International Trade and Institutional Change: Medieval Venice’s Response to Globalization


Abstract: International trade can have profound effects on domestic institutions. We examine this proposition in the context of medieval Venice circa 800–1600.  

Early on, the growth of long-distance trade enriched a broad group of merchants who used their newfound economic muscle to push for constraints on the executive, that is, for the end of a de facto hereditary Doge in 1032 and the establishment of a parliament in 1172. The merchants also pushed for remarkably modern innovations in contracting institutions that facilitated long-distance trade, for example, thecolleganza. However, starting in 1297, a small group of particularly wealthy merchants blocked political and economic competition: they made parliamentary participation hereditary and erected barriers to participation in the most lucrative aspects of long-distance trade. Over the next two centuries this led to a fundamental societal shift away from political openness, economic competition, and social mobility and toward political closure, extreme inequality, and social stratification. We document this oligarchization using a unique database on the names of 8,178 parliamentarians and their families’ use of the colleganza in the periods immediately before and after 1297. We then link these families to 6,959 marriages during 1400–1599 to document the use of marriage alliances to monopolize the galley trade. Monopolization led to the rise of extreme inequality, with those who were powerful before 1297 emerging as the undisputed winners.