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"The Book Of Descriptions Of Countries"
Around 1340 Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, an otherwise unknown
agent of the Bardi banking house of Florence, composed a handbook of practical
advice for merchants. Pegolotti, who had served the Bardi family's interests
from London to Cyprus, drew upon his years of mercantile experience to
produce a work filled with lists of facts and figures on such items as
local business customs, the taxes and tariffs of various localities, and
the relative values of different standards of weights, measures, and coinage.
In other words, the book contained just about everything a prudent merchant
would want to know before entering a new market. In addition to these catalogues
of useful data, Pegolotti included a short essay of advice for merchants
bound for China.
Questions to Consider
THINGS NEEDFUL FOR MERCHANTS WHO DESIRE TO MAKE THE JOURNEY TO CATHAY
- According to Pegolotti, what must one do to be a successful merchant in a
Did Pegolotti make any value judgements on the customs and norms of
In the first place, you must let your beard grow long and not shave.
And at Tana you should furnish yourself with a dragoman. And you must not
try to save money in the matter of dragomen by taking a bad one instead
of a good one. For the additional wages of the good one will not cost you
so much as you will save by having him. And besides the dragoman it will
be well to take at least two good menservants, who are acquainted with
the Cumanian tongue. And if the merchant likes to take a woman with him
from Tana, he can do so; if he does not like to take one there is no obligation,
only if he does take one he will be kept much more comfortably than if
he does not take one. Howbeit, if he does take one, it will be well that
she be acquainted with the Cumanian tongue as well as the men.
And from Tana traveling to Gittarchan you should take with you twenty-five
days provisions, that is to say, flour and salt fish, for as to meat you
will find enough of it at all the places along the road. And so also at
all the chief stations noted in going from one country to another in the
route, according to the number of days set down above, you should furnish
yourself with flour and salt fish; other things you will find in sufficiency,
and especially meat.
The road you travel from Tana to Cathay is perfectly safe, whether by
day or by night, according to what the merchants say who have used it.
Only if the merchant, in going or coming, should die upon the road, everything
belonging to him will become the perquisite of the lord of the country
in which he dies, and the officers of the lord will take possession of
all. And in like manner if he die in Cathay. But if his brother be with
him, or an intimate friend and comrade calling himself his brother, then
to such a one they will surrender the property of the deceased, and so
it will be rescued.
And there is another danger: this is when the lord of the country dies,
and before the new lord who is to have the lordship is proclaimed; during
such intervals there have sometimes been irregularities practiced on the
Franks, and other foreigners. (They call "Franks" all the Christians of
these parts from Romania westward.) And neither will the roads be safe
to travel until the other lord be proclaimed who is to reign in place of
him who is deceased.
Cathay is a province which contains a multitude of cities and towns.
Among others there is one in particular, that is to say the capital city,
to which is great resort of merchants, and in which there is a vast amount
of trade; and this city is called Cambalec. And the said city has a circuit
of one hundred miles, and is all full of people and houses and of dwellers
in the said city....
You may reckon also that from Tana to Sara the road is less safe than
on any other part of the journey; and yet even when this part of the road
is at its worst, if you are some sixty men in the company you will go as
safely as if you were in your own house.
Anyone from Genoa or from Venice, wishing to go to the places above-named,
and to make the journey to Cathay, should carry linens with him, and if
he visit Organci he will dispose of these well. In Organci he should purchase
sommi of silver, and with these he should proceed without making any further
investment, unless it be some bales of the very finest stuffs which go
in small bulk, and cost no more for carriage than coarser stuffs would
Merchants who travel this road can ride on horseback or on asses, or
mounted in any way that they choose to be mounted.
Whatever silver the merchants may carry with them as far as Cathay the
lord of Cathay will take from them and put into his treasury. And to merchants
who thus bring silver they give that paper money of theirs in exchange.
This is of yellow paper, stamped with the seal of the lord aforesaid. And
this money is called balishi; and with this money you can readily buy silk
and all other merchandise that you have a desire to buy. And all the people
of the country are bound to receive it. And yet you shall not pay a higher
price for your goods because your money is of paper. And of the said paper
money there are three kinds, one being worth more than another, according
to the value which has been established for each by that lord.
Francesco Pegolotti, "The Book Of Descriptions Of Countries," in Alfred Andrea and James Overfield, eds. The Human Record: Sources in Global History, Volume I, 3rd Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998): 426-428.