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Social background

In the course of the analysed century, a total of 1,647 participants in credit turnover appeared in Old Warsaw, with an annual average frequency of 27 persons in the 15th century and 34 in the 16th century. The nature of the participation of most persons was characterized by one-time presence in all credit registers and one-sidedness when they acted only as a creditor or debtor. One-time participation concerned 81% of lenders and 73% of borrowers. On the other hand, unilateral actions were taken by as much as 90% of all registered persons. These figures and analyses of the personalities of the parties to the transaction prove the horizontality of the market which, in turn, is considered a testimony to its positive condition and the wide circulation of capital. In other words, apart from a large group of single debtors, there was an equally large group of single creditors who, having a certain cash surplus, undertook to invest in the market. What is very important in this context is the lack of dependence of many borrowers on a narrow group of those operating with serious capital, for example the wealthiest merchants (in such a case it would be a less favourable vertical structure). Only 9% of all people appeared on both sides of the market. The most active (more than tenfold presence) and proportionally smallest (less than 2% of all creditors and 1% of debtors) part of this group was formed by elites. However, their share was neither even nor equal. We see unevenness in the participation of only a part of the representatives of the wealthiest families, many wealthy merchants appeared in just a few contracts. On the other hand, inequality is expressed in different strategies adopted by the elites, some specialized in the role of creditors, another group mainly collected capital, while others operated on both sides of the market. In both cases, there is no uniform model of elite credit activity, characterized by clear differentiation.

The professional landscape of the medieval city was a real mosaic of various professions and specializations. Guild crafts were undoubtedly the most numerous but the leading position in terms of wealth was occupied by merchants; therefore, it is worth a closer look at the activity of both groups. The craftsmen of Old Warsaw comprised several main branches: construction, wood, metal, leather, food, services, and textiles, while the greatest wealth was achieved by goldsmiths and leather professions, which was also greatly influenced by the water-transported trade to Prussia. In the years 1427-1525 a total of 70 trades were recorded and the number of craftsmen increased five times (Koczorowska 1972). In the period covered by the analysis, 423 craftsmen taking part in the Old Town credit market (26% of the total number of people) were recorded. Artifices appeared in 596 cases with a total value exceeding 340,000 groszes. In total, their activity, against the background of general indicators describing the loan turnover, covered 41% of the number and 25% of the total value of all credit records. The median value of concluded agreements was 3 sexagenae, that is 1.5 sexagenae lower than the general market median. On the other hand, the annual frequency of occurrence was seven cases on average, which was twice as low as the average set for the whole market, with the highest activity occurring at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries. Craftsmen most often used a loan authenticated in the books once (66% of people), mainly taking capital from the market twice as often as they invested. Investments were undertaken mainly by elites formed by goldsmiths, painters, some furriers, saddlers, and butchers. Nevertheless, the majority of master craftsmen treated the credit market as an incidentally used source of additional cash and not as an investment sphere. A completely different picture emerges from the analysis of merchants’ activity. On the basis of the old town court records, a group of 155 merchants was separated, who constituted only 9% of the persons present on the market but, at the same time, were parties to almost half of all contracts (46%). The total value of transactions exceeded 842,000 groszes, that is over 60% of the total turnover recorded in the books. The wealth of this professional group is evidenced by the average (21 sexagenae) and median (6.5) exceeding by 2 sexagenae the median value of the obligation established in relation to the whole market. However, the frequency of occurrence of 6.6 cases per year was twice lower than the general city average. Merchants used the market for investment purposes as well as to obtain a loan, however, the tendency to invest capital was predominant. The custom of generating additional income from loan operations occupied a stable place in the investment strategy of Warsaw merchants for nearly eight decades which, at the same time, seems to be a positive sign of the stability and liquidity of the Old Town credit market.

The town of the Middle Ages and modern era did not make a closed environment limited only to the group of its inhabitants but concentrated economic activities of many social groups. Beside the burghers themselves, representatives of the nobility, clergy and peasants as well as the Jewish religious community participated in the life of almost every centre. The population growth of the city could not be achieved without migration and long-distance trade would not exist without a wide network of external relations to attract suppliers and business partners. After analysing the activity of particular groups, we will look at the territorial coverage of the Warsaw market.

According to the data presented in Table 10.1, the loan turnover was characterized by estate homogeneity expressed as a definite domination of burghers: 81% among lenders and as many as 96% among borrowers.

Table 10.1 Social structure of creditors and debtors in Old Warsaw in 1427-1527

Social group



Number of people


Number of people
































Representatives of other estates acted mainly as creditors, although the scale of their activity was definitely marginal. Most often the burghers entered into credit relations with the nobility (10%) and clergy (6%), while peasants (2.7%) and Jews (1.2%) had a much smaller share. A characteristic feature of these unions was the one-time presence of the majority of creditors. The main source of cash and simultaneously the area of its investment was town market which sufficiently satisfied the capital needs of the inhabitants of Old Warsaw.

Considering not only the nobility, clergy, peasants, and Jews, but also townsmen from other centres, we can clearly see that the majority of external transactions covered villages and towns within a radius of about 30 km from Warsaw. There was also a close correlation between the increase in the transaction value and the distance from the city: if contractors came from the Kingdom of Poland, Lithuania, Prussia or Silesia, the median ranged from 22 to 50 sexagenae groszes and included the Warsaw elite, while the most numerous people in the immediate vicinity of the city concluded contracts for a median of 3 sexagenae, focusing on the middle and poorer strata. Moreover, we observe the phenomenon of one-time activity concerning as much as 90% of all persons coming from outside Warsaw and their role as creditors (75% of transactions). These facts seem to clearly indicate the lack of stability of credit ties, which were established sporadically, on the margins of conducted business and trade in goods. It also proves that there is a clear changeability in the composition of the retail network connecting Old Warsaw with other areas, which, especially in the context of the immediate vicinity of the city, indicates that the market is open to access by other people, while at the same time there is no long-term domination of one narrow group. Nevertheless, a more important conclusion is the statement that the intra-city credit market was characterized by estate and territorial homogeneity, expressed in the acquisition and investment of cash in the internal turnover created by private Christian burghers with a marginal, unstable network characterized by a short territorial range of the external relations.

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