Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Conflict and commerce

The economy of ransoming and intercultural exchange in the early modern Mediterranean

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Kaiser


The project is looking to the early modern Mediterranean as a crossroads, as an open space of intercultural encounters. Conflict is not seen as a kind of clash, not as the end of, but as just one form of interaction and exchange – a particular source-producing one, as the actors try to give sense to it and as it is through conflict that procedures, institutionalized forms and norms of conflict regulation are produced.

From the fifteenth to the early nineteenth century, the Mediterranean is undergoing deep transformation in terms of power relations (the role of the Ottoman Empire and Atlantic powers) and of commercial and cultural relations, reoriented by the dynamics of what hat been called globalization. In this general framework, the goals of the project are essentially critical: to underline the discontinuities and ambiguities in intercultural exchange (against an Eurocentric history of the rise of the Western World); to show the “normality” of intercultural trade and to “de-romanticize” their actors; to acknowledge, against a somewhat one-dimensional analysis of religious confrontation and conversion, the multiple aspects of religious belief and choice; to discuss critically central concepts for – not only – intercultural exchange as trust or confidence and to analyze the mechanisms and the process of creating an untrusted credibility; leading to the question of the foundation and modalities of intercultural understanding (discussed in the social sciences in terms of hybridity, middle ground or third space).

The perspective of the project is essentially pragmatic, focused on a particular sector of Mediterranean trade and intercultural exchange: the economy of ransoming in the early modern period. By-product of war, ransoming slavery, that is capturing people to get them ransomed, developed in the borderlands of the Habsburg and the Ottomans and in the Mediterranean. Corsairing was a sector of risk capital investment; considered as a mercantilist weapon against rivals, this extra-territorial violence produced profitable frictions: a sector of financial services, troubling association of commodities (from grain to captives and slaves) and business partners across religious boundaries (making the economy of ransoming a prominent sector of the speculative production and circulation of riches). Moreover, this commerce de captifs shades light on concrete forms of what has been called state making: procedures of identification of persons and multiple checking of information across the Mediterranean, verification of documents (during ship control), regulation of communication processes (defining the time span and the area in which an “event” is considered to be known). All this was a product not of a supposed ever-existing European predominance but of intercultural, yet asymmetrical interactions in a shared Mediterranean world.