How dead are my early modern merchants?

This post is part of the Monster Carnival 2022 – Why Early Modern History Matters Now. Christophe Schellekens (@Christophe_Fir) works as a non-permanent lecturer in social and economic history at Utrecht University (The Netherlands). His main research interest is the history of commerce and capitalism in the pre-modern period.

Christophe Schellekens

“How are your dead Florentine merchants doing today?” A friend and fellow PhD-researcher regularly asked me that question when we ran into each other in the corridors of the European University Institute. In that institution, where we both did our doctorate between 2013 and 2018, a small but vibrant group of early modern historians (at the time five faculty members) was often confronted with such questions about their topic from colleagues working in other disciplines.

Why did my doctoral research on (absolutely certainly physically very dead) Florentine merchants in sixteenth century Antwerp matter to my friend, who studies EU administrative law? What did I have to share with my EUI flat mate researching contemporary welfare state regimes, or with one of the many other colleagues at the institute who were tackling topics that are more readily considered as socially or policy relevant? How dead or alive is the early modern world that I study?

The EUI’s Villa Salviati, a Renaissance building where lawyers inquire about the dead subjects of historians. Photo by Sailko on wikimedia.

The question how early modern history matters can be approached from a variety of angles and experiences. As I later worked as a postdoc in a EU Horizon 2020 project with a strong focus on societal impact, and then started to work as a lecturer in a PPE-program, my take on it is strongly shaped by working over the past decade as an early modernist in environments where early modern history is not at the institutional and intellectual core of the agenda of my direct workplace. In that sense it is thus a take from the margin.

An important lesson I learned over time is that an answer that stresses the alterity of the early modern world and that presents it as a “foreign country” does not suffice. I had been trained in invoking this as my standard answer and genuinely believed in its value. However, over time I learned that this might be part of an answer, but it is not enough. It does not do justice to the genuine interest that my friend studying EU law had in what I encountered in the for me at times still very lively world of these dead merchants. Anyone who has travelled a bit will acknowledge that in foreign countries, things indeed are done in a different way that fascinates us, but not everything is done radically and unrecognizably differently. A traveller in time or space will also encounter some surprising resemblances. Pondering what is different and what is similar and to what extent in the early modern cases we study, is for me one of the more stimulating parts of our work. It offers an excellent ground for discussion with those who are genuinely interested in our work.

Developing this further, what then is the better answer than mere radical alterity? Having had sociologists, scholars of law, political scientists and economists as regular interlocutors, I have been struck by how “modernity” and the modern condition has remained a powerful default point of reference in these disciplines.[1] Nowadays some of the most stimulating work in those disciplines does question the rational homo economicus, the straightforward sovereignty and hierarchies in law and the dominance of rational interests in politics. But I have become convinced that those disciplines, and society in general, benefit from regular reminders of early modernists that the “modern” is not the standard. Perhaps, to paraphrase Bruno Latour, we have never been modern at all.[2]

Which cases and forms of non-modernity have I discussed with my friend the EU lawyer or my flat mate the scholar of the 21st-century welfare state? Through conversations I have learned that scholars of early modern societies and EU lawyers share a fascination for – as well as a frustration about – the layered, plural but by no means straightforward hierarchical legal order of the societies they study. So I could tell my friend that it was often not clear to me which court my dead merchants could turn to, that they sometimes tended to do some legal or institutional shopping around. With my flat mate the welfare state sociologist I could discuss about how the role of having a particular status – the male breadwinner, the citizen with a right to work – rather than universal and egalitarian rights determine entitlements and obligations in our current welfare systems in similar ways as one encounters in them in the 16th century. Of course, in our conversations we also noticed things like growing bureaucracies or incremental globalisation as things that the 16th and the 21st century share. But in these encounters, it are not these embryonic forms of modernity that I found the most striking or relevant. The most surprising resemblances for me are rather the reappearance or resilience in the 21st century of phenomena that we too easily consider as distinctly early modern.

A final thought about these surprising resemblances between the non-modernity of the 16th and 21st century goes beyond the relevance of early modern history to other academic disciplines. We may consider leaving behind some of the “foreign country” aspects of the early modern period – poor diet, high mortality, default, normative and naturalized discrimination based on gender and race – as genuine progress. But when I ponder upon the resemblances between today’s non-modernity and that of the 18th-century and prior, I tend to think that we should not reserve our observations to conversations with fellow scholars in the social sciences and the humanities.

We may need to be more upfront in telling a cautionary tale about the regression to non-modern, 16th-century ways of living. Some of the worst aspects of the world in which my dead Florentine merchants lived, in particular its staggering inequality, might be far from dead and in fact are revived more than most of us would want.

[1] This strikes me as similar to the way in which history has never been fully able to leave behind the focus on the modern nation state, which conditioned its development as a professional academic discipline in the 19th C.

[2] And that the “Early Modern” period then probably is not the most accurate way of referring to the period between the 15th and 19th C.

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