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The Culture of Commerce in England, 1660-1720

Author(s):Glaisyer, Natasha
Reviewer(s):Hussey, David

Published by EH.NET (July 2008)

Natasha Glaisyer, The Culture of Commerce in England, 1660-1720. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2006. x + 220 pp. $75 (cloth), ISBN: 0-86193-281-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Hussey, Department of History, University of Wolverhampton.

In this persuasively argued and perceptive book, Natasha Glaisyer, Lecturer in the Department of History, the University of York, emphasizes the importance of the cultural component in economic change and the structure of emerging financial markets in late seventeenth and early eighteenth century England. To an extent, Glaisyer has charted some of this territory before and her work on mercantile communities, trading networks, and didactic literature in this period is summarized and amplified by this book. Glaisyer’s starting point is to explore “new directions” in cultural and economic history and the possibilities this allows for fruitful scholarly interdependency. As such, her interpretation of the commercial and financial revolutions of the period is predicated less on the mechanics of change or indeed data-driven models of development, but more upon how “commerce was portrayed and packaged” and thereby rendered more comprehensible to English society (p. 19). Glaisyer demonstrates that for knowledgeable merchants, provincial traders, gentlemen virtuosi, armchair voyeurs and, moreover, the hitherto unlearned, commerce was served up in sophisticated, yet digestible ways for palatable consumption. By demystifying commerce, novelty and change was legitimated and normalized, and the various discourses utilized by merchants and commentators, sifted through a range of periodicals, newspapers, sermons and advice literature, served to impart the knowledge, practices and syntax of trade to a wider audience.

The main body of Glaisyer’s work is divided into four discrete case studies. In Chapter 1, Glaisyer reprises her earlier analysis of the Royal Exchange, arguing that in function and representation, the Exchange acted as a “nucleus of various information networks” (p. 37). Glaisyer subtly teases out this nodal structure by placing the Exchange at the center of commercial dialogue and the nascent stock market, and indicating its role as a place of fashionable resort and elite shopping. To Glaisyer, credit in all its interpretational fluidity formed the key mechanism for understanding the Exchange and by extension the wider commercial world. The Exchange was a “crucial site” (p. 38) wherein reputations could be made and broken, and where probity in financial and commercial matters, and indeed personal and sexual behavior, were tried. Glaisyer’s discussion of these issues is comprehensive, and the marshalling of evidence impressive. However, in the later sections of the chapter, the argument becomes rather more speculative. Glaisyer asserts that through literary and visual representation the Exchange can be read as the “microcosm of the trading world” (p. 47): a construct in which global commerce was collapsed – “packaged” even ? in an ordered, sanitized way for consumers of commercial information. In particular, the linkage here between the symbolic iconography of the Exchange as a reified image of the strength and order of English commerce, a re-born London, and a restored monarchy is perhaps testing the elasticity of her sources.

In Chapter 2, Glaisyer departs from the standard bank of sources available to economic historians by examining the text of fifteen sermons preached before the Levant Company by prospective chaplains. Here, Glaisyer’s objective is to understand how the tensions between the rhetoric of religion and the realities of commerce were resolved. It is perhaps unsurprising to find that the chaplains, mostly well-connected, ambitious and impeccably orthodox young men intent on securing high clerical preferment, should tailor their exhortations to meet the mercantile sensibilities of a major trading company. Undoubtedly, encomia on morality, honesty and charity chimed well with the Company’s desire to eradicate trading abuses and maximize revenues. However, Glaisyer demonstrates that by situating trade within the discourses of religion, individual wealth, mercantile profit and piety were reconciled. Just as the representations of the Exchange served to decode the complexities of commerce, so the sermons subsumed the rationale of trade under an acceptable veneer of religious convention.

Glaisyer returns to firmer ground in Chapters 3 and 4, arguably the most solid sections of the book. In Chapter 3, Glaisyer analyzes a raft of secular advice literature locating its utility in the very practical requirements of writing school education and the wider state and mercantile bureaucracies the latter serviced. These manuals advanced a didactic and improving agenda. They deciphered the mercantile arts, explained neologisms and clarified an opaque world obfuscated by the proliferation of specialist jargon. They also reached beyond a merely technical, commercial audience, permitting the casual reader or curious gentleman convenient, if vicarious, pathways to the cultural and social worlds of the mercantile other. Such “imaginary journeys” (p. 129) were given material solidity by the raft of metropolitan and provincial newspapers ? the subject of Chapter 4 ? that served to further broaden a market hungry for commercial knowledge. Glaisyer demonstrates that, while news sheets and serial publications were often “instantly ephemeral” (p. 151) relaying generic business information that was quickly outdated, they also entertained quasi-Baconian programs of improvement: readers were introduced to the intricacies of the stock market; the prices of key commodities and stocks were compared; and the qualities of political arithmetic were extolled as a form of study fit for the elite and middling sort. In these ways Glaisyer argues that the print culture of the period served to disseminate the vocabularies and practices of trade.

Overall, Glaisyer’s monograph is an important and timely addition to our understanding of the often heterogeneous and fragmented culture of commercial activity in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Her book is researched with rigor and her command of the evidence remains comprehensive throughout. The fact that the book is primarily located in the crisis years of the 1690s and that the terminal dates omit much of interest, not least in the growing commercialization and commodification of culture in the later eighteenth century, does not detract from what remains an incisive and nuanced analysis of the period. For economic historians interested in the intersection of commerce and culture in this pivotal period, it is an essential text.

Dr. David Hussey is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Wolverhampton. His publications include Coastal and River Trade in Pre-Industrial England (Exeter University Press, 2001) and, more recently, Buying for the Home: Shopping for the Domestic from the Seventeenth Century to the Present (Ashgate, 2008) [with M. Ponsonby]

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century