The merchant wears Konstanz. Creating the image of a successful businessman in the Crown of Aragon in the 15th century

María Viu Fandos, Universidad de Zaragoza

Undoubtedly, consumption has again become a central topic of historical research. Reflections on inequality and its consequences lead, necessarily, to issues of consumption. The last decade has witnessed the development of a new line of research that has studied buying habits from markets to consumers in premodern times. Recent contributions based on assumptions of identity economics may lead to an approach from a wider perspective, as they take into account how the consumer’s self-image shapes his or her economic decision making. This is particularly obvious when talking about fashion; clothes and accessories are an identity issue today as they were in medie-val times, when they were also a means of social distinction.

This idea is key to understanding fashion. Gilles Lipovetsky has already emphasized its individuality. He stated that fashion exists only as an expression of human particularity: without the individual and the personal autonomy to choose, to create a personal taste and to share it with society, even if it goes beyond convention, fashion wouldn’t exist. This is also stressed in Maria Giuseppi-na Muzzarelli’s works, where the author sees fashion as a reinforcement of personal identity and points at how clothing was regarded as proof of one’s condition, while moralists considered it a way for individuals to assert their individuality.

Similarly Ulinka Rublack, reviewing Richard Goldthwaite’s studies, concludes that the development of the individual during the Renais-sance is key to understanding the importance given to the projection of one’s image.Unfortunately, little has this individual perspective been applied to particular studies, which are more focused on the development of fashion or general dressing practices during the premodern period. On the other hand, identity in a traditional sense has long been taken into account.

For instance, for the Middle Ages, it is commonly accepted that it was especially important for merchants to publicly show their wealth and socioeconomic position. Merchants perceived themselves as self-made men who had to ensure their status and find their place in society in regard to the nobility, whose standards they tried to reach. The merchant’s image has been proved to be consciously calculated, with a tendency to boost the sense of wealth. But studies have of-ten remained at a descriptive level and have considered mercantile and bourgeois culture and behaviour as a whole, not paying attention to individuals and their singularities. In this regard, David Igual points at a problem when trying to define the concept of elite in the Late Middle Ages. When it comes to merchants, he evinces the disparity of categorization depending on different criteria that go beyond economic activity or wealth. Individually, less tangible aspects such as entrepreneurial spirit, business mentality or the capacity for knowledge acquisition create a great heterogeneity that must be taken into account.


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