Not Even the Pope Can Maintain a Monopoly


Religiously traumatic and militarily ominous, the fall of Constantinople in 1453 also created a crisis for the European textile industry. The problem, in a word, was alum.

To securely attach to fibers, most dyes need chemical help: a mineral salt known as a mordant, from the Latin word mordere, meaning to bite. Allowed to saturate the material before dyeing, the mordant bonds with the fibers and provides a bridge to bond with and fix the dye.

Alum, a potassium or aluminum sulfate, is the most important mordant. It "is no less necessary to dyers of wool and woolen-cloth than bread is to humankind," wrote Vannoccio Biringuccio in his 1540 book De la Pirotechnia.

By the Middle Ages, alum mining, production, and trade were big businesses—the first international chemical industry. The typical alum operation mined alunite, a mineral found in volcanic areas, then heated the rocks in a kiln and repeatedly poured water over them until they formed a paste. The paste was then boiled and decanted to get rid of insoluble compounds, resulting in a saturated solution that crystallized into purified alum.

In 1453, most of Europe's alum came from rich mines in Anatolia—mines that the Turks suddenly held. "The West could not get along without alum and, in order to get it, was thus forced to finance indirectly the Turkish campaigns," writes economic historian Raymond de Roover. To make matters worse, the Turks kept raising prices.

But just as the price of alum reached unprecedented levels, a seeming miracle occurred. A well-connected Paduan named Giovanni de Castro was walking through the volcanic Tolfa Mountains, west of Rome, when he spotted white minerals with the salty taste of alunite. Maybe it was an accidental discovery. Maybe he was deliberately prospecting. Either way, de Castro hit pay dirt.

"I announce to you a victory over the Turk," he triumphantly informed his godfather, Pope Pius II. "He draws yearly from the Christians above three hundred thousand gold pieces for the alum with which we dye our wool.…I have, however, found seven hills so stocked with alum as to be nigh sufficient for seven worlds. From them you may supply all Europe.…This mineral will give you the sinews of war, which is money, the while it takes them from the Turk."

The alum proved to be of good quality, and the location was ideal, with a nearby port and abundant wood for kilns and caldrons. Best of all, Tolfa was not just in Christian territory but in the pope's own secular domain.

Pius II directed all alum profits to a cherished cause: a new crusade against the Turks. Designating the money for a military effort—even one no European ruler wanted to sign on for—made importing Turkish alum tantamount to aiding the enemy and thus forbidden to Christians. It was the first step in a long campaign to establish an alum monopoly.

The pope controlled a vital resource, but that control was never absolute. Despite the papacy's desirable product, religious authority, and secular influence, the existence of other alum suppliers limited its pricing power.

In 1464, Pius II was succeeded by Pope Paul II, who declared that anyone trading in Turkish alum would be excommunicated and their property confiscated. With this get-tough policy in place, the alum operation's marketing arm—the Medici Bank, with branches throughout Europe—jacked up prices. Textile producers in England and Flanders, the largest alum markets outside Italy, balked. Even under threat of excommunication, they kept right on buying from the Turks.

So the pope turned to diplomacy. He sent envoys to those recalcitrant territories, offering their rulers a cut of the action in exchange for monopoly sales rights.

The English mission failed miserably. King Edward IV refused to sell out the English textile industry, which loathed the alum monopoly.

The envoy to Bruges seemed more successful. In exchange for a share of the profits, Charles the Bold agreed to keep out all nonpapal alum. That meant barring imports from new Spanish mines as well as competing operations in Italy.

The deal fell apart almost immediately. Flemish textile producers were furious at their ruler's collusion against local interests. The duke agreed to a retraction. He issued an ordinance explicitly permitting Flanders merchants to buy and sell alum from any Christian source. "The Roman Curia," observes de Roover, "followed an unrealistic policy and assumed that it could fleece the consumer without inviting resistance."

To maintain high prices, the pope had to eliminate not just Muslim but Christian competition—most importantly from mines in the Kingdom of Naples. So in 1470 the pope signed a treaty with the king, creating a formal cartel.

To keep margins high, the two parties needed to coordinate production quantities and sale prices. Toward that end, each agreed to supply half the alum sold and receive half the revenue. To prevent secret sales, each would station inspectors at the other's operations, have keys to each other's warehouses, and monitor production and shipping. All sales would have to be in cash, not by barter, thereby guarding against disguised price cutting, and customers could receive no more than a year's credit. Violations were subject to a large fine on top of any money owed under the contract.

It was an agreement forged from mutual interest and mutual mistrust. "The terms of the cartel agreement are entirely consistent with the modern analysis of noncooperative collusion," write economists Andrea Günster and Stephen Martin in a 2015 article in the Review of Industrial Organization.

But even successful collusion couldn't completely block competition. Turkish alum continued to enter Europe, and prospectors continued to develop new supplies. In 1474, an alum glut led to such low prices that Pope Sixtus IV agreed to take a 50 percent cut in royalties.

Still, alum brought incredible wealth to the papacy—enough, according to one estimate, to build five churches on the scale of St. Peter's Cathedral. A sign of how important the mordant was to the church's finances is a provision of Pope Leo X's sweeping indulgence of 1517—the one that set off Martin Luther. It offered absolution for "any sin or crime or excess, however grave," with only a few exceptions. Mostly these exceptions were violent crimes against church officials, such as murdering a bishop. But there, in the mix of unforgivable trespasses, was breaking the ban on outside alum.

Leo's provision demonstrates the persistent threat of Turkish competition. "Like other single suppliers," Günster and Martin write, the papal alum enterprise "was able to extract monopoly profit only within the limit imposed by the availability of alternative sources of supply. Over time, that limit became increasingly stringent, with the discovery and development of additional alum deposits within Europe."

One of the most important developments involved a chemical innovation that, in a supply boost akin to modern-day fracking, opened up new sources.

Alpine miners knew the shale walls of former pyrite mines accumulated small amounts of alum that could be processed like alunite. But the yield was too low to be commercially viable. Then, in the 16th century, someone discovered the secret. Perhaps the idea came from men relieving themselves against the mine walls.

When urine was added to heated rocks, the shale produced ammonium alum just as useful as the potassium version. Mine operators tried to keep the technique secret, hoping to limit supplies and increase profits. But over time the knowledge spread, providing yet another check on the would-be alum monopoly and eventually allowing Protestant Britain to mine the Yorkshire hills and declare alum independence from the pope.

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  1. I love little bits of history like this. Reminds me of that 1970s (?) TV series “Connections” (?) by James Burke (?), tracing inventions and their repercussions through history.

    This one also shows how monopolies are government inventions, how people will bypass them, and how useful profit is. Wonderful little story. Thanks for writing it up.

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    4. Burke did a similar series “The Day The Universe Changed” which was just as good – both can be bought as books, which I highly recommend. The history of science and technology shows how inter-connected all the different bits of society are and how new things didn’t just spring up out of nowhere but were built by somebody figuring out how to build a better mousetrap or figuring out new uses for old mousetraps. Which suggests how silly attempts at central planning are, they ignore that advances in civilization were more or less accidental and depended on crowd-sourcing and mass acceptance. Central planners make the basic mistake of thinking they know everything there is to know when so much of it is unknowable.

    5. I loved that show too and may look to see if it’s online and rewatch it. My recent move to Eastern Europe has been incredibly eye-opening when it comes to all the connections in the world. I’m amazed that so many forces from so many places that I thought were completely separate (thanks, public school!) are completely interconnected. I’ve really had to reset my view of the world.

      On top of that, I just got back from a week in Istanbul and it by far the most historic place I’ve ever been too. For so long it was just the crossroads of just about everything happening. I went to meet up with my daughters and wasn’t too thrilled about the idea but now I plan on going back.

    6. Connections was an awesome show!

      I wish somebody would rip that idea off and do another series like that.

  2. Ms. Postrel! – I’m going to a Caribbean island in a few weekends. Let’s hook up and I’ll bang you harder than a New Zealand mosque.

    1. This is why Postrel doesn’t like the H&R comments section.

      1. I know – I’ve doubling down on her for years 😀

        1. Then don’t you mean doubling up? Doubling down you can do only once.

      2. It’s also why we can’t have any nice lady libertarians over.

        1. Yeah, it’s also because most women are constitutionally NOT inclined towards libertarian thinking. People just need to accept this. They’re touchy feely, it’s hard wired in. This is why men fall all over themselves for the small handful of intelligent, logical women out there. Especially if they’re even remotely decent looking. Hell, I’d be willing to marry a 5 if she was even half as sane and logical as your average male libertarian!

          1. Yet, here I am. Of course, I’m old and bitter so I don’t fit into the “nice lady” category. As far as “sane and logical” male libertarians, do you even read the comments?

            1. LOL

              Well, nobody ever said men are perfect! Most men are garbage too. But if I had to rough out figures I’d say something like 20% of men are DECENT at least from a libertarian perspective, with a majority holding at least s chunk of libertarian views along with authoritarian views that tend to be functionally pragmatic.

              But women are probably 5% decent from a libertarian perspective, and a minority hold even some good libertarian positions (small government in general, etc), while the rest are the biggest big government loving, nanny state morons. It’s not like I hold it against them… These same tendencies in 1 on 1 relationships are what make men love and appreciate women, their caring, nurturing nature… But when applied to government it all goes wrong.

              Exceptions to rules exist, but one must still live in reality and accept statistical differences between different groups as being a thing. With men/women there is definitely a major biological factor, as illustrated by opinion polling/studies done globally that show consistent differences.

  3. Terrific article. Thanks.

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    1. You must go back to Constantinople until its Istanbul.
      It was still Constantinople when my mother & grandparents arrived to go sightseeing on the Orient Express

      1. Don’t worry… It’ll be Constantinople again someday!

        1. That’s nobody’s business but the Turks!

          1. Psh! Are you saying we shouldn’t have a 14th (or whatever it would be) crusade against the Muslim scourge??? Other than steal it from Europeans, what did the Turks ever do to deserve a great city that was mostly build by European civilizations? I say fuck ’em. They can have the Turkish capitol in the middle of some goat farm or whatever! 🙂

    1. Add Matt Taibbi to the list.

      Russiagate is looking like this generation’s WMD – a catastrophe for the reputation of the news media

      Oh look, another “progressive” journalist who, by sheer coincidence, shares Drumpf’s desire to discredit the media!

      1. LOLz.

        The backpedaling will be hilarious! I was expecting them to double down… But maybe even THEY won’t go that low!

  6. “In 1453, most of Europe’s alum came from rich mines in Anatolia?mines that the Turks suddenly held.”

    Not suddenly in 1453. Constantinople didn’t fall until then, but the Ottomans were in Anatolia considerably earlier–they took Bursa in the late 13th c.

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  9. Interesting and random bit of history. Not entirely sure what the point was though… Yes, the pope can’t enforce a monopoly when competitors exist.

    An interesting aside here though is that one could actually read this as protectionism (on the basis of not supporting a clear and obvious enemy) actually HELPED Europe and European nations in the long term, by forcing them to find their own sources for the commodity, and forcing them to innovate new and more productive technologies!

    I’ve always said that controlling trade via tariffs/embargoes etc CAN in fact have the desired ends much of the time… They tend to not be the very most efficient economic ends in the short term, but they can often serve strategic ends, and sometimes seemingly be better economically in the LONG HAUL. If they’d just kept enriching their Turkish enemies, buying their cheaper inputs, they never would have developed their own industries, or even if they did it would have taken longer and not been as successful.

    1. Shockingly, markets respond to prices. Protectionism, which drives up prices, leads to markets seeking alternatives.

      However, the unseen cost is the marvels were never found or delayed because people were spending all their time trying to adapt to an arbitrary alum shortage. This is in no way desirable to me. Even if I felt robotic burger flippers or more efficient wind turbines were desirable, the cost in freedom and adaptation to other areas is too high when your tactic is to force others to pay more.

      If they’d just kept enriching their Turkish enemies, buying their cheaper inputs, they never would have developed their own industries, or even if they did it would have taken longer and not been as successful.

      No this has it exactly backwards. In the article, they show that the Protectionism ensured that the Turkish Alum continued to be purchased. The Pope not only forbid Turkish Alum, but all others aside from Rome’s. And so places like the British Isles *continued* to buy from the Turks. Had the Pope and his cronies just allowed the market to develop naturally, not only would the Turks have been displaced by other markets, all that extra expense would have been spent elsewhere.

      1. On the last bit, maybe?

        That’s the thing about protectionism: Sometimes it IS about more than economics, and many myopic libertarians refuse to accept this.

        Did it ever cross your mind that the Christian Europeans were geo-politically better off paying more for shit, which eventually ended up forcing them to innovate ways to produce a key input cheaper, than by paying all that GOLD (this isn’t bullshit fiat currency world here!) to an open enemy?

        If Nazi Germany could produce something cheaper than the US or UK in 1939 should we have NOT attempted to encourage a domestic replacement for strategic reasons?

        The world is A LOT more than economics my friend. As I said, I don’t try to argue that these things aren’t economically less efficient, especially in the short term… But I don’t think you can really measure things like being able to supply your own side with necessary materials in a time of war in terms of economics alone. I also question if the LONG TERM benefits don’t sometimes outweigh the short term economic harms. Had the US kept importing European goods, instead of putting high tariffs on them, might that not have hobbled the long term growth of the US economy as the industrial powerhouse of the world? I think there is a logical argument to be made there.

  10. Yay science.

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