“[multum] aliud importat” – Venetians, Catalans and Maritime Predators

Laurin Herberich, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg

Abstract: At the beginning of the fifteenth century Catalan seafarers were well-known for their ruthless predatorial activities in the Eastern Mediterranean. But when it came to bringing maritime predators to justice, the Republic of Venice wasn’t of the faint hearted either. Because the Serenissima could quite literally not afford to lose face, restitution and extradition were demanded no matter the context of the individual case. In this preliminary case study PhD student Laurin Herberich shows with the help of two hitherto unconsidered incidents of maritime predation in the waters of Rhodes that our current understanding of the phenomenon of medieval maritime predation is lacking on an empirical level. He therefore suggests corpora of source material and a not only technologically, but also methodically new approach for their time-efficient exploitation.

Zusammenfassung: Zu Beginn des 15. Jahrhunderts waren katalanische Seefahrer für ihre kaltschnäuzigen räuberischen Aktivitäten im östlichen Mittelmeerraum bekannt. Aber wenn es darum ging, Seeräuber zur Rechenschaft zu ziehen, war auch die Republik Venedig nicht zimperlich. Denn einen Gesichtsverlust konnte sich die Serenissima im wahrsten Sinne des Wortes nicht leisten. Rückerstattung und Auslieferung wurden daher ohne Rücksicht auf den Kontext der einzelnen Fälle eingefordert. Mit dieser im Rahmen seines Dissertationsprojektes entstandenen Fallstudie zeigt Laurin Herberich anhand zweier bisher unbeachteter Fälle von Seeraub in rhodischen Gewässern, dass das Phänomen „mittelalterlicher Seeraub“ nicht ausreichend empirisch erforscht ist. Um dem Abhilfe zu leisten, werden anschließend Quellencorpora und schließlich ein nicht nur technologisch, sondern auch methodisch neuer Ansatz ihrer zeitökonomischen Erschließung vorgeschlagen.

Nihil aliud importat nisi […] omnes male dispositos cum bonis aliorum ad terram suam se reducere!”1 this was the reason the Venetian senate gave for the similar consequences two men ought to bear for their predatory behaviour at sea, when it sent its envoy Bartholomeo Storlato on a diplomatic mission to Rhodes in August 1423. The “robbers” should be extradited and their “loot” restituted. But were there, apart from the category of their crime, any other similarities between the two incidents that would legitimise those consequences? A closer look at the protocol of the senate session provides the different micro contexts Bartholomeo had to ignore:

The first maritime predator, a transport operator of unkown origin by the name of Clarius Archangelus, left Alexandria a year and a half earlier with his cargo bound for the port supposedly agreed upon with his Venetian employers. But he had headed for Rhodes instead. To the surprise of the senate Clarius gained the protection of the Knights of Saint John by referring to a letter of protection from the order, called “fidantia”. Since then Clarius had refused the restitution of the stolen cargo and the order his extradition already once. Now it was Bartholomeo’s job to demand both for the second time. For in spite of the heat the order was willing to take for Clarius, the senate speculated that both wanted to profit off Venice’s loss.2 The protocol even muses “cum quanta inhonestate possunt […] allegare […] fidantiam […] Clario factam”.3

The second man, a Catalan seafarer called Moysius, had, according to the senate, robbed Venetian merchants roughly a month ago in Rhodes harbour. Despite of him and his crew even trading with what were quite probably stolen goods right after the incident, the Grandmaster had refused to help his Venetian prey. Because the Serenissima couldn’t accept such disrespect, Bartholomeo was to demand restitution and the extradition of Moysius from the order.4 Even though Venice didn’t intend to let the Hospitallers off the hook easily, by the end of December 1423 the envoy made the order a tempting and ultimately successful offer: Because a settlement in favour of either party would have had positive consequences for the Catalans only, both would fare better by demanding restitution from their overlords, the Crown of Aragon: “potius erimus contenti […] satisfactionem habere a catellanis, quam a conventu suo.”5

Apart from the category of their crime being maritime predation both men were very different indeed. Why this one similarity was enough to cause identical demands for restitution and extradition can be answered looking at the macro context: In the year 1423 Venice had a firm grip on the trade routes and economic spheres of the eastern Mediterranean through her stato da mar.6 The trade volume occupied by her hegemonic position attracted maritime predators and competitors of different shapes and sizes. Be it the Genoese or the Catalans or trans-imperial actors, they liked to use Rhodes as a base for their operations.7 And the order even provided them with licenses for predatory action from at least 1413 onwards.8 Under these circumstances both incidents were not simply cases of maritime predation but occasions to diplomatically negotiate political power. It didn’t even matter, if the senate’s narrative of the incidents was faulty or not. Whoever gave way in the restitution case would not only suffer financially, but more often than not also politically in the present and future by creating a precedent.

But even though our current knowledge about the macro context can explain Venice’s reaction to this one similarity, our lack of understanding of maritime predation itself really shows as soon as we stray from Venice’s narrative and ask questions about the micro contexts of the incidents.

Here, differences between the two maritime predators themselves and in their treatment by the different entities involved raise questions in five key fields of research. The first of them is the handling of incidents like these by political entities. For example: Based on which factors did the Crown of Aragon actually decide to trust evidence in a restitution case,9 if it was so easy to manipulate according to the Venetian senate? Why was Venice seeking restitution from Clarius himself and did not team up with the order to demand it from his sovereign like in the case of Moysius? Why didn’t the order use the same “fidantia”-argument it used in the case of Clarius to excuse itself in the case of Moysius?

The second field of research regards their involvement in networks of maritime predation, because even though Clarius seems to have operated regularly in the Alexandria area, he doesn’t seem to have been attributed a “nationality” like his contemporary Moysius. Were geographical, linguistic or habitual criteria decisive for these kinds of attribution to one or the other political entitiy?

A third field is the method of both predators. Clarius was seemingly committing what can be described as fraudulent thievery. In contrast the described conduct of Moysius can be characterised as a violent robbery. But which of these two cases is more characteristic for the phenomenon of maritime predation?

Fourthly the two incidents differ in their geographical setting. Clarius “stole” his booty in Alexandria, whereas Moysius “robbed” the Venetians directly in Rhodes. But was this combination of crime scene, hideout and market common or did most other maritime predators try to change locations like Clarius?

The fifth field is their social and economic profile. Clarius was apparently a transport operator (“factor”)10 and probably owned one ship. Moysius on the other hand, even called a “deroba[tor]”,11 seems financially better situated with two ships and a crew big enough to “rob” the Venetian merchants. But were these men professional or just part-time maritime predators?

Luckily, we have been blessed with archives full of source material to empirically amend our lack of understanding. Unluckily, this poses the problem of time-efficiency. To tackle it a future project on maritime predation should firstly focus on the archives of the four most important maritime powers of the medieval Mediterranean: the ones of the republic of Genoa,12 the Crown of Aragon,13 the order of the Knights of Saint John14 and the republic of Venice.15 Secondly the technological advantages of a database oriented project could help to connect the traces left by predators in different archival records. An approach like this would not only be time-efficient by enabling multiple researchers to connect their finds from different archives simultaneously, but also represent a new method to grip medieval trans-imperiality.

By conducting an empirical comparative study like this, one could expand the micro contexts of these two incidents by explaining their differences in the five mentioned fields of research and through that our understanding of Mediterranean maritime predation on the whole. We could ensure furthermore, that not only one entity controls the narrative so that possibly misunderstood thieves like Clarius won’t get mixed up with seemingly violent robbers like Moysius in the future. Because unlike for Bartholomeo back then, in researching the phenomenon of maritime predation today it should apply that despite similar consequences “[multum] aliud importat”.16

Photo: Grünenberg, Konrad von, Beschreibung der Reise von Konstanz nach Jerusalem, Bodenseegebiet ca. 1487, in: Cod. St. Peter pap. 32, folio 20v–21r, URL: [https://digital.blb-karlsruhe.de/7061] (18.11.2021).

  1. ASV.Misti.54.141v. (28.08.1423), l. 14; Vgl. Régestes des délibérations, Bd. II, S. 209, Reg. 1902. []
  2. cf. Ibid., l. 1–20; cf. Rdd, Bd. II, p. 209, Reg. 1902. []
  3. Ibid., l. 13; cf. Rdd, Bd. II, p. 209, Reg. 1902. []
  4. cf. Ibid., l. 24–42; cf. Rdd, Bd. II, p. 209, Reg. 1902. []
  5. cf. ASV.Misti.54.167v (30.12.1423), l. 4, 6, 9, 11–17; cf. Bd. 1,3: CSPA, Reg. 834, p. 260. A victorious Venice would provide the Catalans with a sense of security, because they could expect the order to pay for their stolen goods in doubt. A victorious order would mark Venetian merchants as fair game for Catalan maritime predators. []
  6. Coulon, The Commercial Influence of the Crown of Aragon, 2017, p. 281; Ferrer i Mallol, La Mediterrània dels segles XIII al XV, 2004, p. 156; Katele, Captains and corsairs, 1986, pp. 45–46. []
  7. Coureas, Piracy, 2001, p. 200; Ashtor, Levant trade, 1983, ND 2014, p. 391; Balard, Le Commerce en Méditerranée, 2013, p. 27; Bonneaud, The Influential Trade, 2015, p. 396; Luttrell, The Hospitallers in Cyprus, Rhodes, Greece and the West, 1978, V, pp. 202, 204. []
  8. Luttrell, The Hospitaller State on Rhodes, 1999, VIII, pp. 177–178, 180; Bonneaud, Le prieuré de Catalogne, 2004, p. 154; Vann, Hospitallers and Piracy on Rhodes, 2013, pp. 251, 260. []
  9. cf. ASV.Misti.55.125v (13.06.1425); cf. Rdd, Bd. II, p. 228, Reg. 1991; cf. ASV.Misti.54.141v. (28.08.1423), l. 17–18; cf. Rdd, Bd. II, p. 209, Reg. 1902. []
  10. ASV.Misti.54.86r (24.02.1422), l. 1; cf. Bd. 1,3: CSPA, Reg. 810, p. 243; cf. Rdd, Bd. II, p. 200, Reg. 1872. []
  11. cf. Ibid., l. 33; cf. Rdd, Bd. II, p. 209, Reg. 1902. []
  12. Archivio di Stato di Genova, online: http://www.archiviodistatogenova.beniculturali.it/index.php?it/167/inventari-digitalizzati. []
  13. Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, online: http://censoarchivos.mcu.es/CensoGuia/inventario dinamico.htm. []
  14. Luttrell, The Hospitallers of Rhodes, 1980, pp. 245–247; Vann, Hospitallers and Piracy on Rhodes, 2013, pp. 251, 254–255, 257–260. Which could be supplemented with digitalised microfilms of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. cf. Online Resources for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, HMML: Series 2, 4, 5, 7, 10, https://www.vhmml.org. []
  15. Archivio di Stato di Venezia, Moreveneto, Patrimonio, Serie riprodotte http://asve.arianna4.cloud/patrimonio/448 b1163-8279-467b-9094-358f38826387/repubblica-di-venezia-12-magg-1797. []
  16. ASV.Misti.54.141v. (28.08.1423), l. 14; cf. Rdd, Bd. II, p. 209, Reg. 1902. []