Between Crown and Commerce: Marseille and the Early Modern Mediterranean Review

Updated on October 29, 2018

The Early Modern World, as the link between the Medieval Age and the modern world born after the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution, is an endless subject for analysis and investigation. In dealing with governmental, economic, health, political, and religious factors, Between Crown & Commerce: Marseille and the Early Modern Mediterranean by continues this study, with its interest directed above all else into the moral economy of trade and the relationship of cities to central power in this period. In doing so, it looks at a tumultuous period with extensive influences of plagues and changing international commerce patterns, driving representations, institutions, and effects that would shape Marseille and its place within the Ancien régime.

Marseille in 1820: somewhat later, but still clearly recognizable.
Marseille in 1820: somewhat later, but still clearly recognizable.

The introduction (Commerce, state-building, and Republicanism in Old Regime France) to the book lays out the idea of republican virtue, present, and important, in ancien regime France. This fell into a classical republican idea of commerce and luxury being harmful to the spirit and ethics of man, and an opposing view which held that commerce and trade was virtuous. It is the author’s contention, and one that she wishes to prove in the book, that the latter view was promoted both by the French monarchy was a way to secure its commercial interests, but also by the merchant classes of Marseille in an effort to secure and legitimize their position. This period of Marseille stretches between 1660, when the city was brought into the tight fold of the Kingdom, and 1720, when a devastating plague hit the city, fueling diatribes about the appropriate role of commerce, its effects, and relations with the Eastern world.

Chapter 1, “Louis XIV, Marseillais Merchants, and the problem of discerning public good”, discusses how under Colbert, royal projects to reconstruct the city physically, and to transform it into a free port for trade with the Levant, met with opposition from the city’s elites. Despite the benefits of receiving duty free trade, they found the Crown’s interference in their affairs unpleasant. It wasn’t until these newfound privileges came under attack that the Marseillais deployed a lobbying campaign which identified their interests with those of the kingdom and the public good, attempting to battle against the belief in the pure self-interestedness of merchants with a replacement view that stressed their public utility.

Chapter 2, “Between Republic and Monarchy: Debating Public Virtue”, covers how the idea of the Marseille Republic, hearkening back to antiquity and the Greeks, was deployed simultaneously to enhance the grandeur of Marseille, but also to praise the king for having re-invigorated it and saved its commerce - also useful for helping to erase the humiliation of the Royal conquest of the city. This commerce was defined as virtuous one practiced by the négociants (great merchants) of Marseille, incalculated with a new civic, rather than social body (the corps social, for whom different laws would be made for nobles, or priests, or the common people), virtue and honor.

Chapter 3 “France and the Levantine Merchant: The Challenges of an International Market” covers French representations of the Orient and anxieties internally over immigration and foreigners in Marseille. Depictions of the Ottoman Turks varied, being used both negatively by some (this itself mixed with a sunny view of the Levant peoples, with whom the French desired to trade), or positively by others such as in a portrait of Islam that portrayed it to supposed French absolutist excess. This too was matched by a valorisation of the virtues of the Arab tribesmen, compared to supposed luxury and decadence in France. In Marseille itself, foreign merchants and immigrants were part of a complex political battle between the Crown, Provence, and Marseille, alternatively invited or scorned depending upon time, factional interplay, and group, and always regulated.

Plague was a constantly recurring phenomenon in the Ottoman Empire, which was common in representations of it and required resultant important investments in health institutions to safely trade with the Empire.
Plague was a constantly recurring phenomenon in the Ottoman Empire, which was common in representations of it and required resultant important investments in health institutions to safely trade with the Empire.
Marseille and environs in the 17th century.
Marseille and environs in the 17th century.

Chapter 4, “Plague, Commerce, and Centralized Disease Control in Early Modern France”, relates how plague was a viciously widespread and common disease in the early 18th century, particularly within the Ottoman Empire. This was combined with a Hippocratic view on disease as it being disorder and imbalance which spread it, to link it to perspectives on societies and social lifes being fundamentally sick when plague hit them. To attempt to guard against the dangers of commerce-spread plague, European Mediterranean cities built quarantine stations, and in Marseille these were under the administration of the merchant classes. Although still operating with older medical ideas, the emerging medical infrastructure was a revolutionary new bureaucracy. It was however, one that failed when plague nevertheless arrived at Marseille in 1720, resulting in a reevaluation of the virtuous and beneficial nature of commerce and merchants.

Attempts to keep and restore order were brutal, as laid out in chapter 5, “Virtue without Commerce: Civic Spirit during the Plague, 1720-1723”, which proceeds to discuss how the plague was dealt with: via brutal and terrifying measures which mobilized a modern state apparatus to observe and control the city during the outbreak. The Crown allied with municipal authorities, to enforce order and prevent social collapse. Merchants’ prestige fell markedly in response to their perceived intelligence and self-interest, used against them by the Provencal parliament when it attempted to regain control.

Marseille during the 1720 plague.
Marseille during the 1720 plague.

Chapter 6, Civic Religiosity and Religious Citizenship in Plague-Stricken Marseille” highlights the division in French religious life between the gallicenists and the janscenists, the former believing in the ultimate power of the Pope over the French church, the latter elevating the latter and the position of councils. These two factions were at odds in Marseille, and they competed as being viewed as the one which truly upheld civic virtue - competed for the favor of the public, and declaring the public as their judges, which strengthened Republican traditions.

Chapter 7, “Postmortem: Virtue and Commerce Reconsidered”, touches upon some of the after-effects of the plague, as its malevolent spectre was utilized during debates over the morality of merchants and commerce, both universally locally in Marseille. These arguments stressed above all else virtue, as the defining feature to be prized in any society, and this crucial element of classical republican thought would continue to exert itself throughout the ancien régime.


One of the principal ideas expressed by the book - that of a complex and multi-faceted view of French political and economic developments, one defined by negotiation and relationships between different actors, is one which has come to define French political history studies in the Early Modern Era, in opposition to the idea of an all-powerful, absolutist state, which enforced its will on, and to the detriment, of local authorities. In this, the book falls into an established train of thought, rather than being a new idea, but it helps to continue to flesh out the understanding of the epoch.

Particularly good is the discussion of merchant virtue and the contrast between classical republican virtue and the attempt to reconcile commerce with this, and the changing representation of public utility and virtue as expressed by merchants, the state, and the people. From a view of virtue as antithetical to commerce, it becomes one which stresses the benefits of merchants to their community and the positive aspects of their trade. It is easy to see the ways in which both ideas continue to exist with modern CEOs and businessmen and their perceptions by the public. Similarly, the representations of the Ottoman Empire and its plague are a well done and fascinating subject, both for their empirical existence and for analyzing how they were portrayed in Western Europe.

At the same time, one of the critical elements of the book’s focus, that of the changing of the perception of virtue for merchants during the Marseille Plague has rather little detail. This segment is crucial, as it forms the crux upon a re-invigoration of the view of merchants as lacking in virtue, and yet only a few pages are provided for it, mostly related to their failures of governance and some acts of self-interest during the plague. This is in contrast to the extensive detail provided for the plague itself and its instruments of control. Thus instead of forming the fulcrum around which the book should turn, the plague forms very much a background at most, to the political history of Marseille, with an ever present strain of anti-commercialism that ebbed and flowed.

For providing a look into the dynamics of the moral economy of the ancien régime, changing perceptions of merchants and the virtues of commerce, the effects of catastrophe on it, and focusing on it in a specific city, Between Crown and Commerce is a highly useful and intriguing book. It is comfortable to read without excessive knowledge about the particularity of Marseille, while still containing plentiful information. Principally useful of course to those interested in the history of early modern France, it also presents valuable material concerning political ideas in 17th and 18th century Europe, plague control, and the discourse surrounding plague. For all of these reasons, it makes a well done and intriguing book which is sure to help out any reader or historian.

4 stars for Between Crown and Commerce

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    © 2018 Ryan Thomas


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