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The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England

Author(s):Muldrew, Craig
Reviewer(s):McCants, Anne E. C.

Published by EH.NET (August 1999)

Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social

Relations in Early Modern England. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. xii

+ 453 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-312-21565


Reviewed for EH.NET by Anne E. C. McCants, Department of History,

Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The economic history profession has recently witnessed a resurgence of interest

in the cultural underpinnings of past economies. Prominent examples, to name

just a few, can be found in Peter Temin’s Presidential Address to the Economic

History Association in 1996, in the sweeping argument of David Landes’ The

Wealth and Poverty of Nations and of most direct relevance to the

work in question here, Deirdre McCloskey’s Presidential Address to the EHA in

1997. Muldrew’s book then makes a timely appearance, given its dedication to a

reconstruction of the “culture of credit” as it existed in England between the

sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.

Craig Muldrew (Department of History and Civilization, European University

Institute–Florence) takes as his broad subject both the material realities of

the early modern English marketplace, and the cultural milieu in which those

realities manifested themselves. Thus, he investigates probate inventories,

shop account books, household expenditure diaries and civic tax schedules, as

well as the court records of debt litigation, family correspondence, personal

diaries, sectarian sermons, and a large prescriptive literature written for

the middling householder and small tradesman. The intellectual reach of his

sources even extends to the natural law theorists of the seventeenth century,

such as Thomas Hobbes,

Richard Hooker and Gerard de Malynes to name just the most famous. In this

literature he finds, as did Max Weber and countless others after him, an almost

excessive attention paid to the themes of diligence and frugality.

But contra Weber, Muldrew does not see this primarily as evidence for the

profit motive of capitalism in its early manifestations. Rather he argues that

all this advice was fundamentally about the preservation of reputation in a

society where credit was the key to market participation, and thus wealth. It

should be further noted that the word credit for Muldrew means more the

“social communication and circulating judgement about the value of other

members of communities” than it does our more typically modern usage as a

financial sum or a claim on assets (p. 2). Thus, early modern marketplace

exchanges dependent on credit were typically solidified only after hours of

negotiation in a local tavern, over drinks and in front of witnesses. In this

insistence on the communicative (even persuasive)

aspects of the marketplace, Muldrew’s work strongly reinforces the argument

made by McCloskey that economic historians can only ignore social variables

(which McCloskey sometimes short-hands as “sweet talk”) at their peril.

The first part of the book will be the most familiar

territory for economic historians. For it is here that Muldrew makes most use

of quantitative techniques to answer a number of important questions of fact,

as it were.

He begins with an effort to reconstruct the sheer magnitude of market

transactions in early modern England, and to date with some precision the

impressive rise in marketing during the sixteenth century, from what was

already an arguably “commercial” medieval England. He attributes the economic

boom of the decades after 1550 to the expansion

of marketing stimulated by the demand generated by the demographic expansion

then underway. In fact, on the basis of a limited number of probate


a handful of account books, and a more voluminous court record, he argues that

this was England’

s “most intensely concentrated period of economic growth before the late

eighteenth century” (pp. 20-21); and moreover, that the late sixteenth century

was not the period of absolute immiseration that it would appear to have been

on the basis of the Phelps-Brown and Hopkins real wage index. Relative poverty

may indeed have been on the rise, but he claims that at least the poor

households which were inventoried lived about as well. if not better, than

their fifteenth century peasant equivalents

(p. 32).

This latter claim is a very strong one, and probably needs much more evidence

before we disregard the implications of the real wage series entirely.

Nonetheless, much of the argument is compelling, despite the fact that it rests

only on indirect types of

evidence (admittedly from several different types of sources). What these

strong claims should really do is stimulate the profession to dig anew for yet

more data which can either confirm or refute his revisionist position,

particularly as it pertains tot he lower end of the economic spectrum.

The sixteenth century is not the only place, however, where Muldrew takes on

one of the sacred tenets of the historiography of the English economy.

Part of his project also challenges the long accepted figures for the size of

the English economy at the end of the seventeenth century as devised by the

contemporary political arithmaticians Gregory King, William Petty and Charles

Davenant. Muldrew argues that their figures, designed as they were to evaluate

the taxable

and thus cash portion of the economy, grossly underestimate the scale of all

marketing in England, dependent as most of that was on the extension of local

(oral) credit. Muldrew’s estimate for total national consumption in the latter

part of the seventeenth century

(146,000,000 pounds) is over three times greater than King’s contemporary

estimate of total household income (p 90). While this calculation depends

critically on the representatives of only seventeen household account books

from a period of

over a century and across the social scale, it does have the significant

advantage of including purchases made on credit. If Muldrew’s calculations can

be confirmed by further research (preferably with a much larger data base than

his seventeen account books), they will force us to fundamentally rethink the

magnitude of the economic transition from the early modern to the industrial

period. This could prove to be additional evidence of the significance of the

so-called “industrious revolution” of the early modern period.

This however is not Muldrew’s main agenda, but merely a by-product of his work

for other purposes. The real agenda here is to demonstrate, given the extreme

scarcity of metal coinage throughout this period, the intense reliance that

commerce of this magnitude placed by necessity on mechanisms of informal


Even more importantly, Muldrew stresses the implications of such widespread and

interlocking networks of credit for the exacerbation of tensions between the

households of consumers and producers,

which were, of course, merely the same households wearing their various many

hats. With the initial mid-sixteenth century boom, these tensions played

themselves out in an explosion of debt litigation and an outpouring of moral

literature on the perils of the prodigal (that is the indebted)

life. With time, adjustments were made to the legal system and new forms for

public credit were established which allowed credit to “become less dependent

on individual morality” (p. 329). Marketing could not only continue at its new

high level, but even expand, without the security of the social fabric being

irreparably damaged.

This is a fascinating book and one which I highly recommend. It moves

comfortably between the quantification of material life in early modern

England, and the way that life was understood by contemporaries. Historians of

the economy, and historians of ideas will both find much in this book to

stimulate further research in their respective fields. Finally, it offers a


reminder that the now dominant utilitarian understanding of economic behavior

as essentially individualistic and fundamentally competitive, is not always an

appropriate model for studies of even strongly market-centered economies. Trust

(and trustworthine4ss), and by extension,

cooperative behavior, were essential to the generation of wealth by households

in early modern England. Thus it is that Daniel Defoe could write as late even

as 1726 that “He that gives no trust, and takes no trust, either by wholes ale

or by retail … is not yet born, or if there ever were any such, they are all

dead” (quoted on p. 95).

Anne E. C. McCants is the author of Civic Charity in a Golden Age: Orphan

Care in Early Modern Amsterdam (University of Illinois Press, 1997).


David S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Are Some So Rich and

Others So Poor?. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998.

Deirdre N. McCloskey, “Bourgeois Virtue and the History of P and S,”

Journal of Economic History, June 1998, 58 (2

): 297-317.

Peter Temin, “Is It Kosher to Talk about Culture?” Journal of Economic

History, June 1997, 57 (2): 267-87.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century