Tailored Terms – Catalan and Genoese maritime predators in Venetian words 

Laurin Herberich, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg

Zusammenfassung: Heutzutage verfügen wir über eine Fülle von Begriffen, mit denen wir uns dem mittelalterlichen Phänomen der Seeräuberei nähern können. Von ‚Korsar‘ über ‚Seeräuber‘ bis hin zu ‚Pirat‘ ist alles dabei. Aber wie nannten die Menschen, die fast täglich mit maritimen Raubüberfällen zu tun hatten, ihre Plagegeister? Um sich diesem umfangreichen Thema zu nähern, ist Laurin Herberich in den Ozean des Archivio di Stato di Venezia eingetaucht. In diesem Beitrag stellt er eine Studie zur spätmittelalterlichen Terminologie vor, die auf zwei katalanischen und einem genuesischen Fall von Seeraub aus dem ersten Viertel des 15. Jahrhunderts basiert.

Abstract: Nowadays we find ourselves sitting on a treasure trove of terms with which to approach the medieval phenomenon of maritime predation. From ‘corsair’ to ‘sea robber’ to ‘pirate’ we have it all. But how did the people dealing with maritime predation on a near-daily basis call their nuisances? To approach this vast topic Laurin Herberich took a dip in the ocean that is the Archivio di Stato di Venezia. In this paper he presents a study of late medieval terminology based on two Catalan and one Genoese case of maritime predation from the first quarter of the fifteenth century.

In winter 1416 the Catalan Nicolas Sampier robbed the vessel of Venetian Nicolaus Lombardo in the upper Levant.1 Not being satisfied yet, he went on to rob two further Venetian vessels of Acre shortly before 8 May 1417.2 Still not having had enough Sampier tried his luck again in early July 1417, but was captured by the captain of the Venetian Beirut galley convoy.3 Not only had he caused damages on the order of 14,333 ducats total,4 but he had also done so without the approval of his licensor, the Hospitaller Order.5 Nowadays we would probably be comfortable calling him a ‘pirate’. Not less ‘piratical’ seem the actions of another Catalan, Moysius Servente. In late July 1423 he robbed a Venetian vessel in the harbour of Rhodes.6 There Servente proceeded to detain the Venetian merchants on their ship for several days, while he and his crew carried goods to their own vessels and even sold them to bystanders.7 The audacity to steal around 4,649 ducats worth of goods for all of Rhodes to see seems pretty swashbuckling and would certainly make Servente a ‘pirate’ in our book.8 Similarly ‘piratical’ seem the incidents that the Genoese Antonio Gentil was responsible for. Sometime in early 1402 he took advantage of the still chaotic situation in the Levant following Timur’s capture of Damascus and treated himself and his crew to 18 tons of cotton from the Venetian magazines in Tripoli, worth roughly 2,075 ducats.9 But robbing Venetians went against the provisions of his Genoese predation license and so Gentil was told to compensate the damages.10 Instead, only two months after avoiding payment, he was out for booty again, this time in Rhodes harbour. On 25 November 1402 he plundered the vessel of Venetian Francesco Pampano taking goods worth around 1,000 ducats.11 Gentil was definitely aware of the illegality of his actions, because he was transporting Genoese envoys, who not only tried to stop him, but also sent complaints to Genoa and Venice.12

So what did their employers and the Venetian senate have to say about these three who fulfill popular modern criteria for being ‘pirates’. In the case of Nicolas Sampier, his employer, the Hospitaller Order, referred to him as someone who caused ‘damna’ or ‘damages’.13 Internal Venetian documents called Sampier a ‘pirata’ or ‘cursarius’ 19 times instead.14 The copious internal use of these fitting terms is even surpassed by the 28 times Venetian envoys used them when negotiating with the Hospitallers.15

Judging from Sampier’s case, one would expext the senate to be no less vocally upset about Moysius Servente. And indeed, in one internal document the senate called him a ‘pirata’ two times.16 Externally Venice seems to have been more reserved, resorting to the seemingly tamer ‘derobator’ five times in four documents.17 Interestingly, Venice’s tone changed drastically once it decided that the monarch of the Crown of Aragon should be paying for Servente’s misdeeds and that the Hospitallers should help them get said restitution.18 After that Venice did not stray far from the words of Servente’s king, Alfons V,19 which were more neutral. Like the Hospitallers had done with Sampier, Alfons described Servente as someone who caused ‘damna’.20

In the case of Antonio Gentil his Genoese employers described him alternately as the patron of a galley or,21 like the Hospitallers and Alfons V before them, as someone who caused damages.22 Looking at it from the internal Venetian perspective, one notes that Gentil is called a ‘pirata’ twice.23 Looking at the external Venetian correspondence with Genoa instead, it is surprising that he is not once called ‘pirata’. The maximum amount of naughtiness Venice is willing to engage in when negotiating with Genoa is calling Gentil a version of ‘derobator’ eight times in five of 14 documents.24 Compared with Sampier’s 25 ‘pirata’ and three ‘cursarius’ in all five pieces of external correspondence, Gentil really seems to have been let off the hook. Furthermore, the longer the negotiations took the more the senate seems to have wanted to get on Genoa’s good side, as is indicated by the initially timid but in the end almost generous use of euphemisms for Gentil’s deeds.25

Three patterns catch the eye. First it seems like ‘pirata’ was a naughty word. In all three cases it was used internally, but externally only in the case of Sampier. Second, the Venetians seem to have changed their terminology depending on their audience. Only Sampier was ‘out’ as a ‘pirate’, while Gentil and Servente were called ‘pirata’ only behind closed doors. Looking at the Servente case, we find that the senate switched terminology even while negotiating the same case. Third, faced with certain maritime powers like Genoa, the Venetian senate was even willing to use euphemisms for what was according to an eyewitness “a violent robbery”.26 So why did Venice mince its words in these three patterns to let Servente and Gentil off the hook and ‘out’ only Sampier as a ‘pirata’?

Looking at the larger contexts of each case, it all seems to have come down to power and evidence. If Venice had superior power and evidence, say, because the other maritime power was not as capable and also vulnerable to a bad reputation because it relyed on donations and papal approval, like the Hospitallers,27 and on top of that, the Venetian senate was in possession of not only the alleged ‘pirate’ but also his ‘predation license’,28 Venice employed pressure strategies to get its restitution. These included in the case of Nicolas Sampier using the naughty word in their allegation that the Hospitallers were equipping ‘pirates’ despite their vow to protect Christians29 as well as blatant threats like the enforcement of a Venetian embargo on Rhodes.30 If Venice had superior power but no evidence, say, because it had not captured the alleged ‘pirate’, but was still facing a minor power, e.g. the Hospitallers, like in the case of Moysius Servente, it resorted to the use of tamer vocabulary like ‘derobator’, more neutral terms in general, and even went as far as not to allege the Hospitallers were in league with ‘pirates’, because they refused to help Servente’s Venetian victims.31 As soon as Venice switched to the king of Aragon as the target of its restitution demands though, we can see how Venice behaved, if it had neither power nor evidence. If strongarming a minor power was off the table, because the audience was a capable maritime power and thus more likely to prolong negotiations or counteract to Venetian strongarming attempts, like the Crown of Aragon or Genoa, Venice resorted to even more or mostly neutral terms, like in Servente’s case. It even went as far as to employ euphemisms, post factum legitimisations for the incident itself or to ignore missed deadlines. All in all the likelihood of being called a ‘pirate’ seems to have decreased with the amount of evidence Venice had and the capabilities of the maritime power it chose to demand restitution from.

Photo: Grünenberg, Konrad von, Beschreibung der Reise von Konstanz nach Jerusalem, Bodenseegebiet ca. 1487, in: Chart. A 541, folio 10v–11r, URL: [https://dhb.thulb.uni-jena.de/receive/ufb_cbu_00025778urn: nbn:de:urmel-ufb-152779-8-0011] (07.06.2023).

  1. ASV.Secreti.6.142r (04.05.1417), l. 10–13, Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 153, reg. 1648. []
  2. ASV.Ducha.Missive.1, lett. 3, 7 (21.04.1417); Thiriet, Délibérations des Assemblées Vénitiennes. Régestes des Années 1364–1463, Reg. 1220, p. 139; ASV.Ducha.Missive.1, lett. 5, 6 (08./16.05.1417); Thiriet, Délibérations des Assemblées Vénitiennes. Régestes des Années 1364–1463, Reg. 1222, p. 140; ASV.Libri.10.197v, l. 3–5. []
  3. ASV.Misti.52.41v (21.08.1417), Z. 4–10; Sathas, Documents, vol. 1,3, p. 165, reg. 719. []
  4. ASV.Libri.10.197v, l. 20–21. []
  5. ASV.Misti.52.41v (21.08.1417), 41v, l. 31, 42r, l. 8; Sathas, Documents, vol. 1,3, p. 165–166, reg. 719. []
  6. ASV.Misti.54.141v. (28.08.1423), l. 24–28; Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 209, reg. 1902. []
  7. ASV.Misti.54.141v. (28.08.1423), l. 28–31; Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 209, reg. 1902. []
  8. ASV.Misti.54.141v. (28.08.1423), l. 39–42; Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 209, reg. 1902. []
  9. ASV.Misti.46.43r (22.09.1402), l. 1 —5; ASV.Secreti.1.82r (19.12.1402), l. 36–39; Delaville, La France en Orient au XIV. siècle, vol. II, p. 106, Pièce XXV. Conversion: 1 North Syrian kintar = 217 kg, 1 Sack = 144 kg, 125 sacks of cotton x 144 kg = 18,000 kg, 18.000 kg / 217 kg = 83 kintar, 1 North Syrian (Tripoli) kintar in the first half of the fifteenth century = 25 ducats, 83 kintar x 25 ducats = 2,075 ducats, 125 sacks = 2,075 ducats, cf. Ashtor, Levant Trade in the Middle Ages, 173–179, 184, 188–189, 257. []
  10. ASV.Misti.46.43r (22.09.1402), l. 1–5; ASV.Secreti.1.121v (18.12.1403), l. 10–16, 41–44, Delaville, La France en Orient au XIV. siècle, vol. II, p. 136, Pièce XXXIII. []
  11. ASV.Libri.9.141r, l. 9–11, 11–12, 12–17, 21–23, 19–54; Secrete.1.90r (05.03.1403), l. 2–4, 90v, l. 9–11; Libri.9.141v, l. 23–25, 26–29, 30–38, 50–53, 142r, l. 1–7. The name Grimaldi is no surprise here, cf. Favreau-Lilie, Diplomacy (2013), p. 301. []
  12. Secrete.1.90r (05.03.1403), l. 4–6, 90v, l. 1–4; Secrete.1.112v (16.11.1403), l. 41–46; Secrete.1.134r (23.02.1404 [m.V. 1403]), l. 17–23; Surdich, Venezia (1970), D.20, pp. 188–192. If said envoys were among the witnesses named in the Rhodian notarial act sent to Venice, which confirmed Pampano’s story, remains to be verified, cf. Libri.9.141v, l. 46–50. []
  13. ASV.Libri.10.197v (31.10.1417), l. 19–20, (18.02.1418), l. 50. []
  14. ASV.Misti.52.7r (05.04.1417), l. 2, 14v (16.05.1417), l. 1, 5; ASV.Maggior Consiglio.Deliberazioni. Ursa, f.15 (17.08.1417), l. 2; ASV.Misti.52.41r (21.08.1417), l. 1, 4, 9, 42r, l. 23, 37; ASV.Misti.52.86v (07.04.1418), l. 6, ASV.Libri.10.197v, l. 3, 5; ASV.Sindicati.Reg.1.213r–213v (22.08.1419). []
  15. ASV.Secreti.6.142r (04.05.1417), l. 1; ASV.Secreti.6.142r (04.05.1417), l. 2, 11; ASV.Secreti.6.142r (04.05.1417), l. 10; ASV.Secreti.6.142r (04.05.1417), l. 12, 17; ASV.Secreti.6.156v (28.07.1417), l. 4, 7, 12, 17, 19, 22; ASV.Secreti.6.156v (28.07.1417), l. 12; ASV.Misti.52.41r (21.08.1417), l. 20, 41v, l. 1, 6, 12, 17, 20, 23; ASV.Misti.52.41v (21.08.1417), l. 12; ASV.Libri.10.198r, l. 28, 30; ASV.Misti.53.32r (05.03.1420), l. 10, 11. []
  16. ASV.Misti.54.143r (30.08.1423), l. 30, 31. []
  17. ASV.Misti.54.141v. (28.08.1423), l. 33; ASV.Misti.54.163v (13.12.1423), l. 2; ASV.Misti.54.163v (13.12.1423), l. 3, 17, 21. []
  18. ASV.Misti.54.167v (30.12.1423), Z. 9–15; Sathas, Documents, vol. 1,3, p. 260, reg. 834. []
  19. ASV.Misti.54.141v. (28.08.1423), l. 28, 33, 38, 40, 42, 142r, l. 3, 163v (13.12.1423), l. 9, 13, 15, 19, 22, 167v (30.12.1423), l. 1–3, 9, 14, 16; ASV.Misti.55.52v (06.09.1424), l. 1–2, 10, 14, 16, 19, 23, 28, 125v (13.06.1425), l. 1, 4–5, 8–10, 12–14, 15, 17–18, 126r, l. 1–4. []
  20. ASV.Misti 55.125v (13.06.1425), l. 11. []
  21. ASV.Misti 46.43r (22.09.1402), l. 1–3; ASV.Libri.9.153r (27.04.1402), l. 28–29. []
  22. ASV.Libri.9.153r (22.05.1403), l. 42. []
  23. ASV.Libri.9.141r, l. 15, 17. []
  24. ASV.Secreti.1.82r (19.12.1402), l. 38, 90v (05.03.1403), l. 9, 119r (13.12.1403), l. 48, 120v (15.12.1403), l. 3, 8, 121r, 8, 125r (29.12.1403), l. 12. []
  25. ASV.Secreti.1.82r (19.12.1402), l. 38, 87v (08.02.1403 (m.V. 1402), l. 19, 90v (05.03.1403), l. 5, 6, 120v (15.12.1403), l. 22, 121v (18.12.1403), l. 10, 13–14, 41, 122v (22.12.1403), l. 4, 125r (29.12.1403), l. 12. []
  26. ASV.Libri.9.141r (07.12.1402), l. 12–17. []
  27. Luttrell, The Hospitallers of Rhodes and their Mediterranean World, 1992, II, p. 82, XIX, pp. 141–142, XIX, p. 133. []
  28. ASV.Misti.53.32r (05.03.1420), l. 14–18; Sathas, Documents, vol. 1,3, p. 205–206, reg. 762; Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 180, reg. 1764. []
  29. ASV.Misti.52.41v (21.08.1417), l. 11–13; Sathas, Documents, vol. 1,3, p. 165, reg. 719. []
  30. ASV.Misti.52.42r (21.08.1417), l. 11–14; Sathas, Documents, vol. 1,3, p. 166, reg. 719; ASV.Misti.52.42v (21.08.1417), l. 1–2, 43r (27.08.1417),l. 1–7, 86v (07.04.1418), l. 1–14; Sathas, Documents, vol. 1,3, p. 172, reg. 727. []
  31. ASV.Misti.54.141v. (28.08.1423), l. 30–36; Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 209, reg. 1902. []

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