Jost Amman, Eigentliche Abbildung deß ganzen Gewerbs der löblichen Kaufmannschafft (Allegory of Commerce) German, 1585. © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

This woodcut from a broadside with an allegory of commerce presents a view of Antwerp teeming with commercial activity. The figure of Mercury above it balances a disproportionately large pair of scales, with one book on each, and cuffs labelled ‘debitor’ and ‘creditor’ respectively. This evokes the mental habit of double-entry accounting as well the physical format of the double-entry book which came to symbolise crucial aspects of the new mercantile culture: a system which worked through corresponding entries of debit and credit on equal and opposite pages.

Look for the figure labelled ‘Taciturnias’ in the foreground, slightly right of centre, with a dog at his heel. Taciturnity was a virtue recommended by Renaissance books of civility, not only as an attribute of gentlemanly dignity but also as appropriate restraint in matters of business. Judging the right moment for speech was closely linked to the need for secrecy and caution in an expanding marketplace, involving agents, couriers and long-distance transactions. John Browne, a Bristol merchant best known as the author of The Marchant’s Avizo(1589), instructed the reader, upon arrival in a foreign port, to ‘deale closely & secretly in all [his] affaires and busynes. […] When you haue learned of anie ship that commeth for England, doe not your selfe make it knowen to anie bodie at all: but write and deliver your letters secretlie, for it shall sound much to your especiall credit’. A merchant’s credit was almost inseparable from his ability to resist knowability.

Jacob Janse, Balance and Scales set. FM: CM.PG.20933-2006 © Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge.

Scales and balances were a practical way for separate parties to agree on a shared understanding of value. They evoke notions of change, exchange and balance - as well as their manipulability - that were intimately tied up with trade. They also acquired an important symbolic value, representing the scales of justice. Look out for the significance of images of scales in the next two items in this section.

Click here to see a symbolic use of scales in the Law Court section.