Tariffs and tolls are back in the news, as some people in the UK find themselves paying customs duties they hadn’t expected. This blog presents an English translation of one of the earliest medieval lists of tolls, levied at the river port of Koblenz in Germany, where the Moselle flows into the Rhine.
The document, whose earliest surviving copy was written in the eleventh century, describes how much traders from different towns (see the map above for their location) had to pay when they sailed through Koblenz. Some of the traders paid tolls in kind, in metalwork, goat-skins, herring, swords, etc – presumably the cargo on their boats. Other traders – including slave traders – paid in cash only.
The document flashes a light on the eleventh-century Rhineland trading network that connected the North Sea to Swabia and Bavaria. Perhaps the same traders from Huy and Liege also sailed their boats to London, where they are mentioned in a roughly contemporary document recently studied by Rory Naismith.
The Koblenz toll tariff raises a great many questions. Were these tolls charged for boats travelling in both directions? How was the system policed? How were records kept of which traders had paid? How much money did it raise? Did the traders find it difficult or easy to pay this much? What was the reason for the differentials: in other words, why did traders from Metz have to pay twice as much as those from nearby Trier? How did the traders prove where they were from? How far were they going? Where were the enslaved people brought by Jewish traders coming from, and where were they being taken to? How old were these tolls, and on whose authority were they established, and how old were the trading routes? Were similar charges being levied at other ports on the Rhine?
These questions cannot be answered here, but hopefully a translation will encourage more people to reflect on this remarkable document from 11th-century Germany.