Published by EH.Net (July 2023).

Maarten Prak and Jan Luiten van Zanden. Pioneers of Capitalism: The Netherlands, 1000-1800. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023. ix + 261 pp. $39.95 (hardback), ISBN 978-0691229874.

Reviewed by Anne EC McCants, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


This is a gem of a book about the long early history of a relatively small place whose consequences for the global economy and our thinking about how economies work is much greater than its footprint might suggest. The title alone has much to tell the prospective reader. It directs our attention to the emergence of “capitalism,” which it places in the Netherlands, not England, home of the first Industrial Revolution. If that were not enough, the account begins in the year 1000 when the Low Countries, especially their northern reaches, were comprised of little more than some small fishing villages and half-submerged peasant holdings. Finally, in what might be the boldest claim, the book takes for its terminus the year 1800, a time when the word capitalism had not yet even made its first appearance in print, and when its forerunners, “capital” and “capitalist,” were themselves hard to pin down to a clear definition (Braudel, 237). Thus, for anyone steeped in the standard narratives of economic history, the provocations of the title are an invitation to read further.

Happily, the text does not disappoint. Having first read the book in final proofs, and now again to write this review, I offer a most enthusiastic assessment, both for the merits of the argument and the elegance of the prose. It is the rare book that improves on a second reading in the span of only a year. So let me explain why I think everyone interested in economic development, the strength of civil society, the “history of capitalism,” or our prospects for a prosperous and more equitable future should read this book.

Like many people, the authors are interested in what they call the “how” and “why” of the emergence of a capitalist market economy (10). But unlike the many who despair at what they believe to be the iron logic of the ravages of capitalism (say, ever-increasing inequality or environmental destruction, to name two frequent charges), Prak and van Zanden leave open the possibility for a positive role played by civil society, both preceding the development of capitalism, and maintaining its power even after market transactions take on the dominant role in provisioning society. While far from blind to the actual ravages of Dutch capitalism abroad – or should one say colonialism, leaving open the possibility that they are not of necessity the same thing? – the chronology of their story makes clear that Dutch capitalism was able to flourish and enrich Dutch society in advance of the establishment of a colonial empire. Since the evidence for historical timing is such an essential component of their argument, let me begin with a discussion of their chronology.

Historians always struggle with the problem of when to begin their investigations, because there is always something that came before whatever starting point one selects. That something will almost certainly bear relevance for the narrative to come. However, at about the year 1000, as the authors correctly point out, there was remarkably little human activity in what would become the Netherlands. It was an “empty country,” not literally of course, but near enough (30). So their work begins at the beginning, or as near to it as historical writing usually achieves. This matters, not only because it allows them to account for historical territory that is little known outside the narrow circle of Low Countries medievalists, but it also gives them an unusually flexible platform on which to build their explanatory framework.

What then was so special, or potentially special, about those small, isolated fishing villages and half-submerged peasant farmers? Two things stand out most in their telling. First, of necessity and opportunity, the people who lived on these marginal lands, so well-connected via water transport but not well suited to the cultivation of staple grains, were fiercely independent by the standards of medieval society; at the same time they were also deeply dependent on trade with outsiders and cooperation within for the ever-essential management of water. The resulting balance struck between the two poles of autonomy and mutuality, matches the second key feature posited by Prak and van Zanden, namely what they argue was just the right historical mix of feudalism/not feudalism. Their statement of this argument is worth quoting directly. “To summarize, capitalism appears to have originated in a society that was relatively egalitarian, with a strong and continually developing civil society that was characterized by a balance between bottom-up influences and top-down institutions” such that “the capitalist engine became most dynamic in the border region between feudalism and freedom” (89).

There is something deeply satisfying about arguments that invoke the virtuous medium –Aristotelian balance, as Janna Coomans framed it at a recent workshop on the book (I had the example of Goldilocks in mind as I was reading). But this comfort is, of course, insufficient to guarantee that such arguments are correct.  How persuasive then is their case, for either the unique medieval origin story, or the balance struck between market economy and civil society? That the territory which would eventually become the Netherlands had a medieval past unlike that of its neighbors seems indisputable; likewise, that it was characterized by an unusual degree of commercialization from a very early date. The authors are also persuasive that Dutch society was more egalitarian (although far from fully of course) across multiple metrics than those around it and that the Dutch were able to protect their freedoms at home even when they were challenged by the temptations (if that is the right word) of inegalitarian colonial practices abroad, most notably slavery, polygamy, and restrictive racial hierarchies. That so many individuals and transplanted Dutch institutions easily adopted and promoted those practices abroad serves as a reminder in Prak and van Zanden’s telling that the Dutch held no special moral standing. Yet, their argument for a precocious capitalism working hand in hand with civil society to promote a long and largely sustained growth of prosperity for the Dutch at home, also does not depend, or not much anyway, on the spoils of empire. Indeed, as they point out with both data and argument, the period of most rapid economic growth in the Dutch Republic precedes the period of Dutch overseas expansion.

It seems fair to conclude, that for Prak and van Zanden the medieval origins of Dutch society hold more sway in the history of capitalism’s emergence than do the early modern vices of the East India and other companies. Consider their understanding of the contrast between the dynamic of economy and society at home versus abroad. They write: “Our comparison of institutional changes prompted by the rapidly developing form of capitalism in which the Republic participated around 1600 shows, above all, that the ‘excesses’ of capitalism experienced in the Republic were curbed, that the pursuit of short-term profit was restrained by institutional buffers, meant to ensure long-term thinking –generally with positive effects for the economy and society. Such corrections and buffers figured less prominently in its overseas expansion: nobody prevented the use of slaves, nor was the creation of ‘extractive institutions’ impeded” (143).

Capitalism understood in this way, as definitely preceding and at least plausibly separate from colonialism, has much to offer in the way of prosperity and well-being, but only so long as its potential for excesses can be curbed. Where they are not, growth is stymied, and well-being compromised. In this framing there is no one single thing as capitalism, the same in every time or place that it manifests. Instead, there are multiple varieties of “capitalism,” and what makes any one of them either good or bad (to put it crudely) is the nature of the norms of the society in which they are embedded. For Prak and van Zanden, this is a message of hope. The Dutch example shows that it is possible for capitalism and a (relatively) open civil society to coexist. Indeed, the latter might just be a prerequisite for the full realization of market-centered society. What is required is finding that balance between autonomy and mutuality, or to use their terms, between feudalism and freedom. Sadly, looking around the world, such balance may be more elusive in practice than it is in fairytales.


Braudel, Fernand. The Wheels of Commerce: Civilization & Capitalism, 15th-18th Century. Vol. 2. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.


Anne EC McCants is the Ann F. Friedlaender Professor of History and Director of the Concourse Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among her recent publications is “Economic History and the Historians” (Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 2020).

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