Writing history as if people mattered

The editors Paolo Di Martino, Andrew Popp, and Peter Scott present the volume People, places and cultures. Essays in honour of Francesca Carnevali, Boydell & Brewer, 2017

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This edited book celebrates the career and the scholarly contribution of the historian Francesca Carnevali (1964-2013). During her unfortunately short career, Francesca ventured into a number of topics, explored different methodologies, and engaged with a variety of conceptual and theoretical frameworks. The aim of our book is to take on and develop these paths, to analyse the state-of-the art and Francesca’s contribution to it, and to try set an agenda for future research.

The book is divided into a thematic and a methodological section. In the former, various chapters analyse the main steps of Francesca’s intellectual journey covering key topics in business and economic history such as bank-industry relations, the functioning of industrial districts, consumerism, the development of “luxury” goods, and the “history of small things” (specifically the piano industry), the last research project Francesca started. In the latter methodological section, various chapters address theoretical issues and approaches Francesca engaged with, such as micro history, comparative history, and the dialogue between social, cultural, economic and business history.

Although individual chapters preserve their own identity and reflect the opinions of individual authors, the book aims at conveying a general message; one which emerges from Francesca’s work and, according to the editors and contributors, truly represents her intellectual legacy.

The first general point of this message is the necessity to go beyond artificial distinctions between sub-disciplines (and, one would argue, artificial attempts at establishing intellectual monopolies) and embrace history as a multi-faced challenge only addressable by creating bridges, rather than by establishing borders. If, as Francesca would put it, our aim is to understand “how things are made”, we have to understand technology and production, but also who finances such production, who buys it, who distributes and markets it. Thus economic history has to meet business, financial, social, and cultural history, meaning that history, sociology, economics and business studies should talk to each-other.

This dialogue, the volume argues, has to rotate around the study of human beings: history should be written “as if people mattered”. This, however, creates enormous challenges once real people, and not the idealised homo economicus, are put at the centre of the scene. Among many others, a key question that naturally arises is the extent to which economic incentives motivate and explain human behaviour in the economic arena as compared to the opportunity and limitations due to social norms, cultural habits and so on. This is a question that the book mainly applies to the functioning of specific local trading communities or “industrial districts”, but that can easily be transplanted into any other area of exchange or production. In fact, the book argues, looking at social and cultural elements as mere interference into rational economic behaviour is a mistake: culture and society might be part of the very construction of the economic action.

This point opens the door to another set of questions. Can generalisation be possible only under the rigid assumption of economic rationality? If so, does the explicit reference to culture and society force us to limit our perspective to specific events in time and space? The answer to both questions, the book argues, is No, and this is because we have methodological devices allowing us to generalise without necessarily being chained to strict assumptions. The first device is micro history and its ability to paint a general picture from a detail. The second one is comparative history, a way of obtaining a general picture by comparing the specific aspects of individual ones.

Big questions, probably leading to further questions rather than definitive answers, is what the book proposes to the reader. And this is what Francesca offered over the years, fighting intellectual conformism, easy answers, and convenient shortcuts.

 

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.