In 1675, the publishing house run by Louis Billaine, located at the Second Pillar of the Grand Salle of the Palace, at Grand Cesar, published, with the privilege of the King, a book entitled, originally, ‘Le Parfait Négociant ou Instruction Générale Pour Ce Qui Regarde Le Commerce’. In English, that would be ‘The Perfect Merchant or General Instructions as Regards Commerce’. The author was Jacques Savary. By the way, the title I provided here above is the abridged one. The full title holds in 13 lines. Master Savary wanted to be precise, and indeed he was. On 829 pages, he covers very comprehensively a lot of practical topics.
I like reading books in a hermeneutic way. It means that I try to deconstruct the context, which the book had been written in. As we are talking 17th century and French monarchy, the most important part of the context could very well be the King, and the king was the Sun King: Louis XIV of France. The second important thing in the context is d’Artagnan. Alexandre Dumas chose to put an end to his hero’s life in 1673, in a battle, identically to the death of the real d’Artagnan, or Charles de Batz de Castelmore d’Artagnan. As we are talking Louis the XIV, we are talking Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the famous minister of finance, and his active, capitalistic policies. We are talking about doing business in an environment strongly marked by the interests of the most powerful people being around. We are talking about the creation of Saint-Gobain, the manufacture of mirrors, today a global business. It was the time, when huge ambitions of the absolutist monarchy went hand in hand with a quick development of really big (I mean bloody big, really) capitalism. There were those first attempts, from the part of the Sun King, of issuing money in order to finance his military prowess. The money in question, later on disdainfully called ‘the Bernardines’, was a failure, but the idea took root.
So, two years after d’Artagnan’s last battle, and during the reign of the Sun King, Jacques Savary publishes that book about being a perfect merchant, in really mousquetaire-friendly an environment. How had he come up with the idea? He states it very frankly in the preface of his book: ‘For although I might have had sufficiently good a name, and sufficiently good a birth, to be employed at some higher profession, I admit that, having been destined for Commerce by my parents, it is the employment, which I occupied myself with for a long time, the care I gave it, the particular cognizance that I took of the most significant and the least things as regards it, the ventures I made with all kinds of Manufactures, the losses that I suffered there, those that I avoided, have given me enough enlightenment and enough experience for ignoring nothing that regards the Negoce’.
I am translating Master Savary’s words the best I can, yet the original is the original. Champagne is a good example. You can get your own PDF of Master Savary’s writing from www.gallica.bnf.fr , or Bibliothèque nationale de France. Anyway, before I go further in the wording of that preface, I go further hermeneutical with Master Savary. A few interesting things to notice in that first paragraph. ‘Commerce’ and ‘Negoce’ start with capital letters, so I gather it must be something important. Commerce was something slightly different than trade strictly spoken. We are in the world of capitalism based on debt, and more specifically on the bills of exchange. It will take more than an additional century (one and a half, as a matter of fact) to invent the institution of limited liability in a business. Someone could say: in there was no limited liability, it was better to rely on one’s own equity in doing business. Well, yes and no. Yes, because your own equity, contrarily to debt, will not give other people claims on you. No, because if you lose money in a venture, it is, on the whole, better to lose other people’s money than your own. Instead of chipping out of your own possessions, you can borrow money and lend money. The trick, and the art, was to find a balance between lending and borrowing, and it was mostly done with relatively liquid bills of exchange, traded by endorsement.
Those bills of exchange travelled much faster, and changed hands much more frequently than the stocks of goods they were more or less attached to. Commerce was the craft of trading both the goods, and the bills of exchange, at different speeds. Now, comes the subtle shade of Negoce in your Commerce. The merchant called ‘Negociant’ was a really big wholesaler, both in goods and in credit. The Negoce consisted in trading big amounts of goods and capital in a coordinated way. A Negociant could do business for years just by trading credit, without seeing a single barrel of rum or a single sack of corn, or, conversely, he could be an artist in recognizing, for example, good coffee, and making huge deals on it, after sniffing just one handful. A Negociant had to be good in law, in finance, in politics, occasionally in knife fighting, he must have been ready to travel frequently, and to shift elegantly between the crude conditions of an exploration trip and the splendours of Parisian parties. The life of a Negociant was capitalism with its teeth bare and a spark in the eye.
Master Savary says he was well born. He seems suggesting he could afford not to go into Negoce, and yet he did go that way. I guess he must have been the smart guy in the family, but probably not the first in line for inheritance. This is the probable reason why his parents destined him to be a merchant. So he had his teeth cut in doing Commerce, and he must have been really good at it, if, as he writes ‘The cognizance that I had acquired of the practice before being applied to Negoce, stepped from the fact that in the disputes arising ordinarily between Negociants, I endorsed a great number of arbitrages: the advantage I had derived from it is that in the study of evidence, books and personal conduct of those who had recourse to me in their disputes, I made myself sufficiently capable in all the matters the most important and the most difficult in Commerce’.
Yes, Master Savary must have been really quick on the uptake, and smart enough to conceal his speed of thinking a bit, just enough to appear as a steady, reliable arbiter. One thing that remains unclear in this short curriculum, is the order in time. Did he start as an apprentice with a Negociant and gradually became good at arbitrage? Or, maybe, he started as a lawyer and specialized in commercial arbitrage? I do not know. Anyway, he did not stay in the Negoce for ever. ‘The time came when the Commerce was so weakened and bankruptcies so frequent, that there was no security in playing one’s possessions, I judged then that I will do no bad deed by retiring and embracing another profession. An occasion presented itself, which confirmed me in this decision; for a Minister of His Serenissime Highness Monseigneur the Duke of Mantua came in France, who offered me the intendancy of his business in France and Charlville: which I accepted, and entered in the year 1660 to the service of His Serenissime Highness, in which I still am; […]’.
Right, let’s go hermeneutic once again. ‘Serenissime’ means kind of very calm in his ways. Noble born people, in the past, liked dropping this adjective in those long designations, half-name, half-social status that they used to introduce themselves. It probably meant that they wanted to appear cool and relax. ‘Peace, bro. See that Serenissime on my visit card? It means I am really calm, and I will have you executed only at your second mistake. Are we doing business?’. Thus, Master Savary went into the service of that Italian duke from Lombardy (this is where Mantua is). Being a duke was a good position. The difference between a duke and a prince is that the former is just the top dog in the feudal hierarchy, and the latter is of royal blood and waiting in line for sitting on the throne. Apparently, especially in Italy, being a prince was really unhealthy an occupation. You could have had those horrible hunting accidents, when a wild boar attacked you with five crossbows, and could even follow you home. Waiting in line for top offices is rough. Being a duke was safer, as you were the boss and it was kind of official and legally guaranteed. You just had to wait a few centuries, over some twelve generations, and you had that dukedom. Well, yes, you had to put your bets on the right prince, the one who didn’t get attacked frequently by wild boars with crossbows, or just had more crossbows secured on his side, together with the properly qualified labour force.
So, Master Savary started somehow (?) in the Commerce, then went into business arbitrage, which made him convinced he is really good at Negoce. He went into Negoce, did some business, earned some money, lost some money, and then decided it was not really calm an occupation. When a very calm (i.e. Serenissime) duke from Italy offered him a job, he accepted willingly. As he sketches the job in question, he says: ‘[…] in order to fulfil my obligations it was necessary for me to study the Ordinances and the Customs, as there was much business decisions based thereon; so as I committed myself to read them, and in that reading I made remarks on everything pertaining to Commerce, which served me usefully in the composition of this book. When His Majesty, willing to put a limit, by a Regulation, to the abuses that were being committed in the Negoce, had it ordered by circulating letters to Judges and Consuls, Guards and Communities of Merchants in the good towns of his kingdom to send him their memoirs on this subject, I believed it was my duty to work individually, too, in order to make my eagerness visible and the desire to serve the King and the public; this is why I composed two memoirs, one containing the abuses that were being committed in the Commerce, which I presented to Monseigneur Colbert at the end of August, 1670, the other was a bill of Regulation, which I composed in several chapters, where I proposed dispositions that I saw as just and proper to put a limit all the abuses I mentioned in the first memoire; I presented this bill to Monseigneur Colbert in the following September’.
Right, I am back into hermeneutics. Have you noticed, how long are the sentences in Master Savary’s writing? That was the style of the time, I guess. It survived until the first half of the 19th century, when shorter sentences became definitely the fashion. Did those people, back in the days, have longer breath? Were they able to put more sound between two full stops? Or, maybe, they just have longer and more structured ideas, which they did not feel like truncating? Who knows, they are no longer here to tell us. Anyway, it appears that Master Savary was not really the perfect merchant he wrote about. He had some adventure in the Negoce, but, on the whole, he did not seem to like it. He was more of a bystander to business, who used to have views on business. He was an economist, just as I am. When I was young, I had serious plans for a legal career. In 1989, in Poland, the Big Swing came, everything fell apart, there was not much I could inherit, and so I went into business just in order to survive in the new reality. Doing business was interesting, only I just wasn’t prepared for it, and after fourteen years I decided, just as Master Savary did, to accept a job from a really calm duke. In my case it was a university. Comes the time, comes the calm duke.
Master Savary was an economist, only he did not know he was. The word ‘economist’ comes from the French ‘économiste’, and this was the label put on the followers of Francois Quesnay, the author of ‘The Economic Table’ (French: ‘Tableau économique’), published in 1758, a few years before Adam Smith published his ‘Enquiry Into The Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations’. The work by Francois Quesnay was probably among the first piece of macroeconomics officially published, together with ‘The Theory of Taxation’ (French: ‘La Théorie de l’Impôt’) by Marquis de Mirabeau. Initially, the term ‘économiste’ was a bit pejorative and meant some loonies obsessed with numbers. Economics, at the time, the time being the verge of the 18th and the 19th centuries, were ‘political economy’. It was only at the end of the 19th century that any scholar could call himself seriously an economist.
I am summoning Master Savary from the after world of social sciences, and we start chatting about what he wrote regarding manufactures (Book II, Chapter XLV and XLVI). First, a light stroke of brush to paint the general landscape. Back in the days, in the second half of the 17th century, manufactures meant mostly textile and garments. There was some industrial activity in other goods (glass, tapestry), but the bulk of industry was about cloth, in many forms. People at the time were really inventive as it came to new types of cloth: they experimented with mixing cotton, wool and silk, in various proportions, and they experimented with dyeing (I mean, they experimented with dying, as well, but we do it all the time), and they had fashions. Anyway, textile and garment was THE industry.
As Master Savary starts his exposition about manufactures, he opens up with a warning: manufactures can lead you to ruin. Interesting opening for an instruction. The question is why? Or rather, how? I mean, how could a manufacturing business lead to ruin? Well, back in the day, in 17th century, in Europe, manufacturing activities used to be quite separated institutionally from the circulation of big money. Really big business was being done mostly in trade, and large-scale manufacturing was seen as kind of odd. In trade, merchants of the time devised various legal tools to speed up the circulation of capital. Bills of exchange, maritime insurance, tax farming – it all allowed, with just the right people to know, a really smooth flow of money, even in the presence of many-year-long maritime commercial trips. In manufacturing, many of those clever tricks didn’t work, or at least didn’t work yet. They had to wait, those people, some 200 years before manufacturing would become really smooth a way of circulating capital. Anyway, putting money in manufacturing meant that you could not recover it as quickly as you could in trade. Basically, when you invested in manufactures, you were much more dependent on the actual marketability of your actual products than you were in trade. Thus, many merchants, Master Savary obviously included, perceived manufacturing as terribly risky.
What did he recommend in the presence of such dire risk? First of all, he advised to distinguish between three strategies. One, imitate a foreign manufacture. Second, invent something new and set a new manufacture. Third, invest in ‘an already established Manufacture, whose merchandise has an ordinary course in the Kingdom as well as in foreign Countries, by the general consent of all the people who had recognized its goodness, in the use of fabric which have been manufactured there’. I tried to translate literally the phrasing of the last strategy, in order to highlight the key points of the corresponding business plan. An established manufacture meant, first of all, the one with ‘an ordinary course in the Kingdom as well as in foreign Countries’. Ordinary course meant a predictable final selling price. As a matter of fact, this is my problem with that translation. Master Savary originally used the French expression: ‘cours ordinaire’, which, in English, becomes ambiguous. First, it can mean ‘ordinary course’, i.e. something like an established channel of distribution. Still, it can also mean ‘ordinary rate of exchange’. Why ‘rate of exchange’? We are some 150 years before the development of modern, standardized monetary systems. We are even some 100 years before the appearance of paper money. There were coins, and there was a s***load of other things you could exchange your goods against. At Master Savary’s time, many things were currencies. In business, you traded your goods against various types of coins, you accepted bills of exchange instead of coins, you traded against gold and silver in ingots, as well, and finally, you did barter. Some young, rich, and spoilt marquis had lost some of its estates by playing cards, he signed some papers, and here you are, with the guy who wants to buy your entire stock of woollen garments and who wants to pay you precisely with those papers signed by the young marquis. If you were doing really big business, none of your goods has one price: instead, they all had complex exchange rates against other valuables. Trading goods with what Master Savary originally called ‘cours ordinaire’ meant that the goods in question were kind of predictable as for their exchange rate against anything else in that economic jungle of the late 17th century.
What worked on the selling side, had to work on the supply side as well. You had to buy your raw materials, your transport, your labour etc. at complex exchange rates, and not at those nice, tame, clearly cut prices in one definite currency. Making the right match between exchange rates achieved when purchasing things, and those practiced at the end of the value chain was an art, and frequently a pain in your ass. In other words, business in 17th century was very much like what we would have now if our banking and monetary systems collapsed. Yes, baby, them bankers are mean and abjectly rich, but they keep that wheel spinning smoothly, and you don’t have to deal with Somalian pirates in order to buy from them some drugs, which you are going to exchange against natural oil in Yemen, which, in turn, you will use to back some bills of exchange, which will allow you to buy cotton for your factory.
Now, let’s return to what Master Savary had to say about those three strategies for manufacturing. As he discusses the first one – imitating a foreign factory – he recommends five wise things to do. One, check if you can achieve exactly the same quality of fabric as those bloody foreigners do. If you cannot, there is no point in starting imitation. Two, make sure you can acquire your raw materials, in the necessary bracket of quality, in the place where you locate your manufacture. Three, make sure the place where you locate your operations will allow you to practice prices competitive as compared to those foreign goods you are imitating. Four, create for yourself conditions for experimenting with your product and your business. Launch some kind of test missiles in many directions, present your fabrics to many potential customers. In other words, take your time, bite your ambition, suck ass and make your way into the market step by step. Five, arrange for acquiring the same tools, and even the same people that work in those foreign manufactures. Today, we would say: acquire the technology, both the formal, and the informal one.
As he passes to discussing the second strategy, namely inventing something new, Master Savary recommends even more prudence, and, in the same time, he pulls open a bit the veil of discretion regarding his own life, and confesses that he, in person, had invented three new fabrics during his business career: a thick woollen ribbon made of camel wool, a thick drugget for making simple, coarse, work clothes, and finally a ribbon made of woven gold and silver. Interesting. Here is a guy, who started his professional life as a merchant, then he went into commercial arbitrage for some time, then he went into the service of a rich aristocrat ( see ‘Comes the time, comes the calm duke’ ), then he entered into a panel of experts commissioned by Louis XIV, the Sun King, to prepare new business law, and in the meantime he invented decorative ribbons for rich people, as well as coarse fabrics for poor people. Quite abundant a walk of life. As I am reading the account of his textile inventions, he seems to be the most attached to, and the most vocal about that last one, the gold and silver ribbon. He insists that nobody before him had ever succeeded in weaving gold and silver into something wearable. He describes in detail all the technological nuances, like for example preventing the chipping off of the very thinly pulled, thread size, golden wire. He concludes: ‘I have given my own example, in order to make those young people, who want to invent new Manufactures, understand they should take their precautions, not to engage imprudently and not to let themselves being carried away by the profits they will make on their first fabrics, and to have a great number of them fabricated, before being certain they will be pleasant to the public, as well as for their beauty as for quality; for it is really dangerous, and they will risk their fortune at it’.
Master Savary discusses at length a recent law: the Ordinance of 1673 or Edict of the King Serving as Regulation For The Business of Negociants And Merchants In Retail as well As In Wholesale. This is my own, English translation of the original title in French, namely “ORDONNANCE DE 1673 Édit du roi servant de règlement pour le commerce des négociants et marchands tant en gros qu’en détail”. You can have the full original text of that law at this link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1QaBZlwGxxAanpBSVlPNW9LeFE/view?usp=sharing
I am discussing this ordinance in connection with Jacques Savary’s writings because he was reputed to be its co-author. In his book, he boasts about having been asked by the King (Louis the XIV Bourbon) to participate in a panel of experts in charge of preparing a reform of business law.
I like understanding how things work. By education, I am both a lawyer and an economist, so I like understanding how does the business work, as well as the law. I have discovered that looking at things in the opposite order, i.e. opposite to the officially presented one, helps my understanding and my ability to find hidden levers and catches in the officially presented logic. When applied to a legal act, this approach of mine sumps up, quite simply, to reading the document in the opposite order: I start with the last section and I advance, progressively, towards the beginning. I found out that things left for being discussed at the end of a legal act are usually the most pivotal patterns of social action in the whole legal structure under discussion. It looks almost as if most legislators were leaving the best bits for the dessert.
In this precise case, the dessert consists in Section XII, or ‘Of The Jurisdiction of Consuls’. In this section, the prerogatives of Judges and Consuls are discussed. The interesting thing here is that the title of the section refers to Consults, but each particular provision uses exactly this expression: ‘Judges and Consuls’. It looks as if there were two distinct categories of officers, and as if the ordinance in question attempted to bring their actions and jurisdictions over a common denominator. Interestingly, in some provisions of section XII, those Judges and Consuls are opposed to a category called ‘ordinary judges’. A quick glance at the contents of the section informs me that those guys, Judges and Consuls, were already in office at the moment of enacting the ordinance. The law I am discussing attempts to put order in their activity, without creating the institution as such.
Now, I am reviewing the list of prerogatives those Judges and Consuls were supposed to have. As I started with the last section of the legal act, I am starting from the last disposition of the last section. This is article 18, which refers to subpoena and summonses issued by Judges and Consuls. That means those guys were entitled to force people to come to court. This is not modern business arbitrage: we are talking about regular judicial power. That ordinance of 23rd of March, 1673, puts order in much more than commercial activities: it makes part of a larger attempt to put order in adjudication. I can only guess, by that categorization into ‘Judges’, ‘Consuls’, and ‘ordinary judges’ that at the time, many parallel structures of adjudication were coexisting, maybe even competing against each other as for their prerogatives. Judges and Consuls seem to have been victorious in at least some of this general competition for judicial power. Article 15, in the same section XII, says ‘We declare null all ordinances, commissions, mandates for summoning, and summonses issued by consequence in front of our judges and those of lords, which would revoke those issued in front of Judges and Consuls. We forbid, under the sanction of nullity, to overrule or suspend procedures and prosecutions undertaken in the execution of their verdicts, as well as to bar the way to proceeding in front of them. We want that, on the grounds of the present ordinance, they are executed, and that parties who will have presented their requests to overrule, revoke, suspend or defend the execution of their judgments, the prosecutors who will have signed such requests, the bailiffs or sergeants who will have notify about such requests, be sentenced each to fifty livres of penalty, half to the benefit of the party, half to the benefit of the poor, and those penalties will not be subject to markdown nor rebate; regarding the payment of which the party, the prosecutors and the sergeants are constrained in solidarity’.
That article 15 is a real treat, for institutional analysis. Following my upside down way of thinking, once again, I can see that at the moment of issuing this ordinance, the legal system in France must have been like tons of fun. If anyone was fined, they could argue for marking down the penalty or at least for having a rebate on it. They could claim they are liable to pay just a part of the fine (I did not do it as such; I was just watching them doing!). If a fine was adjudicated, the adjudicating body had to precise, whose benefit will this money contribute to. You could talk and cheat your way through the legal system by playing various categories of officers – bailiffs, sergeants, prosecutors, lord’s judges, royal judges, Judges and Consuls – against each other. At least some of them had the capacity to overrule, revoke, or suspend the decisions of others. This is why we, the King of France, had to put some order in that mess.
Francois Braudel, in his wonderful book entitled ‘Civilisation and Capitalism’, stated that the end of the 17th century – so the grand theatre where this ordinance happens – was precisely the moment when the judicial branch of government, in the more or less modern sense of the term, started to emerge. A whole class of professional lawyers was already established, at the time. An interesting mechanism of inverted entropy put itself in motion. The large class of professional lawyers emerged in dynamic loop with the creation of various tribunals, arbiters, sheriffs and whatnot. At the time, the concept of ‘jurisdiction’ apparently meant something like ‘as much adjudicating power you can grab and get away with it’. The more fun in the system, the greater need for professionals to handle it. The more professionals in the game, the greater market for their services they need etc. Overlapping jurisdictions were far from being as embarrassing as they are seen today: overlapping my judicial power with someone else’s was all the juice and all the fun of doing justice.
That was a general trait of the social order, which today we call ‘feudal’: lots of fun as various hierarchies overlapped and competed against each other. Right, those lots of fun could mean, quite frequently, paid assassins disguised in regular soldiers and pretending to fend off the King’s mousquetaires disguised in paid assassins. This is why that strange chaos, emerging out of a frantic push towards creating rivalling orders, had to be simplified. Absolute monarchy came as such a simplification. This is interesting to study how that absolute monarchy, so vilified in the propaganda by early revolutionaries, laid the actual foundations of what we know as modern constitutional state. Constitutional states work because constitutional orders work, and constitutional orders are based, in turn, on a very rigorously observed, institutional hierarchy, monopolistic in its prerogatives. If we put democratic institutions, like parliamentary vote, in the context of overlapping hierarchies and jurisdictions practiced in the feudal world, it would simply not work. Parliamentary votes have power because, and just as long as there is a monopolistic hierarchy of enforcement, created under absolute monarchies.
Anyway, the Sun King (yes, it was Louis the XIV) seems to have had great trust in the institution of Judges and Consuls. He seems to have been willing to give them a lot of powers regarding business law, and thus to forward his plan of putting some order in the chaos of the judicial system. Articles 13 and 14, in the same section XII, give an interesting picture of that royal will. Article 13 says that Judges and Consuls, on the request from the office of the King or from its palace, have the power to adjudicate on any request or procedure contesting the jurisdiction of other officers, ordinary judges included, even if said request regards an earlier privilege from the King. It seems that those Judges and Consuls are being promoted to the position of super-arbiters in the legal system.
Still, Article 14 is even more interesting, and it is so intriguing in its phrasing that I am copying here its original wording in French, for you to judge if I grasped well the meaning: ‘Seront tenus néanmoins, si la connaissance ne leur appartient pas de déférer au déclinatoire, à l’appel d’incompétence, à la prise à partie et au renvoi’. I tried to interpret this article with the help of modern legal doctrine in French, and I can tell you, it is bloody hard. It looks like a 17th century version of Catch 22. As far as I can understand it, the meaning of article 14 is the following: if a Judge or Consul does not have the jurisdiction to overrule a procedure against their jurisdiction, they will be subject to judgment on their competence to adjudicate. More questions than answers, really. Who decides whether the given Judge or Consul has the power to overrule a procedure against their authority? How this power is being evaluated? What we have here is an interesting piece of nothingness, right where we could expect granite-hard rules of competence. Obviously, the Sun King wanted to put some order in the judicial system, but he left some security valves in the new structure, just to allow the releasing of extra pressure, inevitably created by that new order.
Other interesting limitations to the powers of Judges and Consuls come in articles 3 and 6 of the same section XII. Article 3, in connection with article 2, states the jurisdiction of Judges and Consuls over the bills of exchange. Before I go further, a bit of commentary. Bills of exchange, at the time, made a monetary system equivalent to what today we know as account money, together with a big part of the stock market, as well as the market of futures contracts. At the end of the 17th century, bills of exchange were a universal instrument for transferring capital and settling the accounts. Circulation in bills of exchange was commonly made through recognition and endorsement, which, in practice, amounted to signing your name on the bill that passed through your hands (your business), and, subsequently, admitting (or not) that said signature is legitimate and valid. The practical problem with endorsement was that with many signatures on the same bill, together with accompanying remarks in the lines of ‘recognise up to the amount of…’, it was bloody complicated to reconstruct the chain of claims. For example, if you wanted to kind of sneak through the system, it came quite handy to endorse by signature, whilst writing the date of your signature kind of a few inches away, so as it looks signed before someone else. This detail alone provoked disputes about the timeline of endorsement.
Now, in that general context, article 2 of section XII, in the royal ordinance of March 23rd, 1673, states that Judges and Consuls have jurisdiction over bills of exchange between merchants and negociants, or those, in which merchants or negociants are the obliged party, as well as the letters of exchange and transfers of money between places. Article 3, in this general context, comes with an interesting limitation: ‘We forbid them, nevertheless, to adjudicate on bills of exchange between private individuals, other than merchants or negociants, or where a merchant or negociant is not obliged whatsoever. We want the parties to refer to ordinary judges, just as regarding simple promises’.
We, the King of France, want those Judges and Consuls to be busy just with the type of matters they are entitled to meddle with, and we don’t want their schedules to be filled with other types of cases. This is clear and sensible. Still, one tiny little Catch 22 pokes its head out of that wording. There visibly was a whole class of bills of exchange, where merchants or negociants were just the obliged party, the passive one, without having any corresponding claims on other classes of people. Bills of exchange with obliged merchants and negociants involved entered into the jurisdiction of Judges and Consuls, and, in the absence of such involvement, Judges and Consuls were basically off the case. Still, I saw examples of those bills of exchange, and I can tell you one thing: in all that jungle of endorsements, remarks and clauses to endorsements and whatnot written on those bills, there was a whole investigation to carry out just in order to establish the persons involved as obligators. Question: who assessed, whether a merchant or negociant is involved in the chain of endorsement regarding a specific bill? How was it being assessed?
Now, I am reading, and translating on the go in English, what he wrote about the securitisation of contracts by the means of the so-called bills of exchange, or promissory notes. He starts discussing the issue when I would start, i.e. at the origins. ‘It is one thousand years since we learnt what bills of exchange and promissory notes are, an invention which came from the Jews, who, chased away from France, during the reigns of Dagobert the 1st, Philippe Augustus, and Philippe the Long, in the years 640, 1181, and 1316, took refuge in Lombardy, and in order to retrieve money and other possessions that they left in France in their friends’ hands, necessity taught them to use letters and bills written in few words and containing little substance, as it is the case with letters and bills of exchange today addressed to their friends; and to that purpose they used the intermediary of travellers, pilgrims, and foreign merchants. This means allowed them to retrieve all their assets, but, as these people have mind infinitely what regards gain and profit, they paid attention to make themselves intelligent in the knowledge of the pure and the tarnish in currencies, so as not to mistake themselves at the evaluation and reduction of different alloys in coins, which was strongly variable at the time’.
The turn of phrase you could have just read is my personal translation. I made my best so as to keep the original spirit of the text, and, in the same time, make it intelligible. The linguistic niceties properly introduced, I can give that loaf of information to my internal bulldog, for economic analysis, just to see it happy. The passage mentions two distinct economic functions, somehow coinciding with the use of the bills of exchange: controlling distant assets, and setting the market price of capital goods.
Let’s move forward with Master Savary. A few paragraphs later, he writes: ‘The etymology of the word “letter of exchange” is easy to understand, for it means no other thing than changing the money that a Merchant has in one town, and giving it to another [Merchant], who has use for it, and who has no such sum in the town of his residence, where the letter has been drawn from. This exchange is equally advantageous to them both, for the one who will have money in a town without this commodity would have to have his money transported by messengers and carters, and the one who would have need it in the same town, for doing business, would have to have it carted from the place of his residence. Again, the word “change” comes from the fact that the interest, or profit, offered when drawing or offering letters of exchange is never the same: sometimes it is high, sometimes it is low, sometimes you lose on it, sometimes you gain, and sometimes it is just at par; it means that there is nothing to lose or to gain between the Changers: and so it is perpetual change, which is being encountered in the Commerce [done with] the letters of exchange’.
Language is intriguing. When we deconstruct the etymology of a word, we can find the function that it corresponds, too. Here, Master Savary explains us the etymology of ‘letter of exchange’, and, by the same occasion, unveils the social function behind. When some capital good, coined money in the case of Master Savary’s explanation, is pretty clumsy and costly to transport, homo sapiens invents ways to use just the information about said capital good. Information travels faster, cheaper, and less riskily than coined metal, so let’s use information as payment. Information has its price, too, and, in this case, the price of letters of exchange – thus their exchange value – was made as the local (i.e. in the given transaction) evaluation of how much exchangeable value I can acquire when accepting, as payment, a letter of exchange allowing to draw on that other gentleman’s metal money stored somewhere far (too far for transporting the money physically).
Thus, as soon as an acceptably stable legal system with acceptably reliable property rights emerged, that little idea emerged as well: what has the most bulk value are big things, hard to move around, like real estate, big stocks of metals, big stocks of food etc. They have value, those big things, but they have little velocity, so let’s give them a kick into more velocity by drawing more or less standardized legal deeds, embodying claims on parts of those big things.
If you read carefully Master Savary’s explanation, you will see that letters of exchange, which, centuries after their invention, turned into paper money, were initially options on the value of coined metal. I had money stored somewhere far from the place where I was currently doing business. I offered to other business people to pay them with letters of exchange, giving them claim on some amount of my far-stored money. Those business people weighed the practical value that having a claim on that money had, from their point of view, and proposed a price for those letters. It went (probably, more or less) like: ‘Good, so you want that cart of silk, and you want me to pay with a letter of exchange that gives me unconditional claim on your silver money, and let’s say – for the sake of convenience in those folks who will read it like in four hundred years from now – that silver money is 200 ducats. That money is stored 100 miles from here. I am pondering two things now. Firstly, I am going through the idea of going and physically claiming that money of yours. Secondly, I am thinking about, instead of doing the trip, to hand that letter of exchange over to another business person, who might be willing to go and claim the money, or to make the letter circulate further. I am anticipating both the for and against of claiming physically your money, and the odds that your letter of exchange will have any exchangeable value in itself. All in all, I propose you to buy this letter of exchange from you for the equivalent, in that silk you want to buy from me, of 200 ducats minus one fifth, thus 160 ducats’.
Complicated? Yes, certainly, and this is not all. There was another factor in the game of pricing the letters of exchange: the properties of the metal money they allowed claiming. Here, a little remark is due about the origins of coined money, and, by the same means, another deceased gentleman joins the conversation. Welcome Adam Smith. What Master Smith explained, in a book published 90 years after that by Master Savary, is that coined money emerged out of the necessity to evaluate the true value of metals used in exchanges. Copper, silver, and, less frequently, gold, were the main metal exchangeable, back in the days (many days). Somehow, people came to the idea that the purer is the metal offered in exchange, the more it is worth. The presence of other substances than silver, in your average pound of silver, decreased the exchange value of that pound of silver. I know, I know, from the today’s point of view it is not one hundred percent logical, yet it was what it was. People used small, portable scales to weigh the metal in exchange (this is where the scales held by Themis, the goddess of justice, might be coming from), but it was a bit slow to use. Besides, once the metal graded by weighing, the question of how precise was the weighing naturally came to the fore, possibly together with skilled labour force, equipped with tools proper for violence.
What the sovereigns (kings, princes, and whoever efficiently claimed to rule the land) came up with was the idea of minting. The local sovereign proposed the following deal to business people: ‘See, here I have that little facility, which I have just named “mint”. The people I employ at the mint will weigh your metal and grade it, and, in order to streamline the subsequent exchanges, will make it into small pieces of standard weight each, with my royal/ducal/whatever-I-am-currently stamp on them. My minting stamp will guarantee the exchangeable value of your metal. Isn’t it a tremendous improvement? Oh, there is that tiny little detail: as minting will take off your shoulders the burden of (some) transaction costs, you pay me a fraction of the exchangeable value in the metal being minted. Deal?’.
In the Europe of the past, which, fault of a better word, we call ‘feudal’, there were many sovereigns, living in really complicated, hierarchical combinations. Most of them used to run their mints, whence the presence of many minting stamps in the market. Ducats were metal stamped with ducal minting stamps, for example. A duke was the highest in rank in the feudal hierarchy, regarding the control over precise territories. Kings and their royal families were technically above that hierarchy, but, as regards the claim on territories, kings made themselves into dukes, frequently. You can find a trace of that legal trick in the today’s royal families, whose members, whilst being kings, queens, princes or princesses, are dukes or duchesses of something as well.
As I intellectually compile my notes on Master Savary’s writings, I notice an interesting pattern: the connexion between quantitative growth in markets, and the opportunity for investment. I compare ‘Le parfait négociant’ by Jacques Savary, published in 1675, with ‘An Inquiry Into The Nature And Causes of The Wealth Of Nations’ by Adam Smith, published in 1763. Adam Smith firmly stated that quickly growing markets offer the best opportunities for making profits. As a matter of fact, if you take into account the operational profits from current business, and the financial return on capital engaged in the corresponding assets, Adam Smith would say that only markets endowed with quick quantitative growth offer any chance of profits whatsoever. Master Savary, on the other hand, would much rather do business in stationary, predictable markets. Question: what has changed, between the end of the 17th century, and the end of the 18th, so as to provoke such a change in approach?
Three factors come to my mind: demographic growth, standardization of monetary systems, and diversification of technologies. The 1670ies, in Europe, was a period of us, Europeans, sort of hesitating between demographic recession, and just a demographic slowdown. That hesitant frame of our collective approach to there being possibly more of us around turned into a firm ‘yes, more’ attitude precisely in the 1760ies, thus when Master Smith was observing society around him, and writing about it. You can find a fascinating description of that long process in
« La théorie de l’impôt » (1760) by Victor Riqueti, marquis de Mirabeau (yes, the same Mirabeau, I mean the revolutionary). Cold as finance – which it talks about – but a lot of facts to find inside.
Anyway, when Jacques Savary was writing, in 1675, that ‘it is an important thing to undertake manufactures, for it is nothing less that the entrepreneurs’ ruin, should (this undertaking) be not conducted with prudence and judgment’. This was a sketch against the background of a population on decline, and it married interestingly with technological diversity. In Master Savary’s times, the textile – garments and fabrics – was THE cutting edge of technology. When Adam Smith was writing his treaty, European population was on the rise again, and innovation was taking place across the board, really, financial instruments included.
Here comes the third factor: cash. Jacques Savary was operating in a world where money was diverse, a bit obscure and largely dependent on local sovereigns’ caprice. Adam Smith was observing a different context, where monetary systems were progressively tending towards standardization, although it required one more century to become effective.
That little digression serves me just to show my students in management the fundamentals of growing a business: you need a growing market, you need generally innovative an economic environment (when you are the only one to innovate, it sucks), and you need to have cash secured.
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