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Credit and finance in Rudolphine Prague

Introduction

Under rhe reign of the Emperor Rudolph II (Bohemian king from 1576 to 1611), Prague was an important Central European centre of power and culture and also a metropolis in which the capital of domestic and foreign companies and financiers was active. The population of the Prague agglomeration, which consisted of three royal towns - the Old Town, the New Town and Mala Strana, along with the town of Hradcany and the town of Vysehrad, increased rapidly over several decades, rising from 25,000 at the beginning of the 16th century to 60,000-70,000 in the last third of the same century. Prague experienced an economic boom during this period, one which was boosted by the transferral of the imperial court to the city in 1583. This resulted not only in an overall increase in population, but also in the formation of a sufficiently strong group of consumers from among the courtiers, court officials, nobles, and wealthier burghers, who not only were interested in luxury goods from abroad, but also had the money to purchase them. Business opportunities attracted to the city more merchants, who chiefly came from neighbouring countries and from the north of the Apennine Peninsula, and subsequently from Holland or other parts of Western Europe at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. They all strove to supply the court, as well as the nobles and burghers, with desired goods of Italian, Western European, and overseas provenance (Ledvinka & Pesek 2000, pp. 336-9).

There had been Jews in the city since medieval times and their community had a population of around 8,000-9,000 during the Rudolphine period. Among them, there was also a large group of financiers, wholesalers, and smaller merchants, whose activities were not limited to just Jewish customers and the boundaries of the Jewish quarter, but co-created and influenced the entire nature and scope of trade in Prague. The economic elite consisted of families who we know resided in Prague from at least the end of the 15th century or first decades of the 16th century, such as members of the broader Horowitz-Munka, Sachs, Weisswasser, Weisel, and Impresor families. Marek

Mordechai Meisel, the Mayor of the Jewish community and the emperor’s banker, held a very privileged position (Bunatovâ 2011; Vih'mkovâ 1993). Wealthy and smaller businessmen and financiers were also recruited from among Jewish immigrants who arrived here from the 1570s onwards from German lands, Poland and Italy. Moses Frankfurter, the Wechsler family, rabbi Jacob Kalman, the Italian Jews Abraham Sacerdoti, rabbi Ventura de Bacchi, and the brothers Samuel and Jacob Bassevi from Verona were particularly distinguished as businessmen and financiers with extensive foreign contacts (Bunatovâ 2019, pp. 257-63).

The legal conditions for trade in early modern Prague

Separate commercial law did not exist in the early modern age and was included in private law at the time. In the Czech environment, the foundations of commercial law were embodied in estates law codified at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries (Jirecek & Jirecek 1882; Kreuz & Martinovskÿ 2007; Maly & Panek 2001), and were also included in municipal law (Jirecek 1876; Maly & Sousa 2013). Along with the Common Law of the Land and municipal law, the legislative terms for the business activities of Christians and Jews in Prague were also formed by the privileges granted by the rulers, instructions from the municipal governments of individual Prague towns, and the regulations of guild corporations (Bunatovâ 2013, pp. 52-100).

An important legal standard that influenced business life in Prague, with varying intensity, from the medieval ages to the 17th century was the so-called guest law (Gastrecht). During the 13th and 14th centuries this developed in all economically advanced cities in Europe where it regulated the terms under which foreign merchants were able to trade there. In Prague, this law was codified in 1304 by the Bohemian King Wenceslaus II (1278/83-1305) and was subsequently amended several times during the 14th century (Bunatovâ 2013, pp. 54-9; Celakovsky 1886, pp. 19-21). Merchants from the Old Town had this law confirmed once again in 1498 by the Bohemian King Vladislaus II (1471-1516). The privileges were also confirmed by subsequent rulers and, for the last time, by Emperor Leopold I in 1671 (Urfus 1959, pp. 60-2).

Without going into a detailed analysis of Prague guest law, this was the most important restriction placed on foreign merchants (guests) in the 16th century because it prohibited retail sales. Guests, which included everyone who was not a Prague burgher, were only able to sell goods wholesale in Prague and were prohibited from selling goods ‘in small quantities’ directly to customers (apart from annual markets). Only burghers from Nuremburg, who were the main suppliers of foreign goods in Prague, were exempt from this prohibition on the basis of the Prague-Nuremburg Trade Agreement dating from 1488/89 (Bunatovâ 2016a, pp. 663-6; Janâcek 1959, pp. 209-13).

Jews were also officially forbidden from conducting retail sales (outside the territory of the Prague Jewish Town) for many years. It was only Rudolph II who granted them the privilege of selling furs and leather in small quantities in 1585 but this more or less legalised the actual state of affairs because Prague Jews had been selling small quantities of various goods long before this despite the prohibitions (Bunatovâ 2013, pp. 87-8).

 
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