Business before industrialization: Are there lessons to learn?

by Judy Stephenson (Wadham College, University of Oxford) and Oscar Gelderblom (University of Utrecht)

 

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Bruegel the Elder (1565), Corn Harvest (August)

Business organization is mostly absent from economic history debate about the rise of economic growth, but it was not always so  

As a new protectionist era in political economy dawns, it would be fair to ask what scholarship business and policy can draw on to understand how trade flourished before twentieth century institutions promoted globalization. Yet, pre-industrial business organization, once a central concern in scholarly debates about the rise of capitalism, and the West, currently plays only a marginal role in research on long-run economic development. Once a central pillar of economic history, the subject is almost absent from the recent global meta-narratives of divergence and growth in economic history. Since 2013 Oscar Gelderblom (Utrecht) and Francesca Trivellato (Yale) have been reviving interest, exploring finance and organization in early modern business thanks to a grant from the Netherlands Organization of Scientif Research (NWO).

“our survey suggests that a strong theoretical foundation and rich empirical data exist on the basis of which we can develop a comparative business history of the preindustrial world.”

In May they convened the last in a series of workshops ‘the Funding of Early Modern Business’, in Utrecht, bringing together speakers from around the globe to look specifically at means and methods of funding and finance in a comparative sense.

The old literature on western business focused, for the largest part, on the large chartered and state backed organizations of colonialism, possibly to the detriment of our understanding of domestic and regional business practice. The cases under discussion at the workshop were geographically and methodologically varied – but mostly they stressed the latter. Susanna Martinez Rodriguez (Murcia) examined the cases of Spain’s Sociedad de Responsibiliadad Limitata in the early twentieth century, highlighting the attractiveness of the hybrid legal form for small business. Claire Lemercier (CNRS Paris) showed the use of courts and the legal system by trading businesses in 19th century Paris were a last recourse for the complex credit arrangements of urban trading. A large number of trading women used the courts and this raises the question of whether this represents a larger number of women in business than expected, or whether other means were less accessible to them. Siyuan Zhao (Shanghai) showed the vast records available to the researcher of Chinese business forms in the 19 century. His case showed that production households operated with advanced subcontracting networks of finance. As the first day ended conversation among participants and discussants – including Phillip Hoffman, Craig Muldrew, Heidi Deneweth and Joost Jonker focused on contracts, enforcement, and the varied ways in which early modern businesses responded to costs and risk.

Meng Zhang (UCLA) delighted participants with meticulous research showing that small farmers and plot owners in 18th-century Southwestern China securitised timber production and land shareholdings with complex contracts risk mitigation among small agricultural operators that allocated future output and allowed division of land and produce. Her work challenges current narratives of China in the 18th century. Judy Stephenson described the significant credit networks of seventeenth century building contractors in London. The structure and process of the contract for works enabled the crown and city to finance major infrastructure development after the Great Fire. Pierre Gervaise showed that French merchants in the southwest were opportunist in using their de facto monopolies on supply of goods to Bordeaux to price gouge. His amusing and detailed archival sources give the opportunity for new analysis of French supply chains and transaction costs.

Thomas Safley needed no introduction to this audience. His work on fifteenth and sixteenth century Southern German family networks is well established, but here he demonstrated that norms and collective action institutions in southern Germany were distinctive. Mauro Carboni traced the development of the limited partnership to 15th century Bologna and described the contract stipulations made as the time of partnership formation.

One of the key areas that Gelderblom & Trivellato highlighted as of particular interest was that of women in business in the early modern period. Hannah Barker used her wide research in women and family business to discuss the high number of trading businesses in mid-19th century Manchester run by women, and make the point that existing accounts of welfare and output do not take women’s businesses into account. The area is one with active research.

The overall picture gained from the workshop was of the remarkable organization flexibility of early modern business co-ordination, most particularly y in relation to credit. Almost all cases showed businesses moderating and contracting the rights and involvement of creditors in varied ways non-financial ways. Almost all cases indicated that contracts entered into determined outcomes to the same or greater degree as the structure of the enterprise.

Gelderblom & Trivellato have come to the end of the project but will continue to forge research links and networks on early modern business. Their work so far shows clearly that research into domestic and regional businesses before 1870 will bear fruit for historians, and very probably business leaders too.

The Travelling Kingdom during Medieval Period in England, France and the Holy Roman Empire: An Economic Interpretation

by Daniel Gottal (University of Bayreuth)

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Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa on his Third Crusade

 Noblemen, knights and kings had always been on tour in Medieval Period. Weather on campaign, pilgrimage or on itinerant court – mobility was unexpected high to this specific aristocratic peer group. When capital cities had not emerged yet, the king as the political centre was on continuously travelling through his kingdom. This travelling kingdom had a political and an often missed out economic dimension.

At a time without newspapers, television or other mass media, dealing ‘oral contracts’ in personal relationships with his vessels, was essential. In the 13th century written documentation re-emerged and contributed to a slowdown of the royal itinerant court. Hence travelling kingdom was part of most mediaeval societies to a specific point of their cultural and institutional evolution.

The first modest beginnings originated from Merovingian dynasty on ox carts. Centuries later, Italian campaigns since Charles the Great (742-814) till the Ottonian dynasty, had a specific itinerant court character with their long stays in the three Italian capital cities: Pavia, Ravenna and Rome. Henry II (973-1024) – starting after his crowning in 1002 – bethinks on these older traditions and established the travelling kingdom in the Holy Roman Empire for centuries. Until the mid of the 15th century under Frederick III (1415-1493), where Late Middle Ages, Early Renaissance and Early Modern Period overlapped, the travelling kingdom survived, until it fossilised at the end of the century.

Besides of the fragility of the political system solely relying on personal relationships, the travelling kingdom had also an economic dimension. At the time food was rare in Europe in the Middle Ages and the king did not travel alone. He was accompanied by his royal court, including nobility, knights, bodyguards, and servants. This entourage could make up thousands of people. Because the transportation facilities were poor, the agricultural resources to provide the itinerant court food and shelter were scarce. Thus there was economic pressure for travelling around.

Unsurprising, that more frequented routes and stops were highly correlated with the most prosperous regions in Europe. In the Holy Roman Empire regional focus was on Franconia, Bavaria, Swabia and along the Rhine, the Franco-German border. The king and the king’s follower’s hostage were an enormous economic burden for cities and monastics they visited. Royal accommodation, the servitia regis, was an expensive duty for all his vassals. The average visit lasted three days but could be as long as two weeks. As prestigious as the king’s hostage might have been for a city, from a budgetary perspective his hoosts were relieved when he left for his next destination.

In contrast to continental Europe, England was once more special. A travelling kingdom was not common under Norman regimen. Power was less challenged than on the continent and Westminster early emerged as capital city. But John Lackland (1167-1216), king and heir to the throne after the death of his elder brother Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199), had done longer travels to secure his power, as well as his brother did before. But the tradition of a travelling kingdom was much more common to the north of the island, to the Scottish, than to the English.

Meanwhile, in the transition from the High to the Late Middle Ages the duty for king’s hostage was replaced by a financial grant – in France, Flanders and Bourgogne. Records from the French droit de gîte revealed, that most cities from 1223 to 1225 payed something in between 100 and 200 pound sterling silver a year. The combined income for the French crown was 3,000 pound sterling silver a year, covering 1% of Louis VIII of France (1187-1226) total expenses. The cities and monastics made a good deal in transforming the servitude into money. Fixing the amount via privilege, unadjusted by high inflation in the Late Middle Ages, the financial grant completely vanished over time – as well as the travelling kingdom.