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Reviewed by:
  • Commerce before Capitalism in Europe, 1300-1600
  • Ilja Van Damme
Commerce before Capitalism in Europe, 1300-1600. By Martha C. Howell (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2010) 365 pp. $90.00 cloth $29.99 paper

This book takes an important lesson to heart, namely, the importance of understanding each historical period on its own terms. That implies freedom from teleological and linear assumptions that tend to downplay historical actions as obsolete or utterly premature. European economic history, in particular, has been full of grand narratives equating the "rise of the West" with the long march of a conquering capitalism. Publications of that sort generally struggle to define the threshold of a "capitalist society," a conundrum only partially solved by the Marxist notion of "transition." Every age, after all, is always in transition.

Howell admiringly escapes the reductionist fallacy of considering European economic history as a mere prelude to bigger and brighter things. To avoid that pitfall, her mode of analysis consists of embedding economic history in its social and cultural milieus. Hence, she adheres primarily to the methodologies and sources of legal history, although—as she herself admits—her "touch is very light" (46). This "lightness" of construction is not to be interpreted in pejorative terms. Rather, it allows her to draw from an impressive amount of wide-ranging literature and source material, and enables her to make refreshing inroads into existing debates on property relations, marriage practices, gift giving, sumptuary laws, and the perception of commerce between 1300 and 1600. At its most unsuccessful—such as in Chapter 5 ("Rescuing Commerce")—this essayistic approach seems all too nimble, its arguments [End Page 279] merely scratching the surface of complex issues regarding trust and information asymmetries in exchange, "just price" formation, and so on. Most of the time, however, Howell succeeds in strong and clear reasoning, unfettered by the wealth of debates that she engages. A case in point is Chapter 4 ("The Dangers of Dress"), in which she inventively connects the rise and fall of sumptuary legislation to the "birth" of discourses about individual, self-fashioning consumers.

The central theme of a "commercial revolution," as opposed to capitalist developments, runs through all of the chapters. According to Howell, this commercialization is not to be interpreted as an infant or primitive capitalist exchange. It had an inherent logic of its own, simultaneously shaping, while being shaped by, the social and cultural conventions of its time. Thus, although Howell rescues economic culture from the false wisdom of hindsight, she nevertheless creates some new ambiguities. The basic assumption of the existence of a commercial "big-bang" already presupposes another "great transformation" between a less and a more commercialized past. Such an opposition transposes the old question about the meaning of capitalism to one about the inception of commercialism: When did Europe pass the threshold of a "commercial society," and was this process truly as comprehensive as Howell suggests?

Even more important are questions regarding the motives of economic agents. Although Howell convincingly demonstrates that society as a whole was driven primarily by non-market calculations and imperatives, it is hard to imagine the eventual emergence of efficiency maximizing—dare I say, "capitalist"—institutions without at least a core of genuine profit-seeking utilitarians. Rather than emerging out of the blue in the eighteenth century, capitalist activities had been practiced openly for a long time; it was their ideological cementing that happened gradually.

Ilja Van Damme
University of Antwerp


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pp. 279-280
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