From Antwerp to London: The decline of financial centres in Europe

A superb paper by Prof. Peter Spufford on the topic:

When Ortelius, Abraham Ortel, the humanist son of a successful merchant, was born in Antwerp in 1527, it was already the commercial metropolis of Europe and had also become its dominant financial centre. As a young man in the 1540s and 1550s he lived through the years of Antwerp’s greatest prosperity. He did not die until 1598, by which time Antwerp had been reduced from the great metropolis of the west to a place of only regional commercial importance for the Spanishoccupied Netherlands. Nevertheless it was still the financial centre of Europe. This time lag between industrial and commercial decline on the one hand and decline as a financial centre on the other is one that has been repeated time and again.

As an historian whose metier compels him to study change over time, I am aware that our present arrangements, like those of Ortelius’ lifetime, are not anything more than temporary. Antwerp was by no means the first financial centre in the west. London will by no means be the last. And in this lecture, named after Ortelius, I will try to explore some aspects of the continuous rise and fall of financial centres like Antwerp and London over the last seven centuries, and even to glance back a little earlier to Arras and Genoa.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century there were two dominant financial centres in Europe, Florence for southern Europe, and Bruges for northern Europe. Communication between the two was by couriers, who, by the mid-century, were setting out in each direction once a week and took about three weeks to cover the distance. What then gave Florence and Bruges their financial pre-eminence? Both developed as focal points for industry, and as commercial centres, before becoming financial centres. This turns out to have been the normal pattern for seven centuries.

 

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