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Too often, collected volumes of essays fail to coalesce convincingly around a theme. Editors have a tough time persuading authors to speak to what they view as being the main issues. There are lacunae in the breadth of places and points of view covered. This collection of essays suffers from none of these problems. Rather it is a coherent, wide-ranging, and compelling edition that urges historians to return to early modern economic history anew, and to rethink our explorations of the shifts that occurred in economic culture of Europe and its Atlantic world before 1850. Together with a bracing introduction, which is nothing less than a brilliant historiographical survey and a call-to-arms for scholars, these essays do much to invigorate the field of early modern economic history. The authors are universally experts in their subjects. As such, the book deserves the close attention of historians in European, Atlantic, and North American history.
Middleton and Shaw kick off the discussion by explaining why, when, and how, the study of economic history in early modern Britain and its Atlantic came to grief. Citing the postmodern challenge and the rise of the cliometrician as the chief culprits, they describe an era from the 1980s onwards when scholars either lost interest in the economy as a subject of inquiry or became severely limited in their approach by their reliance on quantitative methods. In many ways, these two developments were inter-related as cultural history found little of merit in the work of the cliometricians. Nevertheless, the postmodern challenge also prompted economic historians to be more creative in their approaches. The authors thus document a recent turn towards exploring the "embedded economy"; that is to say, to placing economic exchange within its cultural, political, and institutional contexts to gain a richer understanding of how it changed, or stayed the same, over this critical period of capitalist development. Thus, Middleton and Shaw situate their endeavour within this "embedded" context, portioning up the contributions into two themes; "market ethics as enunciated in key principles and regulation" (14) and "microhistorical investigations of market ethics and practices in different contexts" (14).
In Part 1 "Principles and Regulations" the authors ponder frameworks for understanding economic exchange in four dramatically different contexts. James Davis argues for the contested nature of ideas about middlemen and fair trade in the late medieval world. Concentrating on middlemen, who were controversial because they brought goods from afar to sell at a profit in the marketplace, Davis sees an acceptance of their necessity but also a universal agreement that their activities required close regulation. Martha Howell documents a similar flexibility in the meaning of the "common good" in the Parisian marketplace. The idea, and its variants, were important to both the city's guilds and to the monarch, who eventually usurped their authority in the Paris's trading spaces. Indeed, the common good - that trade should be conducted "fairly" in everyone's best interest - was an ideal that all could adhere to because it lent itself to reinterpretation in support of the dominant authority. Craig Muldrew turns to Adam Smith's oeuvre to point out how the dichotomies between mercantilism and free trade that neo-classical economists saw in his work are, in reality, not a feature of it. Smith, Muldrew points out, did not think that traders should work in their unlimited self-interest. The great political economist believed instead in saving, and in limiting one's quest for profits in favour of the larger community. Tomlins examines Virginia's Nat Turner rebellion of 1832 to portray Turner as a proponent of a moral economy railing against the dominant, vicious discourse of profit, planning, and control in the antebellum slave society. Together, these essays introduce us to the rich array of languages that early modern people used to understand and regulate their economic dealings, but also to highlight their constantly contested nature. More often than not, this was a complex contest between unvarnished profit-seeking, and more communal understandings of exchange.
Part II "Practices and Microhistories" whisks the reader from early New England, to eighteenth century Lyon, via Monkey's Key (an uninhabited Caribbean islet), the legal culture of French and English merchants, and dealers in seventeenth century Virginia and French Canada operating on the margins of empire. Again, the authors press hard to muddy the waters between established polarities of capitalism and communalism. Daniel Vickers (to whom the volume in dedicated in memoriam) examines the account books of New England shopkeepers to explain how, even though these men were the purveyors of consumer imports, they were familiar faces and members of their communities who, if they were to thrive, equally had to attend to social cohesion as they did to the forces of global capitalism. Julie Hardwick looks into the troubling implications of consumer revolution for the working community of Lyon, a town dominated by the silk industry. Making in-demand silk parasols could provide a living for working families, but fluctuating demand and child-bearing could mean that it was impossible to make ends meet. Many husbands and wives ended up abandoning their children in the orphanage to escape their debts.
The chapters by Nuala Zahedieh and Pierre Gervais, focusing respectively on Jewish Caribbean merchants, and their French and English brethren, have much in common. Both propose that merchants trading in the choppy waters of the Atlantic sought to create their own institutions of trust to create a "collective solidarity" that enabled dealers to survive, and even thrive, in the face of so much uncertainty. The final two authors, David Harris Sacks and Robert DuPlessis, turn to the trade between Indians and Europeans, to search for the cultural frameworks deployed and created by these two very different peoples when they came together for commerce. Like Gervais, DuPlessis sees emerging norms of dealing as the glue holding the fur trade together; the ability of both parties to view gifts as credit and vice-versa providing this terrain of common understanding. Sacks, on the other hand, argues for the importance of friendly, mutual exchange - of a traditional English idea of trust - to early Virginians dealings with Beothunk, and other native Americans.
Like the essays in Part 1, these microhistorical studies therefore illustrate the mutability of market ethics and practices. We encounter old ideas and new practices, new goods and enduring problems of indebtedness, and new markets and reliable ways of ensuring they were familiar. Readers of the volume will be left with the sense that any attempts to see early modern Europe and North America as the site of a schism in economic culture - a time when capitalism muscled the common good out of the way -must end in failure. The transition to capitalism was a long and winding road and walking down that road was as much about the journey as the destination.