Archivo Simón Ruiz: European commerce in the Modern Ages

27-08-2019

Simón Ruiz set up business in Medina del campo around 1550 as a cloth merchant, dealing in the wholesale trade of goods imported from Nantes and above all Brittany, amassing a considerable fortune which allowed him to embark on a second professional career in which, while continuing his trade in goods, he was also involved in major financial dealings, with interests throughout Europe and the Americas, including even lending money to the Crown. From 1591 onwards, he focused almost exclusively on the construction of a major hospital, known as the 'Inmaculada Concepción y San Diego de Alcalá', his final work of patronage. Classified as a General Hospital, it was built between 1592 and 1619 to a design by Friar Juan de Tolosa, its layout revealing the clear influence of the classicist models of the Italian trattatista tradition, the connection with the architectural archetypes of the Counterreformation (above all the so-called "Jesuit style"), and the imposing nearby presence of El Escorial.

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Letter sent by Fernando de Morales from Lisboa to Simón Ruiz from Medina del Campo notifying the arrival of oriental goods. Lisbon, 19 March 1591; Archivo Simón Ruiz. ASR, C, 152-77
Letter sent by Fernando de Frías Ceballos about flemish tapestry. Amberes, 27 February 1565; Archivo Simón Ruiz, ASR, C, caja 3-196
Letter sent by Juan de Cuéllar about flemish tapestry. Amberes, 8 April 1573; Archivo Simón Ruiz, ASR, C, caja 20-87
Bills of lading: Middelburg, 7 July 1579; Archivo Simón Ruiz. ASR, CC, C 203-364

"Listini" or currency exchange in the Lyon and Piaçenza trade. Lyon (feria de agosto de 1580) and Piaçenza (feria de Todos los Santos de 1580); Archivo Simón Ruiz. ASR, CC, C 203, 282 y 287

Letter sent by Fernando de Morales from Lisboa to Simón Ruiz from Medina del Campo notifying the arrival of oriental goods. Lisbon, 19 March 1591; Archivo Simón Ruiz. ASR, C, 152-77

Letter sent by Fernando de Frías Ceballos about flemish tapestry. Amberes, 27 February 1565; Archivo Simón Ruiz, ASR, C, caja 3-196

Letter sent by Juan de Cuéllar about flemish tapestry. Amberes, 8 April 1573; Archivo Simón Ruiz, ASR, C, caja 20-87

Bills of lading: Middelburg, 7 July 1579; Archivo Simón Ruiz. ASR, CC, C 203-364

The Simón Ruiz Archive was preserved at the aforementioned General Hospital until 1947, when it was transferred to the Provincial Historical and University Archive of Valladolid, where its holdings were inventoried over the following decades, through outstanding registration and identification efforts by reputed archivists. On 27 September 2013, the Board of Trustees of the Simón Ruiz Foundation, the institution that owns the archive, agreed to bring together its still scattered historical, artistic and documented heritage at one site in Medina del Campo, which would hold the entire legacy of the founder at the headquarters of the Trade Fair Museum Foundation, where it is now open to researchers and those with an interest in the history of trade in general. Between 2015 and 2018, the holdings of the archive were digitised in their entirety thanks to an agreement signed with the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport, in order furthermore to create a backup copy of the whole collection, allowing it to be consulted online in the near future.

The figures speak for themselves in terms of the quantity and quality of this set of documents, which unquestionably provides an insight into many of the key aspects of trade, banking and the changes that occurred during the era. Giving some indication, as regards commercial and financial documentation, we set out below the following figures drawn from the inventory, which is currently in a process of continuous review:

  • 175 accounting books (1551-1617). General or trade fair ledgers, with their corresponding alphabetical lists; daybooks (or "manuals") of both kinds; trade fair notebooks, drafts… embellished with parchment portfolio bindings.
  • 58,000 letters (approx.) exchanged between 1554 and 1625 with cities in Spain, France, Portugal, Italy, Flanders… and even the New World (23,366 have pre-philatelic postmarks). In terms of approximate figures, the most significant volumes of mail were exchanged with the Spanish cities of Valladolid (15,000), Madrid (10,000), Burgos (4,000), Seville and the Americas (3,400), Bilbao (3,200), Toledo (2,000), Salamanca (1,000), etc., and in Europe: Lisbon (6,000), Antwerp (4,000), Lyon (3,000), Florence (1,300), Rome and Nantes (1,200), Elvas (1,000), Genoa (650), Rouen (600), Paris and Porto (500), Piacenza (450), Cologne, Milan, Venice and Malta (100), etc.
  • The number of bills of exchange preserved is likewise outstanding: some 23,000 original bills issued between 1553 and 1606 at 45 different financial centres around Europe. Of particular note in terms of volume (alongside Medina del Campo), are those from Antwerp, Lyon, Lisbon, Piacenza, Florence, Rome and Rouen.
  • Meanwhile, around 20,000 commercial documents (approx.) are also preserved: letters of payment, powers of attorney, debentures, maritime insurance policies, bills of lading, customs notes, records of shipwrecks; balance sheets, promissory notes, invoices, confirmations, receipts, currency exchange "listini", etc.

The more than 58,000 letters sent from Europe's main economic centres make this archive the most important set of documents in Spain for the study of European commerce in the second half of the 16th century. Simón Ruiz exchanged correspondence with countless people: from kings and princes to servants, from apostolic nuncios and prelates to friars and nuns, from rich bankers with international influence, to humble rural tradesmen. But businessmen are central to the bulk of his correspondence: traders, financial agents, commercial correspondents and the partners in his company. His letters speak not only of the course of his dealings, but also provide a vast quantity of information about the people, political circumstances and geostrategic situations of the day. Although most of them are connected with commercial matters, on occasion there are references to strictly personal news. Hence the interest in preserving and properly ordering them, a task that began in the 1950s and was not completed until 1995: boxes ordered chronologically, by nation, and within each by town and by correspondent in alphabetical order, and date of sending. The task of classification was to a great extent facilitated by the way in which Simón Ruiz himself had recorded his correspondence, since on the back of each letter he noted down the place of origin, sender, date of sending, date of receipt and date of reply, if any. On occasion this is immediately followed by a brief summary of the main matter addressed.

What the most of the letters have in common is that they begin with a cross and a greeting, before then referring to the last letter received and a summary of the content of the letter sent previously, in case it had not reached its destination. He then embarks on the core substance of the missive, which typically contains plenty of news and incidents. At the end, some favour is requested, along with instructions to be given by Simón Ruiz as to how to proceed with regard to the details of the matters addressed, followed by the signature and mark of the sender. Some of them are encrypted, and their contents have not yet been deciphered. One of the most interesting aspects of this collection of correspondence, beyond its commercial or financial content, concerns the history of the postal system. In this regard, a project was begun more than a decade ago under the leadership of Fernando Alonso García, drawing as its source of documents on more than 24,000 letters enclosed with postal addresses, belonging to the correspondence preserved in the archive. They cover a chronological period running from 1553 to 1630, and come from fourteen different countries.

Other interesting kind of documents were the bills of lading: commercial instrument dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries, when the Italian city states used documents allowing transactions to be performed for the sale and purchase of goods without the dangers inherent in carrying money as cash. We are aware of their existence from commercial correspondence, accounting books and the copies that were preserved for inclusion in a number of lawsuits, although the original ancient documents are very rarely to be found. In the 16th century the nature of the bill of exchange began to shift from being a means of payment in commercial operations to serving as a financial instrument, with trade fairs being the main hub giving rise to credit and offsetting transactions. It is here that the General Trade Fairs of Medina del Campo became pre-eminent, as the first in Europe where modern bills were traded on a regular basis and their use became widespread, with close coordination being maintained with the trade fairs held at Epiphany, Easter, August and All Saints in Lyon and Besançon, and the Easter Fair in Antwerp. Payment by bill of exchange involves two payments, as explained by Raymond de Roover: "an advance of funds where the bill is issued, and a reimbursement where it is payable", which in general terms requires the involvement of four people (although not all four would necessarily be involved), tow at the place of issue: the "drawer" performs the "exchange", in other words hands money over to the "issuer", who issues the bill of exchange to the destination venue, made out to the "drawee", who is responsible for making the payment to the "payee".

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