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site.bta637 Years Ago Today: Bulgaria Signs the First Trade Agreement that Is Preserved to Date

637 Years Ago Today: Bulgaria Signs the First Trade Agreement that Is Preserved to Date
637 Years Ago Today: Bulgaria Signs the First Trade Agreement that Is Preserved to Date
The fortress on cape Kaliakra - capital of the Dobruja principality (despotate) in the second half of the 14th century (BTA Photo)

On May 27, 1387 the Dobruja despot Ivanko concluded a contract with the Genoese commercial colony in Pera, a district near Constantinople. The document is the first preserved trade agreement of Bulgaria.

Ivanko ruled the Despotate of Dobruja – a short-lived (1356 to 1411) principality which split off from the Second Bulgarian Empire. The despotate controlled a large coastal territory to the north of Varna and had its own navy (which was obviously also engaged in piracy against the Genoese). At that time the Republic of Genoa had large colonial possessions in Crimea (the so-called Gazaria), and in the Danube Delta the Despotate and Genoa trade colonies were neighbours. The treaty was designed to solve controversial issues and to put an end to hostilities, guaranteeing “good and true everlasting peace,” and also the free movement of merchants on both sides.

For various reasons, documents about Bulgarian medieval trade and economic relations are scarce. Historians have to reconstruct the general picture by gleaning scattered fragments like the Dubrovnik Charter, 1230, issued by Tsar Ivan Asen II to give the Dubrovnik merchants the right to trade freely in his country; Tsar Michail Assen’s agreement with the Republic of Dubrovnik, 1253, or King Ivan Alexander’s agreement in 1347 with the Republic of Venice.

The contract in question is the earliest Bulgarian trade agreement preserved. It was discovered in the secret archives of the Genoa Republic by the famous linguist and orientalist Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy (1758–1838).

The document fills in gaps in our understanding of Bulgarian medieval trade with Genoa, which began much earlier. In XIV century it was already well developed. For instance, an account book of the Genoese Republic from 1340 and 1341 indicated 6 documents for delivery and sale in Genoa of "wax from Zagora" – Bulgarian historian Vasil Gyuzelev [“Medieval Bulgaria in the light of new sources”, Sofia, 1981] estimated the total amount mentioned in these 6 documents to exceed 5 tons.

The treaty has been an object to various studies, for it throws light upon the economic history of the region, political conflicts in the 14th century and rivalry between Genoa and Venice; upon customs, practices and notions of the medieval people. Genoese and Bulgarians under Ivanko had series of conflicts, incl. mutual attacks and robberies by sea and land. This context could explain why some sentences sound (to a contemporary observer) more like a peace treaty than a trade agreement:

Both parties “came and declared that they came for a good and true everlasting peace. Namely, the said parties, the said names, have mutually forgiven each other all the iniquities, strifes, violences, robberies, murders, and all else which they have done to each other in whatever manner and however it may be up to this day and hour, as the said parties, the said names promise each other, the one party to the other and the other to the first, by solemn pledges (…), that they will not offend each other, but will forever maintain and preserve this peace according to the hereinafter set forth covenants, encumbrances, promises, terms and conditions.” (Article 2).

Indeed, historians agree that the agreement stabilized Ivanko's position in the Black Sea region for a brief period of time. From the present-day perspective, a non-historian could only wonder finding modern concepts reflected in a text written in the tempestuous XIV century.

The document set the import duties for Genoese merchants at 2% (1% for transit goods). But it introduced duty-free trade in luxury and expensive goods, “ships, gold, silver, pearls or other precious things.” (Article 12.) In vision and perspective, the agreement goes far beyond the exchange of goods, for it dealt with expected trade exchange, possible territorial changes; with infrastructure to be created, with real property, vessels, buildings, rights of Genoa citizens and Ivanko’s subjects; care for shipwrecked, instituting official Genoa representative, implementation of some Genoese legal standards and self-regulation of the colony... To use terms coined much later, the agreement deals with foreign investment protection; and if we add the low tax levels – we see a duty-free zone being established.

Article 10 stipulates that “the noble lord Ivanko will not forbid, in the territories which he possesses or will possess, (…) the said Genoese to buy in his territories any goods and provisions, except in times of famine. In this case it is permissible for him to declare a ban or restrictions on the said Genoese to the extent that he has decreed this on all other foreigners. And if it happens that he shows mercy [i.e. exception] to any one for supplies, he undertakes to give the same opportunity to the said Genoese.”

A student in commercial law can recognize in this clause an obvious example of the most favoured nation construct.

Translating the document into modern terms shows the grain of truth in the history scholars dictum: Dark Ages weren't dark because they were bad, cruel and backwards, but because we don’t know too much about them.

/KK/

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By 17:11 on 25.06.2024 Today`s news

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