Commerce before Capitalism in Europe, 1300-1600

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In Commerce before Capitalism in Europe, 1300–1600, Martha C. Howell challenges dominant interpretations of the relationship between the so-called commercial revolution of late medieval Europe and the capitalist age that followed. Howell argues that the merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, and consumers in cities and courts throughout Western Europe, even in the densely urbanized Low Countries that are the main focus of this study, were by no means proto-capitalist and did not consider their property a fungible asset. Even though they freely bought and sold property using sophisticated financial techniques, they preserved its capacity to secure social bonds by intensifying market regulations and by assigning new meaning to marriage, gift-giving, and consumption. Later generations have sometimes found such actions perplexing, often dismissing them as evidence that business people of the late medieval and early modern worlds did not fully understand market rules. Howell, by contrast, shows that such practices were governed by a logic specific to their age and that, however primitive they may appear to subsequent generations, these practices made Europe’s economic future possible.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This is a work of mature scholarship, the product of extensive research, exhaustive reading, and deep thought. Taking medieval merchants and artisans at their word, Martha Howell describes a world in which marriages, fashion, and gift-gifting were as economic as deal-making. This important book has it all – archival gems, artfully crafted writing, and intriguing conclusions. Readers will find much here to enjoy and ponder." – Judith Bennett, University of Southern California

“Martha Howell combines elements of her groundbreaking earlier work on small-commodity production, the family, and material culture to create a compelling new interpretation of Western European societies during the transition from feudalism to capitalism; this is an exciting book about an exciting topic by an exciting author.” – Maarten Prak, Utrecht University

“In Commerce before Capitalism in Europe, Martha Howell upends the old teleologies of economic history. In their place, she offers a powerful new model oriented around consumption, credit, and material culture. The later middle ages emerge in this work as a period of vibrant cultural innovation, during which property and display take on new meanings and supposedly primitive practices, like gift-giving, accelerate rather than decay. This is a pathbreaking contribution to the new economic history.” – Daniel Lord Smail, Harvard University

“Martha Howell’s masterful analysis is based on extensive archival research and displays impressive, wide-ranging erudition. Her thoughtful examination of the structural changes in the ideas and practices about property, marriage, gifts, dress, and commerce represents a very original, multidisciplinary combination of sociocultural and institutional economic history. The book is authoritative, fundamental, and pathbreaking and makes for fascinating reading; it is a first-rate contribution to the historical sciences.” – Herman Van der Wee, Leuven University

"Through a richly documented and lucid narrative, Howell illustrates the profound transformation that occurred in the ways in which men and women practiced and understood commercial transactions in the most urbanized regions of northern Europe." -Francesca Trivellato, EH.Net

"...Howell has combined historical research with reflection on broader issues." -Jonathan Dewald, The Journal of Modern History

"Each of the themes treated in the different chapters is elaborated thoroughly, with comprehensive references to the ongoing historiography on the topic in question."
-Michael Limberger,University of Ghent

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521760461
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 4/30/2010
  • Pages: 378
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Martha C. Howell is Miriam Champion Professor of History at Columbia University. The recipient of awards and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Fulbright Commission, and the American Council of Learned Societies, among others, she is the author and editor of many books, including Women, Production and Patriarchy in Late Medieval Cities and The Marriage Exchange: Property, Social Place and Gender in Cities of the Low Countries, 1300–1550. In 2005, she was named Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, by the University of Ghent.

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Table of Contents

Introduction; 1. Movable/immovable, what's in a name?; 2. 'Pour l'amour et affection conjugale'; 3. Gift work; 4. The dangers of dress; 5. Rescuing commerce; Afterword.

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