Historical research has analyzed unequal exchange using two fundamental models: the ‘circulationist’ model, espoused by Wallerstein and Braudel, attributes development and under-development to the transfer of value from peripheral to central areas through unequivalent exchange. The endogenous model, by contrast, denies the influence of commerce in capitalist evolution.footnote1 In the present article, taking a limited region, Castile, I will analyze commerce in feudalism and during the early transition to capitalism, particularly commodity value, and the relation between exchange and socio-economic reproduction. The goal is to redefine the character of asymmetric exchange, if only in a condensed form.footnote2

In the thirteenth century, Castile’s external trade had three main characteristics: 1) the import of manufactured goods, especially Franco-Flemish textiles, for consumption by the nobility; 2) the export of primary products and semi-processed goods such as iron; 3) a trade deficit, due both to over-valuation of the textiles and to the large quantity of them purchased in Castile.footnote3

The first question that arises about the trade deficit has to do with the rationality of the nobles’ behaviour as consumers, since they were constantly losing money. The nature of their consumption is reflected in the extensive legal regulations governing dress, established for each social sector, class, rank and religious minority. These rules, which continued into the modern era, show that dress had the basic social function of making known one’s social rank and evincing one’s power. Beyond their ordinary usefulness, then, these fabrics constituted a language, acquiring a semiotic value as prestige goods with a role in social relations and especially in the symbolism through which the lords demonstrated their power. This explains why luxury fabrics were valued so highly by the ruling class.

The sublime evaluation of fine clothes indicated in historical sources shows that the nobility felt that sumptuous goods were endowed with a special virtue in and of themselves. Thus there arose a fetishism of the use values of those particular commodities, seen to possess a special power in social organization. This fetishism had to do, not only with the lords’ world-view, but also with the fabric of social existence itself. In the fetishism of use values, social relations seemed to derive, essentially, from the use of certain goods, as a quality inherent in their use. Social relations were displayed through the nobles’ clothing. The object, when the artisan finished it, only became a commodity in passing through the market, taking on in the process a different form of social existence.

This analysis can be furthered by comparison with the fetishism of exchange value under capitalism, where social relations take on the appearance of relations between things. In the feudal system the opposite is the case. Social relations take the form of hierarchical interpersonal ties: things are both their transparent reflection and their source. The social relation is not reduced to ‘things’, but expressed by them. In feudalism, the display of luxury goods evinced the person’s political position: the ostentatious possession of such goods made the relation of domination appear to be mediated by them, so that fetishism grew up around their use. From this active image of sumptuous goods came the perception that they really determined the social situation. For the feudal consumer the price of these luxury goods was secondary: their fundamental social value did not lie in their price but in the hierarchical social relations generated by them. Thus, primary surplus goods—which lacked any such idealized image—were exchanged unequally for luxury goods possessing virtues deemed well worth the surcharge.

It was the political conditions of the reproduction of the ruling class which determined the separation and opposition between use value and exchange value. These conditions gave an overwhelmingly political character to society, and translated the social utility of a product into virtues seen as emanating from its material attributes. Insofar as this use of the commodity conditioned its price, use value and consumption cannot be left out of our analysis of the circulation process.

This is related to the dominance that certain superstructural institutions acquired in feudal society, whose foundations are to be found in the social relations of property. This need of political construction and of symbolism explains feudal behaviour. Unproductive expenditure on luxuries brings to mind the parallel of potlatch. This kind of feudal investment was variously conditioned by the social structure, by the development of the productive forces, by institutional frameworks, and especially by the political requirements of the reproduction of the ruling class.