Post by Patrick Goold
Avner Greif’s study of Maghribi Jewish traders in the eleventh century is a seminal work in the literature on private ordering. In a couple of highly influential articles (here and here), Greif documented how this group of merchants created elaborate trading networks across the Islamic Mediterranean. Greif argued that the Maghribi formed a close-knit “coalition” that could eschew enforcement of agreements by lawsuits and the threat of liability and instead rely on reputation-based community enforcement. However, in recent years, historians of the period, including Jessica Goldberg, as well as Jeremy Edwards and Sheilagh Ogilvie, have questioned Greif’s thesis, suggesting that there is little evidence of Maghribi traders boycotting members for misconduct, and some evidence that they relied on courts.
At this week’s HLS Private Law Workshop, Lisa Bernstein presented a draft essay that revisits this topic (Revisiting the Maghribi Traders (Again): A Social Network and Relational Contracting Perspective). Bernstein proposes to revise Greif’s analysis by swapping out the notion of “coalition” on which he relied for social network analysis and relational contract theory. While this is an alternative account of the Maghribi activities, it nonetheless supports Greif’s central thesis.
Although Maghribi merchants sometimes formed partnerships with one another, they more commonly used each other as reciprocal agents under a legally unenforceable agreement known as a Suhba. Under a Suhba, a merchant who asked his agent to perform a task (for example, travel to a foreign city to sell the merchant’s flax) would become obligated to perform a task of equal value (for example, introduce the agent to other important merchants). This system enabled the traders to diversify their trading portfolios and reach many markets across the Mediterranean without needing to travel with their goods. The center of this trading activity was Fustat, today part of Old Cairo, and it is a cache of documents in the Cairo Geniza that serve as the main historical record of the merchants’ activities.
Bernstein argues that the Maghribi traders were organized as a “semi-closed bridge and cluster network with small-world properties.” Within trading centers (cities like Fustat), most trade was conducted in the open with witnesses. Meanwhile, business and social interactions resulted in a dense network of ties that enabled reputation information to spread easily. These “network clusters” were then “bridged” by a number of social institutions and organizations. Postal routes between trading centers enabled information about reputation to flow between clusters. A handful of dominant traders also had personal and family ties spreading across a number of cities. In addition, an institutional functionary known as the “merchant’s representative” had an incentive to insure accurate information about dealings was transmitted between merchants. The merchant’s representative was a trader from a foreign city who established himself in a trade outpost. The representative’s stature in his new city depended on his ability to entice foreign merchants to do business there, which in turn depended on his ability to ensure that traders in the city kept their obligations. This structure of these bridges and clusters enabled reputational information to flow across the Islamic Mediterranean in such a way that network governance could potentially play a major role in supporting Maghribi trade.