The Medieval Review 11.05.11

Howell, Martha C. Commerce before Capitalism in Europe, 1300-1600. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2010. Pp. xii, 365. 90.00 hb ISBN 978-0-521-76046-1. 29.99 pb ISBN 978-0-521-14850-4.

Reviewed by:

Philip Slavin
McGill University

In recent decades, economic history has, in effect, been split between two main domains of research: the "classical" economic history and the "new" economic history, or cliometrics. The two disciplines differ not only in their approaches and methodologies, but also in results of their research. Scholars of the former, by the virtue of their historical training, tend to focus not only on pure figures and statistics, but also on historical implications of economic trends and phenomena. The latter, on the other hand, tend to confine themselves to theoretical framework, deriving mostly from econometric models and approaches: which often results in a disconnection from the historical context of study subjects. Martha Howell's recent book is an excellent example of the classical vision of economic history. One finds neither regressions nor models throughout the study; instead, there is an engaging narrative, reflecting the attitude of the author towards the subject of her study. It is impossible to understand how the urban economy of late-medieval and early modern "pre-Capitalist" society worked, without understanding how its seminal concepts were perceived. In effect, this study shows an intriguing attempt to reflect the enormously eclectic nature of economic history: it sneaks into the domains of social, legal, mental, religious and occasionally even philological history, each serving the author's aim and the book's purpose.

Each chapter deals with different, although often interconnected, aspects of the commercial society of urban centre in Northern Europe, chiefly Ghent and Douai. Chapter 1 treats the legal attitude of the contemporaries to exchangeable goods and property rights of their holders. Chapter 2 argues for the connection between the commercializing society and conjugal unions; the latter were formed not only out of pure romantic relationships, but out of economic dictums of the zeitgeist. Chapter 3 deals with the concept and custom of giving, chiefly gift-giving. This chapter is strongly based on a vast number of hitherto unpublished archival materials which enabled Howell to reconstruct an intriguing picture of this ritual. Chapter 4 is concerned with the practices of "sumptuous" or "excessive" dressing, and the legislative reaction against these practices. Contrary to the prevailing view, Howell contends that the luxurious dressing accounted for the growing concern of the contemporary elites to assure their deserved socio-economic status and prestige within their communities, which was prone to social mobility. Chapter 5 delves into the moral world of the contemporaries, in conjunction with the perception of trade, which must have undergone changes, in light of the commercialization of the society. Apart from sermons and legal treatises, Howell provides a number of examples taken from visual representation of trade and its associations. Overall, she contends, the vocation of trade tended to become more and more respected and accepted in the period under study, especially towards its end.

While some more theory- or econometrics-oriented scholars would undoubtedly find this work belongs outside of what they believe the domain of economic history should be, many economic and social historians, myself included, will assess it as an important contribution to the subject. While some of Howell's views and interpretations can, perhaps, be debated and challenged (thus, her idea that the examples of one or two Flemish towns reflect what "was happening, or would happen elsewhere in Europe" [p. 4]; the contention that the period under study should be regarded as "pre-Capitalist," rather than a "Capitalist" period), there is no doubt that overall, the author succeeded in touching upon some crucial, and at times understudied, issues related to late-medieval and early modern commercializing society in Northern Europe. And above all, it proves that in order to understand certain (and quite complicated) aspects of economic history, it is much more important to understand what these aspects meant to the contemporaries, rather than to economists of our generation. To achieve that goal, it is vital to divert from theories and models, and focus on humans. And the present monograph did that just fine.