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Debt in the life of a Gdansk merchant


While analysing the town books of Gdansk, Cezary Kardasz presumed that the merchants of Gdansk had either no financial surpluses or were not interested in investing into short and middle-term credit as those credits were only rarely mentioned in the town books (Kardasz 2013, p. 115). In this chapter, I would like to demonstrate that, on the contrary, a merchant of Gdansk used a multitude of credit forms due to the development of pragmatic literacy. Those private credits were, therefore, not registered in the town books and their variety is often not recognized enough in the historiography.

This chapter is a case study based on a merchant account book. This microhistorical approach offers us insights in the diversity of credit forms and allows to examine the functioning of credit in its full extension hence, in the merchant account books, we can also find information on credit on small sums, as well as given in the informal way and under the circumstances of high level of trust.

The merchant and his book

The merchant in question was active for 35 years, from 1421 till 1455, the year in which he probably died. He spent all this time in Gdansk where he lived in houses of city’s aidermen. Although his origin is unknown, what we know about him is that he neither got married nor had children and in 1421 he immigrated to Gdansk. Due to his language, we can assume that his birthplace in the south-eastern part of the Baltic Sea basin is very likely. The man was rather a middle-range merchant with a maximum of the annual turnover of 6,500 Mark Pr (Stark 1985). His main economic activities involved trading along the East-West axis typical for Hanseatic trade, connecting his partners from Riga and Prussia with counterparts in Flanders and Lubeck. He also traded intensively with English merchants and maintained various contacts with Lithuanians from Vilnius. The rangeof his merchandise was very wide, covering fishes, grains, oils, fats, leathers, beverages, clothes, spices, metals, and wood but the four most important groups were wax, furs, cloths, and salt (Slaski 1905; Schmidt-Rimpler 1915; Stark 1985; Orlowska 2020/1).

The primary source for the analysis of his activities is his account book preserved in the Gdansk archive (Archiwum Panstwowe w Gdarisku). It is a paper notebook bounded in plain leather, containing 113 sheets and three additional pieces of paper, two of them were issued by the merchant’s partners. Nearly all entries of the book were written by one hand and in Middle Low German, in a version typical for the south-eastern part of the Baltic Sea basin.

For years, this account book had been the only source of information about its author and his business activities. He never wrote down his name but, in a promissory note preserved in the book, he was named as the creditor. On this basis, he was identified as Johan Pisz. After having analysed all town books of Gdansk from the given period of his activity, I was able to correctly determine his name as Johan Pyre (also written as Pyr or Pire). This name is repeated a few times in the primary sources in Gdansk, however, it was not found in any documents outside of this town. The information from further primary sources offers us additional clues and allowed to refute some of the hypotheses regarding the merchant but his account book remains the main source to examine the business activities of Pyre.

The question is what was the practice of using a credit in everyday life of a merchant? To better understand the limitations of examining the credit notes in the merchant book, a short description of the accounting techniques shall be provided.

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