europe . . . . For two hundred years the Italian merchants were the masters of European commerce.
In northern Europe commerce was highly organized by the gild merchants, and "there is no more hotly controversial subject in all history than the exact antecedents and earliest activities of the gild merchant." 47 Presumably, they originated in the Low Countries in the ninth century, where the market was separate from the military post and Episcopal city nearby. 48
Social class aspects of commercial enterprise. So far as prestige and status are concerned, it can be stated without fear of contradiction that the merchants were both of earlier origin and stronger than the craftsmen; they became early aristocratic; they were the early capitalists -- as will be shown.
In England, in the second half of the eleventh century the merchant gilds began to appear; during the twelfth century they arose in all the important English towns. "The rise of craft gilds is, roughly speaking, a century later . . . . " 49 Royal charters allowed merchant gilds the privilege of monopolizing trade, and even charters granting to the merchants of new towns free trade in England were insufficient to overcome the older rules. 50
In France the class lines, carrying over from the Roman period, were more commonly drawn, or at least more clearly visible, in the early period of new mercantile advance. Van Dyke traces both the economic and social class development: 51
In the twelfth century there began to appear a third class or estate, the burghers or city dwellers. As we have seen this new or third estate became very early divided into two sections, the patricians or haute bourgeoisie and the common urban people, or petite bourgeoisie . . . . These men of the wealthier burghers began to enter into royal, or princely, service and found there great opportunities for profit. They bought land and came into social relation with the smaller nobles or country gentry . . . . So, by the union of the lower nobles and the higher burghers there arose a class intermediate between the nobility and the third estate out of which was to come the nobility of the robe, as distinguished from the nobility of the sword.
41. Ashley, op. cit., Part I, p. 43.
42. H. M. Robertson, Aspects of the Rise of Economic Individualism, A Criticism of Max Weber and His School (Cambridge, 1933) p. 36.
43. Ibid., p. 37.
44. Russell A. Dixon and E. Kingsman Eberhart, Economics and Cultural Change (New York, 1938) p. 354.
45. Melvin M. Knight, et al., Economic History of Europe in Modern Times (Boston, 1928) p. 260.
46. Dowd, op. cit., p. 48.
47. Knight, op. cit., p. 206.
48. Loc. cit.
49. Ashley, op. cit., Part I, p. 76.
50. Ibid., Part II, p. 44.
51. Paul Van Dyke, The Story of France (New York, 1928) p. 223.