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History of Political Economy 34.1 (2002) 283-284

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Book Review

Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century:
Money, Market Exchange, and the Emergence of Scientific Thought

Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century: Money, Market Exchange, and the Emergence of Scientific Thought. By Joel Kaye. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. x; 273 pp. £42.50.

In a famous essay, Roberto Lopez once argued that the Italian Renaissance—a period of economic recession—is an example of how hard times produce good art. Further connections between the economy and culture might be proposed, most, in Lopez's view, “too far-fetched and dubious for an earthly economic historian to take stock of them. For instance, some clever contrivance might be found to link together economic rationalization and intellectual rationalism” (Lopez 1969, 109). In Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century, Joel Kaye attempts precisely this, arguing that the preoccupation of late medieval science with measurement and quantification was itself a product of the monetization of the European economy between 1180 and 1320.

It is well known that the High Middle Ages experienced a commercial revolution that found expression in the explosive growth of towns and markets, rising levels of production and consumption, and the development of new commercial techniques. In chapter 1, Kaye examines how the increasing use of money associated with these changes led to the diffusion of a rational, calculating mentality well beyond the commercial classes themselves. Arts masters, who often doubled as university administrators and royal advisers, were well versed in commercial affairs, and they interpreted their experience in dozens of treatises on money, value, exchange, and usury between 1250 and 1350. Central to their conceptualization of the new economy were the Ethics and Politics of Aristotle, which explain money as a measure of value and exchange as a process of equalization between buyers and sellers. Chapters 2–5 of Kaye's book trace the fate of Aristotle's analysis from Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas in the mid-thirteenth century to Jean Buridan and Nicole Oresme in the early fourteenth. Whereas the earliest commentators emphasized strict arithmetic equality in exchange, later writers preferred a “geometrically defined range of approximation” that better reflected the manifold factors at play in real market transactions. [End Page 283]

In chapters 6 and 7, Kaye turns to the innovations in fourteenth-century physics that he considers most likely to have been influenced by market mentalities. The connection is far from obvious because scholastic writers privileged abstraction, rarely appealing to empirical observation even in discussions of the economy and the natural world. Nevertheless, in what historian of science John Murdoch (1975, 287) has called “the frenzy to measure everything imaginable” that characterized the “Oxford Calculators” and their successors at the University of Paris, Kaye detects analogies between scholastic economics and natural science. Breaking with Aristotle, fourteenth-century scientists developed mathematical models to analyze problems of motion and qualitative change. Although their conclusions remained untested empirically, scientists such as Oresme were the first to formulate several concepts that Galileo would later use to construct early modern mechanics. Through a close analysis of key ideas in economic and scientific discourse, Kaye concludes that the new impulse to view nature in terms of quantity, relation, and equilibrium was inspired by scholastic scientists' attempts to comprehend the complexity of early capitalist markets.

In his effort to locate late medieval speculative physics in its material context, Kaye ranges over several disciplinary boundaries and draws on an impressive range of primary and secondary literature. The result is an original and provocative study that deserves the attention of economic historians, historians of economic theory, and historians of science alike.


Lawrin Armstrong, Simon Fraser University


Lopez, Roberto. 1969. Hard Times and Investment in Culture. In Social and Economic Foundations of the Italian Renaissance, edited by Anthony Molho. New York: Wiley.

Murdoch, John. 1975. From Social into Intellectual Factors: Some Aspects of the Unitary Character of Late Medieval Learning. In The Cultural Context of Medieval Learning, edited by John Murdoch...


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pp. 283-284
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Archived 2005
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