Commerce Before Capitalism in Europe, 1300-1600
Cambridge University Press 2010
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When I was an undergraduate, I was taught that merchants in early modern Western Europe were “proto-capitalists.” I was never quite sure what that meant. If it meant they traded property for money, yes. But that would make everyone who traded things for money over the past, say, 5,000 years, a “proto-capitalist.” If it meant that they thought of their property as capital to be used for maximizing profit, then no. As Martha C. Howell points out in her excellent Commerce Before Capitalism in Europe, 1300-1600 (Cambridge UP, 2010), early modern merchants–at least in the Low Countries–didn’t really think of their property as “capital” at all, and they certainly didn’t use it exclusively for the maximization of profit. Their idea of property was, according to Howell, as much medieval as modern. Essentially, they adapted received (medieval) categories of property to novel commercial conditions. The result was a unique hybrid of the old and new. In hindsight, their understanding of property might seem “proto-capitalist.” But really it was just the way they conceived of property.