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Title: The Stages in the Social History of Capitalism
Author: Pirenne, Henri, 1862-1935
Language: English
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In the pages that follow I wish only to develop a hypothesis. Perhaps
after having read them, the reader will find the evidence insufficient.
I do not hesitate to recognize that the scarcity of special studies
bearing upon my subject, at least for the period since the end of the
Middle Ages, is of a nature to discourage more than one cautious spirit.
But, on the one hand, I am convinced that every effort at synthesis,
however premature it may seem, cannot fail to react usefully on
investigations, provided one offers it in all frankness for what it is.
And, on the other hand, the kind reception which the ideas here
presented received at the International Congress of Historical Studies
held at London last April, and the desire which has been expressed to me
by scholars of widely differing tendencies to see them in print, have
induced me to publish them. Various objections which have been expressed
to me, as well as my own subsequent reflections, have caused me to
revise and complete on certain points my London address. In the
essential features, however, nothing has been changed.

A word first of all to indicate clearly the point of view which
characterizes the study. I shall not enter into the question of the
formation of capital itself, that is, of the sum total of the goods
employed by their possessor to produce more goods at a profit. It is the
capitalist alone, the holder of capital, who will hold our attention. My
purpose is simply to characterize, for the various epochs of economic
history, the nature of this capitalist and to search for his origin. I
have observed, in surveying this history from the beginning of the
Middle Ages to our own times, a very interesting phenomenon to which, so
it seems to me, attention has not yet been sufficiently called. I
believe that, for each period into which our economic history may be
divided, there is a distinct and separate class of capitalists. In other
words, the group of capitalists of a given epoch does not spring from
the capitalist group of the preceding epoch. At every change in economic
organization we find a breach of continuity. It is as if the capitalists
who have up to that time been active, recognize that they are incapable
of adapting, themselves to conditions which are evoked by needs hitherto
unknown and which call for methods hitherto unemployed. They withdraw
from the struggle and become an aristocracy, which if it again plays a
part in the course of affairs, does so in a passive manner only,
assuming the rôle of silent partners. In their place arise new men,
courageous and enterprising, who boldly permit themselves to be driven
by the wind actually blowing and who know how to trim their sails to
take advantage of it, until the day comes when, its direction changing
and disconcerting their manoeuvres, they in their turn pause and are
distanced by new craft having fresh forces and new directions. In short,
the permanence throughout the centuries of a capitalist class, the
result of a continuous development and changing itself to suit changing
circumstances, is not to be affirmed. On the contrary, there are as many
classes of capitalists as there are epochs in economic history. That
history does not present itself to the eye of the observer under the
guise of an inclined plane; it resembles rather a staircase, every step
of which rises abruptly above that which precedes it. We do not find
ourselves in the presence of a gentle and regular ascent, but of a
series of lifts.

In order to establish the validity of these generalizations it is of
course needful to control them by the observation of facts, and the
longer the period of time covered the more convincing will the
observations be. The economic history of antiquity is still too little
known, and its relations to the ages which follow have escaped us too
completely, for us to take our point of departure there; but the
beginning of the Middle Ages gives us access to a body of material
sufficient for our purpose.

But first of all, it is needful to meet a serious objection. If it is in
fact true, as seems to be usually conceded since the appearance of
Bücher's brilliant _Entstehung der Volkswirtschaft_[2]--to say nothing
here of the thesis since formulated with such extreme radicalism by W.
Sombart[3]--that the economic organisation of the Middle Ages has no
aspect to which one can rightly apply the term capitalistic, then our
thesis is limited wholly to modern times and there can be no thought of
introducing into the discussion the centuries preceding the Renaissance.
But whatever may be the favor which it still enjoys, the theory which
refuses to perceive in the medieval urban economy the least trace of
capitalism has found in recent times ever increasing opposition. I will
not even enumerate here the studies which seem to me to have in an
incontrovertible manner established the fact that all the essential
features of capitalism--individual enterprise, advances on credit,
commercial profits, speculation, etc.--are to be found from the twelfth
century on, in the city republics of Italy--Venice,[4] Genoa,[5] or
Florence.[6] I shall not ask what one can call such a navigator as
Romano Mairano (1152-1201), if, in spite of the hundreds of thousands of
francs he employed in business, the fifty per cent. profits he realized
on his operations in coasting trade, and his final failure, one persists
in refusing to him the name of capitalist. I shall pass over the
disproof of the alleged ignorance of the medieval merchants. I shall say
nothing of the astonishing errors committed in the calculations, so
confidently offered to us as furnishing mathematical proof of the
naïveté of historians who can believe the commerce of the thirteenth and
fourteenth centuries to have been anything more than that of simple
peddlers, a sort of artisans incapable of rising even to the idea of
profit, and having no views beyond the day's livelihood.[7] Important as
all this may be, the weak point in the theory which I am here opposing
seems to me to lie especially in a question of method. Bücher and his
partizans, in my opinion, have, without sufficient care, used for their
picture of the city economy of the Middle Ages the characteristics of
the German towns and more particularly the German towns of the
fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Now the great majority of the German
towns of that period were far from having attained the degree of
development which had been reached by the great communes of northern
Italy, of Tuscany, or of the Low Countries. Instead of presenting the
classical type of urban economy, they are merely examples of it
incompletely developed; they present only certain manifestations; they
lack others, and particularly those which belong to the domain of
capitalism. Therefore in presenting as true of all the cities of the
Middle Ages a theory which rests only on the observation of certain of
them, and those the least advanced, one is necessarily doing violence to
reality. Bücher's description of _Stadtwirtschaft_ remains a masterpiece
of penetration and economic understanding. But it is too restricted. It
does not take account of certain elements of the problem, because these
elements were not encountered in the narrow circle which the research
covered. One may be confident that if, instead of proceeding from the
analysis of such towns as Frankfort, this study had considered
Florence, Genoa, and Venice, or even Ghent, Bruges, Ypres, Douai, or
Tournai, the picture which it furnished us would have been very
different. Instead of refusing to see capitalism of any kind in the
economic life of the bourgeoisie, the author would have recognized, on
the contrary, unmistakable evidences of capitalism. I shall later have
occasion to return to this very essential question. But it was
indispensable to indicate here the position which I shall take in regard
to it.

Of course I do not at all intend to reject _en bloc_ the ideas generally
agreed upon concerning the urban economy of the Middle Ages. On the
contrary, I believe them to be entirely accurate in their essential
elements, and I am persuaded that, in a very large number of cases, I
will even say, if you like, in the majority of cases, they provide us
with a theory which is completely satisfactory. I am very far from
maintaining that capitalism exercised a preponderant influence on the
character of economic organization from the twelfth to the fifteenth
centuries. I believe that, though it is not right to call this
organization "acapitalistic", it is on the other hand correct to
consider it "anticapitalistic". But to affirm this is to affirm the
existence of capital. That organization recognized the existence of
capital since it tried to defend itself against it, since, from the end
of the thirteenth century onward, it took more and more measures to
escape from its abuses. It is incontestable that, from this period on,
it succeeded by legal force in diminishing the rôle which capitalism had
played up to that time. In fact it is certain, and we shall have
occasion to observe it, that the power of capital was much greater
during the first part of the urban period of the Middle Ages than during
the second. But even in the course of the latter period, if municipal
legislation seems more or less completely to have shut it out from local
markets, capital succeeded in preserving and in dominating a very
considerable portion of economic activity. It is capital which rules in
inter-local commerce, which determines the forms of credit, and which,
fastening itself on all the industries which produce not for the city
market but for exportation, hinders them from being controlled, as the
others are, by the minute regulations which in innumerable ways cramp
the activity of the craftsmen.[8]

Let us recognize, then, that capitalism is much older than we have
ordinarily thought it. No doubt its operation in modern times has been
much more engrossing than in the Middle Ages. But that is only a
difference of quantity, not a difference of quality, a simple difference
of intensity not a difference of nature. Therefore, we are justified in
setting the question we set at the beginning. We can, without fear of
pursuing a vain shadow, endeavor to discern what throughout history have
been the successive stages in the social evolution of capitalism.

Of the period which preceded the formation of towns, that is, of the
period preceding the middle of the eleventh century, we know too little
to permit ourselves to tarry there. What may still have survived in
Italy and in Gaul of the economic system of the Romans has disappeared
before the beginning of the eighth century. Civilization has become
strictly agricultural and the domain system has impressed its form upon
it. The land, concentrated in large holdings in the hands of a powerful
landed aristocracy, barely produces what is necessary for the proprietor
and his _familia_. Its harvests do not form material for commerce. If
during years of exceptional abundance the surplus is transported to
districts where scarcity prevails, that is all. In addition certain
commodities of ordinary quick consumption, and which nature has
distributed unequally over the soil, such as wine or salt, sustain a
sort of traffic. Finally, but more rarely, products manufactured by the
rural industry of countries abounding in raw materials, such as, to cite
only one, the friezes woven by the peasants of Flanders, maintain a
feeble exportation. Of the condition of the _negociatores_ who served as
the instruments of these exchanges, we know almost nothing. Many of them
were unquestionably merchants of occasion, men without a country, ready
to seize on any means of existence that came their way. Pursuers of
adventure were frequent among these roving creatures, half traders, half
pirates, not unlike the Arab merchants who even to our day have searched
for and frequently have found fortunes amid the negro populations of
Africa. At least, to read the history of that Samo who at the beginning
of the eighth century, arriving at the head of a band of adventuring
merchants among the Wends of the Elbe, ended by becoming their king,
makes one think involuntarily of certain of those beys or sheiks
encountered by voyagers to the Congo or the Katanga.[9] Clearly no one
will try to find in this strong and fortunate bandit an ancestor of the
capitalists of the future. Commerce, as he understood and practised it,
blended with plunder, and if he loved gain it was not in the manner of a
man of affairs but rather in that of a primitive conqueror with whom
violence of appetite took the place of calculation. Samo was evidently
an exception. But the spirit which inspired him may have inspired a
goodly number of _negociatores_ who launched their barks on the streams
of the ninth century. In the society of this period only the possession
of land or attachment to the following of a great man could give one a
normal position. Men not so provided were outside the regular
classification, forming a confused mass, in which were promiscuously
mingled professional beggars, mercenaries in search of employment,
masters of barges or drivers of wagons, peddlers, traders, all jostling
in the same sort of hazardous and precarious life, and all no doubt
passing easily from one employment to another. This is not to say,
however, that among the _negociatores_ of the Frankish epoch there were
not also individuals whose situation was more stable and whose means of
existence were less open to suspicion. Indeed, we know that the great
proprietors, lay or ecclesiastical, employed certain of their serfs or
of their _ministeriales_ in a sporadic commerce of which we have already
mentioned above the principal features. They commissioned them to buy at
neighboring markets the necessary commodities or to transport to places
of sale the occasional surplus of their grain or their wine. Here too we
discover no trace of capitalism. We merely find ourselves in the
presence of hereditary servants performing gratuitous service, entirely
analogous to military service.

Nevertheless commercial intercourse produced even then, in certain
places particularly favored by their geographic situation, groups of
some importance. We find them along the sea-coast--Marseilles, Rouen,
Quentovic--or on the banks of the rivers, especially in those places
where a Roman road crosses the stream, as at Maastricht on the Meuse or
at Valenciennes on the Scheldt. We are to think of these _portus_ as
wharves for merchandise and as winter quarters for boats and boatmen.
They differ very distinctly from the towns of the following period. No
walls surround them; the buildings which are springing up seem to be
scarcely more than wooden sheds, and the population which is found there
is a floating population, destitute of all privileges and forming a
striking contrast to the bourgeoisie of the future. No organization
seems to have bound together the adventurers and the voyagers of these
_portus_. Doubtless it is possible, it is even probable, that a certain
number of individuals, profiting by circumstance, may have little by
little devoted themselves to trade in a regular fashion and have begun
by the ninth century to form the nucleus of a group of professional
traders. But we have too little information to enable us to speak with
any precision.

The operations of credit follow much the same course. We cannot doubt
that loans had been employed in the Carolingian period, and the Church
as well as the State had occupied itself in combating their abuses.[10]
But it would be a manifest exaggeration to deduce from this the
existence of even a rudimentary capitalistic economy. Everything
indicates that the loans which we are considering here were only
occasional loans, of usurious nature, to which people who had met with
some catastrophe, such as war, a fire, or a poor harvest, were forced to
have recourse temporarily.

Thus, the early centuries of the Middle Ages seem to have been
completely ignorant of the power of capital. They abound in wealthy
landed proprietors, in rich monasteries, and we come upon hundreds of
sanctuaries the treasure of which, supplied by the generosity of the
nobles or the offerings of the faithful, crowds the altar with ornaments
of gold or of solid silver. A considerable fortune is accumulated in the
Church, but it is an idle fortune. The revenues which the landowners
collect from their serfs or from their tenants are directed toward no
economic purpose. They are scattered in alms, in the building of
monuments, in the purchase of works of art, or of precious objects which
should serve to increase the splendor of religious ceremonies. Wealth,
capital, if one may so term it, is fixed motionless in the hands of an
aristocracy, priestly or military. This is the essential condition of
the patronage that this aristocracy (_majores et divites_) exercises
over the people (_pauperes_). Its action is as important from the social
point of view as it is unimportant from that of economics. No part of it
is directed toward the _negociatores_, who, left to themselves, live, so
to speak, on the fringe of society. And so it will continue to be, for
long centuries.

Landed property, indeed, did not contribute at all to that awakening of
commercial activity which, after the disasters of the Norman invasion in
the North and the Saracen raids on the shores of the Mediterranean,
began to manifest itself toward the end of the tenth century and the
beginning of the eleventh. Its preliminary manifestations are found at
the two extremities of the Continent, Italy and the Low Countries. The
interior seas, between which Europe was restricted in her advance toward
the Atlantic, were its first centres of activity. Venice, then Genoa and
Pisa, venture on the coasting trade along their shores, and then
maintain, with their rich neighbors of Byzantium or of the Mohammedan
countries, a traffic which henceforward constantly increases. Meanwhile
Bruges at the head of the estuary of the Zwyn, becomes the centre of a
navigation radiating toward England, the shores of North Germany, and
the Scandinavian regions. Thus, economic life, as in the beginning of
Hellenic times, first becomes active along the coasts. But soon it
penetrates into the interior of the country. Step by step it wins its
way along the rivers and the natural routes. On this side and on that,
it arouses the hinterland into which the harbors cut their indentations.
In this process of growth the two movements finally meet, and bring into
communication the people of the North and the people of the South. By
the beginning of the twelfth century it is an accomplished fact. In 1127
Lombard merchants, journeying by the long route which descends from the
passes of the Alps toward Champagne and the Low Countries, reach the
fairs of Flanders.

If the feeble and precarious commercial activity of the Carolingian
period was sufficient to create gathering-places of merchants at the
points most frequented in travel, it is not difficult to understand that
the steady progress of economic activity from the end of the tenth
century would result in the formation, at the strategic points of
regional transit, of aggregations of like character but much more
important and more stable. The surface of the land, the direction and
the depth of the streams, determining the routes of commerce, also
determined the location of the towns. Indeed, European cities are the
daughters of commerce and of industry. Unquestionably in the countries
of old civilization, in Italy or in Gaul, the Roman cities had not
completely disappeared. Within the circle of their walls, which had now
become too large and were filled with ruins, there gathered, around the
bishop resident in each of them, a whole population of clerics and
monks, and beside them a lay population employed in their service or
support. In the North, one found the same spectacle at the centres of
the new dioceses, at Thérouanne, at Utrecht, at Magdeburg, or at Vienna.
But here was no trace, properly speaking, of municipal life. A certain
number of artisans, some of them serfs, a little weekly market for the
most indispensable commodities, sometimes a fair visited by the
merchant-adventurers of whom we have spoken above--this is the sum total
of economic life.

But the situation changes from the moment when the increasing intensity
of commerce begins to furnish men with new means of existence.
Immediately one discovers an uninterrupted movement of migration of
peasants from the country towards the places in which the handling of
merchandise, the towing of boats, the service of merchants furnish
regular occupations and arouse the hope of gain.

If the old cities disadvantageously placed at one side from the highways
of travel continue in their torpor, the others see their population
increase continuously. Suburbs join the old enclosure; new markets are
established; new churches are built for the new comers; and soon the
primitive nucleus of the town, surrounded on all sides by the houses of
the immigrants, becomes merely the quarter of the priests, bound to the
shadow of the cathedral and submerged on all sides by the expansion of
lay life. Much that at the beginning was the essential is now nothing
more than the accessory. The episcopal burg disappears amid
faubourgs.[11] The city has not been formed by growing with its own
forces. It has been brought into existence by the attraction which it
has exerted upon its surroundings whenever it has been aided by its
situation. It is the creation of those who have migrated toward it. It
has been made from without and not from within. The bourgeoisie of the
oldest towns of Europe is a population of the transplanted. But it is at
the same time essentially a trading population, and no other proof of
this need be advanced than the fact that, down to the beginning of the
twelfth century, _mercator_ and _burgensis_ were synonymous terms.

Whence came these pioneers of commerce, these immigrants seeking means
of subsistence, and what resources did they bring with them into the
rising towns? Doubtless only the strength of their arms, the force of
their wills, the clearness of their intelligence. Agricultural life
continued to be the normal life and none of those who remained upon the
soil could entertain the idea of abandoning his holding to go to the
town and take his chances in a new existence. As for selling the holding
to get ready money, like the men of a modern rural population, no one at
that time could have imagined such a transaction. The ancestors of the
bourgeoisie must then be sought, specifically, in the mass of those
wandering beings who, having no land to cultivate, floated across the
surface of society, living from day to day upon the alms of the
monasteries, hiring themselves to the cultivators of the soil in harvest
time, enlisting in the armies in time of war, and shrinking from neither
pillage nor rapine if the occasion presented itself. It may without
difficulty be admitted that there may have been among them some rural
artisans or some professional peddlers. But it is beyond question that
with very few exceptions it was poor men who floated to the towns and
there built up the first fortunes in movable property that the Middle
Ages knew.

Fortunately we possess certain narratives which enable us to support
this thesis with concrete examples. It will suffice to cite here the
most characteristic of them, the biography of St. Godric of

He was born of poor peasants in Lincolnshire, toward the end of the
eleventh century, and from infancy was forced to tax his ingenuity to
find the means of livelihood. Like many other unfortunates of all times,
he at first walked the beaches on the outlook for wreckage cast up by
the sea. Then we see him, perhaps by reason of some fortunate find,
setting up as a peddler and travelling through the country with a little
pack of goods (_cum mercibus minutis_). At length he gathers together a
small sum, and one fine day joins a troop of town merchants whom he has
met in the course of his wanderings. Thenceforward he goes with his
companions from market to market, from fair to fair, from town to town.
Having thus become a professional merchant, he rapidly gains a
sufficient sum to enable him to associate himself with other merchants,
charter a boat with them, and engage in the coasting trade along the
shores of England, Scotland, Denmark, and Flanders. The company is
highly successful. Its operations consist in carrying to a foreign
country goods which it knows to be uncommon there, in selling them there
at a high price, and acquiring in exchange various merchandise which it
takes pains to dispose of in the places where the demand for them is
greatest and where it can consequently make the greatest gains. At the
end of some years this prudent practice of buying cheap and selling dear
has made of Godric, and doubtless of his associates, a man of important
wealth. Then, touched by divine grace, he suddenly renounces his
fortune, gives his goods to the poor, and becomes a monk.

The story of Godric, if one omits its pious conclusion, must have been
that of many others. It shows us, with perfect clearness, how a man
beginning with nothing might in a relatively short time amass a
considerable capital. Our adventurer must have been favored by
circumstances and chance. But the secret of his success, and the
contemporary biographer to whom we owe the story insists strongly upon
it, is intelligence.[13] Godric in fact shows himself a calculator, I
might even say a speculator. He has in a high degree the feeling, and it
is much more developed among minds without culture than is usually
thought, for what is practicable in commerce. He is on fire with the
love of gain. One sees clearly in him that famous _spiritus
capitalisticus_ of which some would have us believe that it dates only
from the time of the Renaissance. Here is an eleventh-century merchant,
associated with companions like himself, combining his purchases,
reckoning his profits, and, instead of hiding in a chest the money he
has gained, using it only to support and extend his business. More than
this, he does not hesitate to devote himself to operations which the
Church condemns. He is not disquieted by the theory of the just price;
the Decretum of Gratian disapproves in express terms of the speculations
which he practises: "Qui comparat rem ut illam ipsam integram et
immutatam dando lucretur, ille est mercator qui de templo Dei ejicitur".

After this, how can we see, in Godric and any of those who led the same
sort of life, anything else but capitalists? It is impossible to
maintain that these men conducted business only to supply their daily
wants, impossible not to see that their purpose is the constant
accumulation of goods, impossible to deny that, barbarous as we may
suppose them, they none the less possessed the comprehension, or, if one
prefers, had the instinct for commerce on the large scale.[14] Of the
organization of this commerce the life of Godric shows us already the
principal features, and the description which it gives us of them is the
more deserving of confidence because it is corroborated in the most
convincing fashion by many documents. It shows us, first of all, the
merchant coming from the country to establish himself in the town. But
the town is to him, so to speak, merely a basis of operations. He lives
there but little, save in the winter. As soon as the roads are
practicable and the sea open to navigation, he sets out. His commerce is
essentially a wandering commerce, and at the same time a collective one,
for the insecurity of the roads and the powerlessness of the solitary
individual compel him to have recourse to association. Grouped in gilds,
in hanses, in _caritates_, the associates take their merchandise in
convoy from town to town, presenting a spectacle entirely like that
which the caravans of the East still furnish in our day. They buy and
sell in common, dividing the profits in the ratio of their respective
investments in the expedition, and the trade they carry on in the
foreign markets is wholesale trade, and can only be that, for retail
trade, as the life of Godric shows us, is left to the rural peddlers. It
is in gross that they export and import wine, grain, wool, or cloth. To
convince ourselves of this we need only examine the regulations which
have been preserved to us. The statutes of the Flemish hanse of London,
for example, formally exclude retail dealers and craftsmen from the

Moreover, the merchant associations of the eleventh and twelfth
centuries have nothing exclusively local in their character. In them we
find bourgeoisie of different towns, side by side. They have rather the
appearance of regional than of urban organisms. They are still far from
the exclusivism and the protectionism which are to be shown with so much
emphasis in the municipal life of the fourteenth century. Commercial
freedom is not troubled by any restrictive regulations. Public authority
assigns no limits to the activity of the merchants, does not restrict
them to this or that kind of business, exercises no supervision over
their operations. Provided they pay the fiscal dues (_teloneum,
conductus_, etc.) levied by the territorial prince and the seigneurs
having jurisdiction at the passage of the bridges, along the roads and
rivers, or at the markets, they are entirely free from all legal
obstacles. The only restrictions which hinder the full expansion of
commerce do not come from the official authority, but result from the
practices of commerce itself. To wit, the various merchant associations,
gilds, hanses, etc., which encounter each other at the places of buying
and selling, oppose each other in brutal competition. Each of them
excludes from all participation in its affairs the members of all the
others. But this is merely a state of facts, resting on no legal title.
Force holds here the place of law, and whatever may be the differences
of time and of environment, one cannot do otherwise than to compare the
commerce of the eleventh and twelfth centuries to that bloody
competition in which, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the
sailors of Holland, England, France, and Spain engaged in the markets of
the New World. We shall conclude then that medieval commerce, at its
origin, is essentially characterized by its regional quality and by its
freedom. And it is not difficult to understand that it was so, if one
bears in mind two facts to which attention should be drawn.

In the first place, down to the end of the twelfth century, the number
of towns properly so-called was relatively small. Only those places that
were favored by a privileged geographical situation attracted the
merchants in sufficient number to enable them to maintain a commercial
movement of real importance. After that the attraction which these
centres of business exerted upon their environs was much greater than is
ordinarily imagined. All the secondary localities were subject to their
influence. The merchants dwelling in these last, too few to act by
themselves, affiliated themselves to the hanse or gild of the principal
town. The Flemish hanse, which we have already instanced, proves this
fully, by showing us the merchants of Dixmude, Damme, Oudenbourg,
Ardenbourg, etc., seeking admission into the hanse of Bruges.

In the second place, at the period we have now reached the towns devoted
themselves far more to commerce than to industry. Few could be cited
that appear thus early as manufacturing centres. The concentration of
artisans within their walls is still incomplete. If their merchants
export, along with the products of the soil, such as wine and grain, a
quantity of manufactured products, such, for example, as cloth, it is
more than probable that these were for the most part made in the

Admit these two statements, and the nature of early commerce is
explained without difficulty. They account in fact both for the freedom
of the merchants and for that character of wholesale exporters which
they exhibit so clearly and which prevents our placing them in the
category in which the theory of urban economy claims to confine them.
Contrary to the general belief, it appears then that before the
thirteenth century we find a period of free capitalistic expansion. No
doubt the capitalism of that time is a collective capitalism: groups,
not isolated individuals, are its instruments. No doubt too it contents
itself with very simple operations. The commercial expeditions upon
which its activity especially centres itself demand, for their
successful conduct, an endurance, a physical strength, which the more
advanced stages of economic evolution will not require. But they demand
nothing more. Without the ability to plan and combine they would remain
sterile. And so we can see that, from the beginning, what we find at the
basis of capitalism is intelligence, that same intelligence which Georg
Hansen has so well shown, long ago, to be the efficient cause of the
emergence of the bourgeoisie.[15]

The fortunes acquired inn the wandering commerce by the parvenus of the
eleventh and twelfth centuries soon transformed them into landed
proprietors. They invest a good part of their gains in lands, and the
land they thus acquire is naturally that of the towns in which they
reside. From the beginning of the thirteenth century one sees this land
held in large parcels by an aristocracy of patricians, _viri
hereditarii_, _divites_, _majores,_ in whom we cannot fail to recognize
the descendants of the bold voyagers of the gilds and the hanses. The
continuous increase of the burghal population enriches them more and
more, for as new inhabitants establish themselves in the towns, and as
the number of the houses increases, the rent of the ground increases in
proportion. So, from the commencement of the thirteenth century, the
grandsons of the primitive merchants abandon commerce and content
themselves with living comfortably upon the revenue of their lands. They
bid farewell to the agitations and the chances of the wandering life.
They live henceforward in their stone houses, whose battlements and
towers rise above the thatched roofs of the wooden houses of their
tenants. They assume control of the municipal administration; they and
their families monopolize the seats in the _échevinage_ or the town
council. Some even, by fortunate marriages, ally themselves with the
lesser nobility and begin to model their manner of living upon that of
the knights.

But while these first generations of capitalists are retiring from
commerce and rooting themselves in the soil, important changes are going
on in the economic organization. In the first place, in proportion as
the wealth of the towns increases, and with it their attractive power,
they take on more and more an industrial character, the rural artisans
flocking into them _en masse_ and deserting the country. At the same
time, many of them, favored by the abundance of raw material furnished
by the surrounding region, begin to devote themselves to certain
specialties of manufacture--cloth-making or metallurgy. Finally, around
the principal aggregations many secondary localities develop, so that
all Western Europe, in the course of the thirteenth century, blossoms
forth in an abundance of large and small towns. Some, and much the
greater number of them, content themselves perforce with local commerce.
Their production is determined by the needs of their population and that
of the environs which extend two or three leagues around their walls
and, in exchange for the manufactured articles which the city furnishes
to them, attend to the food supply of the urban inhabitants. Other
towns, on the contrary, less closely set together but also more
powerful, develop chiefly by means of an export industry, producing, as
did the cloth industry of great Flemish or Italian cities, not for their
local market,[16] but for the European market, constantly extensible.
Others still, profiting by the advantages of nearness to the sea, give
themselves up to navigation and to transportation, as did so many ports
of Italy, of France, of England, and especially of North Germany.

Of these two types of towns, the one sufficient to themselves, the other
living upon the outside world, it is unquestionably the first to which
the theory of the urban economy applies. Direct trade between purchaser
and consumer, strict protectionism excluding the foreigner from the
local market and reserving it to the bourgeoisie alone, minute
regulations confining within narrow limits the industry of the merchant
and the artisan; in a word, all the traits of an organization evidently
designed to preserve and safeguard the various members of the community
by assigning to each his place and his rôle, are all found and all
explained without difficulty in those towns which are confined to a
clientage limited by the extent of their suburban dependencies. In these
one can rightly speak of an anti-capitalistic economy. In these we find
neither great _entrepreneurs_ nor great merchants. It is true that the
necessity of stocking the town with commodities which it does not
produce or cannot find in its environs--groceries, fine cloths, wines in
northern countries--brings into existence a group of exporters whose
condition is superior to that of their fellow-citizens. But on
inspection they cannot be regarded as a class of great professional
merchants. If they buy at wholesale in foreign markets, it is to sell at
retail to their fellow-citizens. They dispose of their goods piecemeal,
and like the _Gewandschneider_ of the German towns, they do not rise
above the level of large shopkeepers.[17]

In the towns of the second category we find a quite different condition.
Here capitalism not only exists but develops toward perfection.
Instruments of credit, such as the _lettre de foire,_ make their
appearance; a traffic in money takes its place alongside the traffic in
merchandise and, despite the prohibition of loans at interest, makes
constantly more rapid progress. The _coutumes_ of the fairs, especially
those of the fairs of the Champagne, in which the merchants of the
regions most advanced in an economic sense, Italy and the Low Countries,
meet each other, give rise to a veritable commercial law. The
circulation of money expands and becomes regulated; the coinage of gold,
abandoned since the Merovingian period, is resumed in the middle of the
thirteenth century. The security of travellers increases on the great
highways. The old Roman bridges are rebuilt and here and there canals
are built and dykes constructed. Finally, in the towns, the commercial
buildings of the previous period, outgrown, are replaced by structures
more vast and more luxurious, of which the _halles_ of Ypres, with their
façade one hundred and thirty-three metres long, is doubtless the most
imposing specimen.

In the presence of these facts it is impossible to deny the existence of
a considerable traffic. Moreover documents abound which attest the
existence in the great cities of men of affairs who hold the most
extended relations with the outside world, who export and import sacks
of wool, bales of cloth, tuns of wine, by the hundred, who have under
their orders a whole corps of factors or "sergents" (_servientes_,
_valets_, etc.), whose letters of credit are negotiated in the fairs of
Champagne, and who make loans amounting to several thousands of livres
to princes, monasteries, and cities in need of money. To cite here
merely a few figures, let us recall that in 1273 the company of the
Scotti of Piacenza exports wool from England to the value of 21,400
pounds sterling, or 1,600,000 francs (metallic value);[18] in 1254
certain burgesses of Arras furnish 20,000 livres to the Count of Guines,
prisoner of the Count of Flanders, to enable him to pay his ransom.[19]
In 1339 three merchants of Mechlin advance 54,000 florins (700,000
francs) to King Edward III.[20]

Extensive however as capitalistic commerce has been since the first half
of the thirteenth century, it no longer enjoys the freedom of
development which it had before. As we advance toward the end of the
Middle Ages, indeed, we see it subjected to limitations constantly more
numerous and more confining. Henceforth, in fact, it has to reckon with
municipal legislation. Every town now shelters itself behind the
ramparts of protectionism. If the most powerful cities can no longer
exclude the stranger, upon whom they live, they impose upon him a minute
regulation, the purpose of which is to defend against him the position
of their own citizens. They force him to have recourse in his purchases
to the mediation of his "hosts" and his "courtiers"; they forbid him to
bring in manufactured articles which may compete with those which the
city produces; they exploit him by levying taxes of all sorts: duties
upon weighing, upon measuring, upon egress, etc.

In those cities especially in which has occurred the popular revolution
transferring power from the hands of the patriciate into those of the
craft-gilds, distrust of capital is carried as far as it can go without
entirely destroying urban industry. The craftsmen who produce for
exportation--for example, the weavers and the fullers of the towns of
Flanders--try to escape from their subjection, to the merchants who
employ them. Not only do the municipal statutes fix wages and regulate
the conditions of work, but they also limit the independence of the
merchant, even in purely commercial matters. It will be sufficient to
mention here, as one of their most characteristic provisions, the
forbidding of the cloth merchant to be at the same time a wool merchant,
a prohibition inspired by the desire to prevent operations that will
unfavorably affect prices and the workman's wages.[21]

But it is not solely the municipal authority which attacks the
speculations born of the capitalistic spirit. The Church steps forward,
and under the name of usury forbids indiscriminately the lending of
money at interest, sales on credit, monopolies, and in general all
profits exceeding the _justum pretium_. No doubt these prohibitions
themselves attest the existence of the abuses which they endeavor to
oppose, and their frequency proves that they did not always succeed. It
is none the less true that they were very burdensome and that the
pursuit of business on a large scale found itself much embarrassed by

The increasing specialization of commerce embarrassed it much more. At
the beginning the merchants had devoted themselves to the most various
operations at once. Wandering from market to market, they bought and
sold without feeling in need of centring their activity on this or that
kind of products or commodities, but from about 1250 this is no longer
the case. The progress of economic evolution has resulted in localizing
certain industries and in restraining certain branches of commerce to
the groups of merchants best suited to their promotion. Thus, for
example, in the course of the thirteenth century the trade in fine cloth
became a monopoly of the towns of Flanders, and banking a monopoly of
certain merchant companies of Lombardy, Provence, or Tuscany.
Thenceforward commercial life ceases to overflow at random, so to speak.
It has a less arbitrary, a more deliberate, and consequently a more
embarrassed quality.

These limitations resting upon commerce have resulted in turning away
from it the patricians, who moreover have become, as has been said
above, a class of landed proprietors. The place which they left vacant
is filled by new men, among whom, as among their predecessors,
intelligence is the essential instrument of fortune. The intellectual
faculties which the first developed in wandering commerce are used by
these later men to overcome the obstacles raised in their pathway by
municipal regulations of commerce and ecclesiastical regulations in
respect to money affairs.[22] Many of them find a rich source of profit
by devoting themselves to brokerage. Others in the industrial cities
exploit shamelessly and in defiance of the statutes the artisans whom
they employ. At Douai, for example, Jehan Boinebroke (1280-1310)
succeeds in reducing to serfdom a number of workers (and
characteristically, they are chiefly women) by advancing wool or money
which they are unable to repay, and which therefore place them at his
mercy.[23] The richest or the boldest profit by the constantly
increasing need of money on the part of territorial princes and kings,
to become their bankers. It will be remembered that it was Lombard
capitalists who furnished Edward III. with money to prepare his
campaigns against France,[24] and, quite recently, the history of
Guillaume Servat of Cahors (1280-1320) has shown us a man who, setting
out with nothing, like Godric in the eleventh century, accumulates in a
few years a considerable fortune, supplies the King of England with a
dowry for one of his daughters, lends money to the King of Norway, farms
the wool duties at London, and, unscrupulous as he is shrewd, does not
hesitate to engage in shady speculations upon the coinage.[25] And how
many other financiers do we not know whose career is wholly similar:
Thomas Fin at the court of the counts of Flanders,[26] the Berniers at
that of the counts of Hainaut, the Tote Guis, the Vane Guis, at that of
the kings of France, not to name the numberless Italians entrusted by
the popes with the various operations of pontifical finance, those
_mercatores Romanam curiam sequentes_ among whom are found the ancestors
of the great Medici of the fifteenth century.[27]

In the course of the fifteenth century this second class of capitalists,
courtiers, merchants, and financiers, successors to the capitalists of
the hanses and the gilds, is in its turn drawn along toward the downward
grade. The progress of navigation, the discoveries made by the
Portuguese, then by the Spaniards, the formation of great monarchical
states struggling for supremacy, begin to destroy the economic situation
in the midst of which that class had grown to greatness, and to which
it had adapted itself. The direction of the currents of commerce is
altered. In the north, the English and Dutch marine gradually take the
place of the hanses. In the Mediterranean, commerce centres itself at
Venice and at Genoa. On the shores of the Atlantic, Lisbon becomes the
great market for spices, and Antwerp, supplanting Bruges, becomes the
rendezvous of European commerce. The sixteenth century sees this
movement grow more rapid. It is favored at once by moral, political, and
economic causes; the intellectual progress of the Renaissance, the
expansion of individualism, great wars exciting speculation, the
disturbance of monetary circulation caused by the influx of precious
metals from the New World. As the science of the Middle Ages disappears
and the humanist takes the place of the scholastic, so a new economy
rises in the place of the old urban economy. The state subjects the
towns to its superior power. It restrains their political autonomy at
the same time that is sets commerce and industry free from the
guardianship which the towns have hitherto imposed upon them. The
protectionism and the exclusiveness of the bourgeoisies are brought to
an end. If the craft-guilds continue to exist, yet they no longer
control the organization of labor. New industries appear, which, to
escape the meddling surveillance of the municipal authorities, establish
themselves in the country. Side by side with the old privileged towns,
which merely vegetate, younger manufacturing centres, full of strength
and exuberance, arise; in England, Sheffield, and Birmingham, in
Flanders, Hondschoote and Armentières.[28]

The spirit in which is now manifested in the world of business, is that
same spirit of freedom which animates the intellectual world. In a
society in process of formation, the individual, enfranchised, gives the
rein to his boldness. He despises tradition, gives himself up with
unrestrained delight to his virtuosity. There are to be no more limits
on speculation, no more fetters on commerce, no more meddling of
authority in relations between employers and employed. The most skillful
wins. Competition, up to this time held in check, runs riot. In a few
years enormous fortunes are built up, others are swallowed up in
resounding bankruptcies. The Antwerp exchange is a pandemonium where
bankers, deep-sea sailors, stock-jobbers, dealers in futures,
millionaire merchants, jostle each other--and sharpers and adventurers
to whom all means of money-getting, even assassination, are acceptable.

This confused recasting of the economic world transfers the rôle played
by the capitalists of the late Middle Ages in a class of new men. Few
are the descendants of the business men of the fourteenth century among
those of the fifteenth and sixteenth. Thrown out of their course by the
current of events, they have not been willing to risk fortunes already
acquired. Most of them are seen turning toward administrative careers,
entering the service of the state as members of the councils of justice
or finance and aspiring to the _noblesse de robe_, which, with the aid
of fortunate marriages, will land their sons in the circle of the true
nobility. As for the new rich of the period, they almost all appear to
us like parvenus. Jacques Coeur is a parvenu in France. The Fugger and
many other German financiers--the Herwarts, the Seilers, the Manlichs,
the Haugs--are parvenus of whose families we know little before the
fifteenth century, and so are the Frescobaldi and the Gualterotti of
Florence, or that Gaspar Ducci of Pistoia who is perhaps the most
representative of the fortune-hunters of the period.[29] Later, when
Amsterdam has inherited the commercial hegemony of Antwerp, the
importance of the parvenus characterizes it not less clearly. We may
merely mention here, among the first makers of its greatness, Willem
Usselinx,[30] Balthazar de Moucheron, Isaac Lemaire. And if from the
world of commerce we turn toward that of industry the aspect is the
same. Christophe Plantin, the famous printer, is the son of a simple
peasant of Touraine.

The exuberance of capitalism which reached its height in the second half
of the sixteenth century was not maintained. Even as the regulative
spirit characteristic of the urban economy followed upon the freedom of
the twelfth century, so mercantilism imposed itself upon commerce and
industry in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By protective
duties and bounties on exportation, by subsidies of all sorts to
manufactures and national navigation, by the acquiring of transmarine
colonies, by the creation of privileged commercial companies, by the
inspection of manufacturing processes, by the perfecting of means of
transportation and the suppression of interior custom-houses, every
state strives to increase its means of production, to close its market
to its competitors, and to make the balance of trade incline in its
favor. Doubtless the idea that "liberty is the soul of commerce" does
not wholly disappear, but the endeavor is to regulate that liberty
henceforward in conformity to the interest of the public weal. It is put
under the control of intendants, of consuls, of chambers of commerce. We
are entering into the period of national economy.

This was destined to last, as is familiar, until the moment when, in
England at the end of the eighteenth century, on the Continent in the
first years of the nineteenth, the invention of machinery and the
application of steam to manufacturing completely disorganized the
conditions of economic activity. The phenomena of the sixteenth century
are reproduced, but with tenfold intensity. Merchants accustomed to the
routine of mercantilism and to state protection are pushed aside. We do
not see them pushing forward into the career which opens itself before
them, unless as lenders of money. In their turn, and as we have seen it
at each great crisis of economic history, they retire from business and
transform themselves into an aristocracy. Of the powerful houses which
are established on all hands and which give the impetus to the modern
industries of metallurgy, of the spinning and weaving of wool, linen,
and cotton, hardly one is connected with the establishments existing
before the end of the eighteenth century. Once again, it is new men,
enterprising spirits, and sturdy characters which profit by the
circumstances.[31] At most, the old capitalists, transformed into landed
proprietors, play still an active rôle in the exploitation of the mines,
because of the necessary dependence of that industry upon the possessors
of the soil, but it can be safely affirmed that those who have presided
over the gigantic progress of international economy, of the exuberant
activity which now affects the whole world, were, as at the time of the
Renaissance, parvenus, self-made men. As at the time of the Renaissance,
again, their belief is in individualism and liberalism alone. Breaking
with the traditions of the old régime, they take for their motto
"_laissez faire, laissez passer_". They carry the consequences of the
principle to an extreme. Unrestrained competition sets them to
struggling with each other and soon arouses resistance in the form of
socialism, among the proletariate that they are exploiting. And at the
same time that that resistance arises to confront capital, the latter,
itself suffering from the abuses of that freedom which had enabled it to
rise, compels itself to discipline its affairs. Cartels, trusts,
syndicates of producers, are organized, while states, perceiving that it
is impossible to leave employers and employees longer to contend in
anarchy, elaborate a social legislation; and international regulations,
transcending the frontiers of the various countries, begin to be applied
to working men.

I am aware how incomplete is this rapid sketch of the evolution of
capitalism through a thousand years of history. As I said at the
beginning, I present it merely as an hypothesis resting on the very
imperfect knowledge which we yet possess of the different movements of
economic development. Yet, in so far as it is exact, it justifies the
observation I made at the beginning of this study. It shows that the
growth of capitalism is not a movement proceeding along a straight line,
but has been marked, rather, by a series of separate impulses not
forming continuations one of another, but interrupted by crises.

To this first remark may be added two others, which are in a way

The first relates to the truly surprising regularity with which the
phases of economic freedom and of economic regulation have succeeded
each other. The free expansion of wandering commerce comes to its end in
the urban economy, the individualistic ardor of the Renaissance leads to
mercantilism, and finally, to the age of liberalism succeeds our own
epoch of social legislation.

The second remark, with which I shall close, lies in the moral and
political rather than the economic field. It may be stated in this form,
that every class of capitalists is at the beginning animated by a
clearly progressive and innovating spirit but becomes conservative as
its activities become regulated. To convince one's self of this truth it
is sufficient to recall that the merchants of the eleventh and twelfth
centuries are the ancestors of the bourgeoisie and the creators of the
first urban institutions; that the business men of the Renaissance
struggled as energetically as the humanists against the social
traditions of the Middle Ages; and finally, that those of the nineteenth
century have been among the most ardent upholders of liberalism. This
would suffice to prove to us, if we did not know it otherwise, that all
these have at the beginning been nothing else than parvenus brought into
action by the transformations of society, embarrassed neither by custom
nor by routine, having nothing to lose and therefore the bolder in their
race toward profit. But soon the primitive energy relaxes. The
descendants of the new rich wish to preserve the situation which they
have acquired, provided public authority will guarantee it to them, even
at the price of a troublesome surveillance; they do not hesitate to
place their influence at its service, and wait for the moment when,
pushed aside by new men, they shall demand of the state that it
recognize officially the rank to which they have raised their families,
shall on their entrance into the nobility become a legal class and no
longer a social group, and shall consider it beneath them to carry on
that commerce which in the beginning made their fortunes.


[1] This article represents the substance of an address delivered at the
International Congress of Historical Studies held in London, April,

[2] First edition in 1893.

[3] _Der Moderne Capitalismus_ (1902).

[4] R. Heynen, _Zur Entstehung des Capitalismus in Venedig_ (1905).

[5] H. Sieveking, "Die Capitalistische Entwickelung in den Italienischen
Städten des Mittelalters", _Vierteljahrschrift für Social-und
Wirtschaftsgeschichte_ (1909).

[6] Davidsohn, _Forschungen zur Geschichte von Florenz_, III. 36; A.
Doren, _Die Florentiner Wollentuchindustrie_, p. 481.

[7] A. Schaube, "Die Wollausfuhr Englands von 1272", _Vierteljahrschrift
für Social- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte_ (1908), pp. 39 ff. _Cf._ F.
Keutgen, "Hansische Handelsgesellschaften", _ibid._ (1906), pp. 288 ff.

[8] _Cf._ H. Pirenne, _Les Anciennes Democraties des Pays-Bas_, pp. 11

[9] I. Goll, "Samo und die Karantinischen Slaven", _Mitteilungen des
Instituts für Oesterreichische Geschichtsforschung_, vol. XI.

[10] A. Dopsch, _Die Wirtschaftsentwickelung der Karolingerzeit_, II.
274. I cannot, however, accept the thesis of Mr. Dopsch on the
importance of commerce in the Carolingian period. The extremely
interesting texts which he has assembled seem to me to establish the
existence of a sporadic commerce only.

[11] Of course all the new towns did not grow up around an episcopal
residence. Many of them, especially in the North and particularly in the
Low Countries, had as their primitive nucleus a fortress (Ghent, Bruges,
Ypres, Lille, Douai, etc.). But my purpose here is merely to recall the
broad outlines of the subject.

[12] See on this subject the interesting article by W. Vogel, "Ein
Seefahrender Kaufmann um 1100", _Hansische Geschichtsblätter_ (1912),
pp. 239 ff.

[13] "Unde non agriculturae delegit exercitia colere, sed potius, quae
sagacioris animi sunt, rudimenta studuit arripiendo exercere."

[14] One finds already in the twelfth century lenders of money
undertaking veritable financial operations. See H. Jenkinson and M. T.
Stead, "William Cade: a Financier of the Twelfth Century", _English
Historical Review_ (1913), p. 209 ff.

[15] _Die drei Bevölkerungsstufen._

[16] The _Livre de la Vingtaine d'Arras_ (ed. A. Guesnon) says, in
speaking of the merchants of that town, in 1222, "Emunt non ad usum
civitatis, sed ut exportent et discurrant per nondinas longinquas et per

[17] G. von Below, "Grosshändler und Kleinhändler im Deutschen
Mittelalter", _Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik_ (1900).

[18] A. Schaube, "Die Wollausfuhr Englands vom Jahre 1273",
_Vierteljahrschrift für Social- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte_ (1908), p.

[19] A. Duchesne, _Histoire des Maisons de Guines, d'Ardres et de Gand_,
p. 289.

[20] Rymer, _Foedera_, vol. II., part IV., p. 49.

[21] For an example, see Espinas and Pirenne, _Recueil de Documents
relatifs à l'Histoire de la Draperie Flamande_, II. 391.

[22] J. Kulischer, "Warenhändler und Geldausleiher im Mittelalter",
_Zeitschrift für Volkswirtschaft_, etc., XVII. (1908).

[23] G. Espinas, "Jehan Boine-Broke, Bourgeois et Drapier Douaisien",
_Vierteljahrschrift für Social- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte_ (1904), pp.
34 ff.

[24] For the relations of the capitalists with the English crown see:
Whitwell, "Italian Bankers and the English Crown", _Transactions of the
Royal Historical Society_, XVII. (1903); and Bond, "Extract from the
Liberate Rolls relative to the Loans supplied by Italian Merchants to
the Kings of England", _Archaeologia_, XXVII. (1840). _Cf._ Hansen, "Der
Englische Staatscredit unter König Edward III. und die Hansischen
Kaufleute", _Hansische Geschichtsblätter_ (1910).

[25] F. Arens, "Wilhelm Servat von Cahors als Kaufmann zu London",
_Vierteljahrschrift für Social- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte_ (1913), pp.
477 ff.

[26] V. Fris, "Thomas Fin, Receveur de Flandre", _Bulletin de la
Commission Royale d'Histoire de Belgique_ (1900), pp. 8 ff.

[27] Schneider, "Die Finanziellen Beziehungen der Florentinischen
Banquiers zur Kirche", _Schmollers Forschungen_, vol. XVII.

[28] Pirenne, "Une Crise Industrielle an XVI^e Siècle", _Bulletin de
l'Académie Royale de Belgique_, classe des lettres (1905).

[29] R. Ehrenberg, _Das Zeitalter der Fugger_, I. 311 ff.

[30] J. F. Jameson, "Willem Usselinx", in Am. Hist. Assoc., _Papers_,

[31] See, in Cunningham, _The Growth of English Industry and Commerce in
Modern Times_, p. 618, this citation from P. Gaskell: "Few of the men
who entered the trade rich were successful. They trusted too much to
others, too little to themselves." Let us recall here that the founder
of the largest industrial establishments of Belgium, John Cockerill, was
a simple workman. See E. Mahaim, "Les Débuts de l'Établissement John
Cockerill à Seraing", _Vierteljahrschrift für Social- und
Wirtschaftsgeschichte_ (1905), p. 627.

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