Commerce and Knowledge in the Seventeenth Century

AHA Session 55
Business History Conference 2
Friday, January 3, 2014: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Virginia Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Martha C. Howell, Columbia University
Harold J. Cook, Brown University

Session Abstract

In the seventeenth century, commercial networks linking European countries with one another and the world grew rapidly both in scale and complexity, entangling an ever-wider population and challenging older forms of knowledge about commerce and its place in human society. The papers presented in this session will approach this tumultuous period from three different contexts, ranging from the academy to the dockside world of ordinary sailors. They will show how academic and legal forms of knowledge were infiltrated by new ideas about commerce and new ways of gaining, organizing, and transmitting knowledge. Joseph Freedman will address how commerce was discussed within the context of philosophy instruction, mainly in the contexts of ethics, family life (oeconomica), and politics. During the course of the 17th century views of commerce gradually became more favorable, and philosophical discussions on commerce began to be published in the 17th century.. These discussions of commerce were taught to large numbers of students -- including those who later exercised political authority. Sina Rauschenbach will discuss the increasing intersections between academic knowledge and practical commercial knowledge in the Netherlands during the early 17th century. In his 1632 inaugural address at the Amsterdam Athenaeum Illustre, Caspar Barlaeus argued that philosophy and commerce were complementary and that merchants and philosophers should profit from each other. In the same vein, the Elzevier publishing house brought out a series of monographs consisting of detailed descriptions of individual states in and beyond Europe. The “Republics,” as they were called, were published in small formats, convenient for use by merchants travelling to other states as well as by the new Dutch merchant-regent elite aspiring to political offices. Finally, Eleanor Hubbard's presentation will examine how rapidly changing forms of commerce forced state actors to embrace humble individuals – ordinary sailors -- as the only available sources of knowledge about distant commerce. When early seventeenth-century English merchants in North African ports purchased cargoes stolen by pirates, English law courts relied on the testimony of sailors for information regarding their dealings and common practices in these unfamiliar locations. The courts’ reliance on sailors’ testimony prompted the merchants, pirates, and Barbary officials to stage increasingly elaborate performances to make their dealings look legitimate to the watching sailors. Thus new conceptions of knowledge not only affected ideas about commerce, but also concrete commercial practices and rituals. As all three papers demonstrate, the new commercial and intellectual conditions of the seventeenth century brought seemingly disparate worlds into dialogue with one another. Not only were English merchants cooperating with Barbary officials, but in the realm of ideas, academic institutions and courts of law became increasingly friendly to the practical forms of knowledge held not only by merchants but even by some laboring men. This session should be of interest to early modern historians, to researchers interested in the history of business and commerce, and -- broadly speaking -- to historians who ponder the connections between theory, knowledge, and practice in their own professional work.

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