Between the Mediterranean and the North Sea: Networks of Men and Ports (14th-15th Centuries)

Angela Orlandi, University of Florence

Scholars have by now adopted the expression “network system” to define the
connections between cities, institutions, economic operators and so forth. Especially in the case of the networks of men, these connections are strengthened by various elements, such as business relations, family relationships, expertise, friendship and trust, to name the most important.

In the rich landscape of studies — beginning in the 1990’s — which have attempted to define the concept of network, we need cite here only the important contributions of Peter Stabel and Wim Blockmans.
In his research on Flemish cities and ports, the former introduces new factors relative to demographic variables, besides political, economic and socio-culture considerations, while the latter, in addition to movements of populations, proposes the identification and measurement of the progress of ideas, innovations and products between the different locations
along the network.

In any even more recent era, work has been done that attempts to assess the
impact of connections between cities and road or port infrastructure on the development of urban networks.
Within this framework, we feel that it bears repeating that the main generators of movement were economic operators. The essential task continues to be the reconstruction of their actions and their choices, such as those of merchants of a particular network who preferred a certain itinerary or route over another on the basis of available information, choices which in turn depended on the efficiency of their networks.

In 2013 in a paper delivered in Lisbon, Wim Blockmans indeed began a reflection on the role played by port cities in the economic and culture integration of Europe. Two years later, a conference dedicated to the Castilian network addressed the topic from a general perspective, which moving beyond local conditions looked to ports as the impetus behind economic and social take-off, a phenomenon also evident in other maritime or land regions. The reconstruction proposed by the organizers touched on many themes, taking its cue from the administrative framework, with particular attention paid to legislation. The study then moved on to examine transportation and communication and ended by inquiring into the commercial and human relationships that emerged from port traffic.

More recently, Blockmans, together with Mikhail Krom and Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz, has proposed an equally pluralistic approach, but extended to the broader European context. That essay analyzes the connections between cities, emphasizing that their institutional evolution was translated into maritime traffic and mercantile exchanges along the coasts of Europe. They thereby recommend a further examination of the topic in terms of financial activities, juridical norms, languages, architectural models and navigational routes. In other words, these writers have attempted to define the development of relations between ports, coasts, commercial routes, market hierarchies and urban networks, linking these to the “circumnavigating economy” proposed by Braudel.


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University of Florence

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