Paulo Pachá

Exchange without Value?
A Marxist Approach to Commerce in the Iberian Early Middle Ages


In Marxist thought, commodity exchange and exchange-value are concepts directly related with the concept of value. In Capital, Marx defines value as a social relationship that is inherently historical – an element of the capitalist mode of production or, at least, from the period of its emergence. Given the dialectical way in which the categories are presented and developed in Capital, commodity exchange presupposes exchange-value and, in its turn, exchange-value presupposes value. Therefore, to analyze pre-capitalist societies by using the conceptual apparatus developed by Marx to conceptualize the capitalist mode of production is not as simple as it may seem.

Nevertheless, as highlighted by Marx himself in the Grundrisse: “Prices are old; exchange also; but the increasing determination of the former by costs of production, as well as the increasing dominance of the latter over all relations of production, only develop fully [….] in bourgeois society.” That is to say, even if value was not a social relationship present in pre-capitalist societies, it is impossible to ignore the existence of both exchange and prices in these societies. In the absence of value (thus, also of exchange-value), how would a Marxist approach explain the exchange of products and goods before capitalism? Or which mechanisms determined prices? And, lastly, where did the merchant’s surplus come from? To consider these, a Marxist approach to commerce in the Early Middle Ages will need to deal with two sets of tasks: first, to gather Marx’s scattered and fragmented thoughts on the subject into a coherent view; second, to juxtapose these propositions with the limited and spotty evidence.

In this contribution, I want to focus on a specific case study – the Iberian Early Middle Ages. However, it is necessary to recognize that the evidence for this case study is very limited – both in general and in regards to references on commerce and exchange in the written evidence. Therefore, this analysis will need to deal with a large variety of sources, both written (mainly the Liber Iudiciorum, the Iberian canonical proceedings, and the hagiographical texts) and archeological. Through the comparative analysis of these sources, I will be able to develop a provisional typology of how some groups in early medieval society characterized commerce and other forms of exchange.

My main goal will be to analyze and (re)conceptualize how commerce can be defined in this context and how it was related to other forms of exchange and wider social relationships. By achieving this goal, I will also contribute to demonstrating the historical specificity of commerce in the Iberian Early Middle Ages, that is to say, how it was essentially different from commodity exchange in the capitalist mode of production.


Coming late 2021.