There were those who wanted to do more than confine themselves to local trading in small shops, where the products of international trade were merely redistributed, or in the town markets that sold produce from the surrounding countryside or pewter jugs made by local craftsmen. But to expand they needed sources of capital other than the modest sums earned by the shopkeeper or artisan. On the eve of the economic crises of the fourteenth century, the only large fortunes were still those of the landed aristocracy, whether of recent or more ancient creation; and they were richer in land and the increasingly devalued income from it than in ready money available for economic enterprises. It was becoming increasingly difficult for the individual entrepreneur to organize fleets of ships or the movement of cargoes, to take advantage of credit available on long-term sales, or to reinvest any profits. As for financing an industrial enterprise, from the buying of raw materials in often distant markets to the marketing of the finished products, it was out of the question. This was a period when it was necessary to operate within economic horizons that included the buying of wool in England or of alum in Asia Minor along with the selling in Alexandria of luxury cloths finished in Florence, or the supplying of silk from China and furs from Russia to the cosmopolitan clientele in the courts of princes or the papal curia.
To finance the equipping of a ship in Lübeck or Genoa, to install cranes in Bruges or Barcelona, to oversee the operation of the dyeing works in Ypres or Florence—no cloth merchant or money changer could hope to manage such activities on his own. Even the most modest equipment, such as a watermill—for grinding wheat or fulling cloth—would have represented a crushing expense for someone who might need to use it only three times a year.