Seizing liberties: Private rights, public good, and letter of marque in medieval Marseille

Christopher D Beck, Fordham University


Letters of marque have largely been associated with the practice of privateering and piracy on the high seas. During the late medieval and early modern periods, letters of marque were granted by monarchs to authorize captains to prey upon rivals. There is little continuity, however, between the early modern droit de course that chartered privateers and the medieval right of marque, or droit de marque, in the medieval Mediterranean. This dissertation posits that the Mediterranean right in the high and late medieval period of marque was not used as a license for violence and predation but, instead, acted as a conservative force designed to return a disrupted economic relationship between two jurisdictions to a workable equilibrium. Further, city governments issued marques as a way to protect the public good and force other jurisdictions to uphold traditional agreements in trade and taxation. Medieval rights of marque were exercised as an institutionalized local and transregional system of embargos and asset seizures carried out on land by civic officials. These embargoes and seizures were issued as leverage to force a foreign individual, public authority, or even a foreign lord to abandon his or her personal rights in lieu of the rights of the claimant. In a medieval world without an overarching system of mediation between different locales, deployment of the right of marque was an option, sometimes the sole option, for resolving conflicts between jurisdictions. Marques could exert public authority in private quarrels and elevate the resolution of those private disagreements to a greater public concern. The city of Marseille, situated in the heart of the western Mediterranean trade network and blessed with rich documentation in the form of city council minutes and royal courts, provides an excellent analytic focus for this study. This focuses on the use of marque from 1311, the date of Marseille’s first council register, to the 1423 sack of Marseille by the Aragonese. By comparing Marseille’s distinctive concession of marques with the employment of marques by other city-states, this study permits an exploration of individual civic rights within the context of medieval state-formation and authority.

Subject Area

European history|Medieval history

Recommended Citation

Beck, Christopher D, "Seizing liberties: Private rights, public good, and letter of marque in medieval Marseille" (2012). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3560056.