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Reviewed by:
  • Richard Cantillon's Essay on the Nature of Trade in General: A Variorum Edition ed. by Van Den Berg Richard
  • Christine Théré
van den Berg Richard (ed.), 2015, Richard Cantillon's Essay on the Nature of Trade in General: A Variorum Edition, London, Routledge, Routledge Studies in the History of Economics, XV- 513 p.

Richard Cantillon's Essai sur la nature du commerce en général is one of the major works of Enlightenment political economy. It is also one of the most fascinating given the circumstances in which it was published and the extraordinary adventures of the Irish banker who wrote it. Cantillon (ca. 1680-ca. 1734) lived in France for many years, getting rich when Law's system was in effect, before settling in London.(1) The Essai is his only work. It was disseminated in Europe through many and highly diverse channels. This variorum edition by Richard van den Berg is an ambitious synthesis of research since the late nineteenth century. It also offers crucial information for retracing the complex history of the work. There are eleven different versions of it, and the labour of comparison here is truly impressive. For the first time, we have an edition that enables us to measure how much of the work was published in English in the mid-eighteenth century, as van den Berg reproduces all English excerpts in their entirety. He also reproduces H. Higg's 1931 translation(2), which, despite its faults, has the virtue of being a complete English version of the treatise(3). In his introduction van den Berg retraces the history of each version of the text, pointing out the questions they raise, some of which have never been resolved. Last, he recalls the impact of Cantillon's thinking, whether acknowledged or not, on several economists, including Adam Smith and François Quesnay.

The editio princeps of Essai sur la nature du commerce en général is the French version printed in 1755, some twenty years after Cantillon's death, by the Paris bookseller Pierre-André Guillyn. Van den Berg uses this text to identify variants in the other versions(4). Differences between the three later French editions (two in 1756, one in 1769) are purely stylistic.

We know of three manuscripts of the Essai, all in French. The first is complete and kept at the municipal library of Rouen; it was discovered by Takumi Tsuda, who established its precedence over the print edition and published it in 1979. The other two are incomplete, containing only the chapters from Part I; they are among Mirabeau's working papers, preserved at the French National Archives.(5) Van den Berg lists all significant variants from the print edition found in these [End Page 162] three sources. Most turn out to be formal corrections that obfuscate rather than clarify the text. Nonetheless, they give us an idea of the immense amount of work that went into preparing the text for publication. As van den Berg notes, the work primarily involved getting a text full of "Anglicisms" and "imperfect French formulations" into good French. This does not call into question the well-known role of the circle of Vincent de Gournay in publishing the Essai(6).

As there is no manuscript in English, van den Berg judges that the Anglicisms in the Rouen manuscript (of which there are not, in fact, very many) do not clearly indicate which language the text was originally written in, whether it was translated and if so by whom. As he recalls, Mirabeau was the only contemporary to have stated that Cantillon himself had translated a text in "primitive" English for a friend. I would agree with van den Berg when he suggests that the Rouen manuscript is a very rare – if not the only – copy of the manuscript to have circulated at the time. The fact that no other copy was found is not a strong argument, and it is not clear that the one Mirabeau owned for a time was in fact the Rouen manuscript. Indeed, Mirabeau was one of the first persons to read Cantillon, and he drew heavily on his thinking in writing L...


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