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Commerce before Capitalism in Europe, 1300-1600

Author(s):Howell, Martha C.
Reviewer(s):Trivellato, Francesca

Published by EH.NET (December 2010)

Martha C. Howell, Commerce before Capitalism in Europe, 1300-1600. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xv + 365 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-521-14850-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Francesca Trivellato, Department of History, Yale University.

Martha Howell opens her latest book with the assertion that ?Between 1300 and 1600, commerce left the margins of the European economy where it had been confined for centuries? (p. 1). But she is quick to warn readers that ?the commercial economy of those days was not a capitalist market economy, if by that term we mean the modern western economic system? (p. 8). It follows that we ought to understand the period between 1300 and 1600 as a transformative but distinctive epoch in the economic history of Europe, rather than as a forerunner of changes that matured in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Through a richly documented and lucid narrative, Howell illustrates the profound transformation that occurred in the ways in which men and women practiced and understood commercial transactions in the most urbanized regions of northern Europe. The geographical focus of the book is on the greater Low Countries (most of the primary sources are from the archives of Ghent, in modern-day Belgium), but the author also uses abundant secondary literature in order to draw several informed comparisons with the rest of the continent. The protagonists are ?ordinary householders, artisans, and shopkeepers, as well as … merchants and the financiers who worked between the courts or town halls and the commercial economy of the day? (p. 158).

Each chapter analyzes a meaningful facet of the rising commercialization of society. Chapter 1 illustrates the legal and economic process through which virtually any good became exchangeable on the market, including and especially land holdings. Changes in the legal classification of ?moveable? and ?immoveable? goods accompanied changes in the transfer of property at marriage and, more generally, conferred new meanings on notions of patrimony. Chapter 2 teases out the implications of the commercialization of society for conjugal love. Contrary to prevailing interpretations that attribute the rise in voluntary, romantic unions to an increased sexual division of labor and the domestication of family life, Howell argues that true companionship between husband and wife was necessary to weather the challenges of commercial life. In her words, ?love was by no means the antithesis of the market. It was the market?s helpmate? (p. 141). Chapter 3 continues to draw information from legal, administrative, and financial records to assess changes and continuities in the customs of gift-giving, and the concomitant rise of the concept of bribes. Chapter 4 revisits a well-known literature on sumptuary laws across Europe to show that clothing was the principal target of this legislation. As the power of money to shape social hierarchies grew, wardrobes ceased to be stable signifiers of one?s rank and anxieties about people?s ability to dress above their station intensified (this argument resembles one presented in Daniel Roche, The Culture of Clothing: Dress and Fashion in the Ancien R?gime, trans. Jean Birrell [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994]). The fifth and final chapter of the book expands the lens of analysis further to embrace all of Europe and new types of sources — the many texts written by jurists, moralists, theologians, and learned observers about the vices and virtues of commerce. Here Howell retraces the story of the attacks launched against trade and merchants with increased intensity after the commercial revolution of the twelfth century but also recaps the gradual process through which commerce was accepted as an honorable activity toward the end of her period. The novelty of her interpretation derives from a reading of well-known texts from the perspective of gender. She demonstrates that several authors made ?gathering and spending wealth ethical … by turning women into virtuous consumers and men into responsible providers? (p. 289). She adds, ?The narrative that excluded proper women from active participation in market production simultaneously gave men exclusive control of it? (p. 295).

As in her earlier work, Howell adopts a periodization that we rarely encounter in recent scholarship: 1300-1600. The advantage of this chronology is twofold. It provides a bridge between two classic chronologies and geographies of the birth of European capitalism: one centered on the medieval commercial revolution of southern Europe and one hinging on the seventeenth-century financial revolution of northern Europe. It also shifts the focus away both from the sixteenth century — which for Fernand Braudel and his followers was the fulcrum of nascent commercial capitalism — and from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the rise of transoceanic trade, and the industrial revolution, which are arguably the periods and topics most investigated in the economic history of early modern Europe (particularly in the Anglophone literature). The drawback of embracing three centuries in one single study is most visible in the first three chapters, which are based on archival research and which draw most of the evidence from the earlier part of the period under consideration (in contrast to the last two chapters in which a process of change over time is most easily discernible through recourse to secondary sources). As a result, it is not always clear whether Howell believes that specific turning points existed in the period between 1300 and 1600 or whether we should consider it a fairly homogenous historical epoch.

At the crossroads of a monograph and a synthesis, this book is highly recommended to those EH.Net readers who wish to keep up with (and expose their graduate students to) an approach to the economic history of pre-industrial Europe that is prevalent among historians rather than economists. Echoing Karl Polanyi but also numerous historians of medieval and early modern Europe, Howell affirms that ?the commercialization of society was not just an economic history as we understand the term but a social, legal, and cultural story, and it is incomprehensible if told from the perspective of one of these modern conceptual categories alone. In fact, the social and cultural were the roots of the economic, not footnotes to it? (p. 263). Her effort to expose those roots is both erudite and sophisticated.

Francesca Trivellato is Professor of History at Yale University and the author of The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). Email:?

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Subject(s):Business History
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century