This event is part of CIDRAL's 2017/18 programme, The Constraints of Creativity
This roundtable will include Georg Christ (History, University of Manchester), Rory Naismith (History, Kings College London), Catherine Casson (History, University of Manchester), and Stephen Mossman (History, University of Manchester) (moderator).
Business might be the dominant cultural institution and force of our age. It provides ever more of our products and services, its values suffuse our cultures, its language structures our discourses, its power melds and distorts our politics. This current domination is a product of very long run historical processes.
Business history to date has concerned itself with the growth and development of firms and business systems over time and their interactions with wider social, political, and cultural contexts. Yet business, whether or not identified with the firm, is also embedded in social and cultural systems and structures, from which it derives much of its legitimacy and potency and on which it has a powerful shaping force. Attitudes towards the conduct of business can reveal a society’s priorities with regard to such critical issues as the creation and distribution of wealth, the organization of production and exchange, and the distribution of power amongst social, political, economic, and cultural institutions.
This roundtable moves the study of business history away from a focus on the firm and its activities and towards a broader definition that encompasses a range of activities and practices embedded within systems of value and social and institutional structures. This is particularly appropriate for the middle ages, when business was usually conducted by independent merchants rather than by firms.
The roundtable also launches the edited volume ‘A Cultural History of Business in the Middle Ages: Themes, Approaches and Sources’, part of a 6 volume set commissioned by Bloomsbury under the direction of Prof Andrew Popp and edited by Georg Christ and Catherine Casson. Two contributors to the volume will present their work. Dr Bart Lambert (University of York) will discuss how merchants shaped, and were shaped by, the distribution of power. Dr Deborah Thorpe (Trinity College, Dublin) will examine the business opportunities that emerged with the growth of written records and how the production and exchange of such records was organised.
Introduction: Business History Redefined
Georg Christ and Catherine Casson
The middle ages was a period of economic transformation and expansion. Economic activities developed from the domestic sphere to an urban and meta-regional economy. While the concept of ‘business’ may have originally been understood by medieval people as the activity of being busy in house, garden and fields, on the battlefield, and in church, it began to take on a more specific focus, associated with the multiplication of professions. Religious and political institutions provided a communicative and legal framework within which actors could do business. Business men and women operating on markets were the catalysers of commercial exchange. They took risks and created innovations in products and processes, but also exercised judgement in their interactions with government, customers and colleagues.
Power and the Politics of Business: Merchants, Monarchs and States in Medieval Europe
Bart Lambert (University of York)
Business both shaped, and was shaped by, politics in the middle ages. This paper explores the political dimension of business and its relationship to power and the powerful in medieval Europe. It links the rise of businessmen as a political force to the emergence of large cities from the tenth century onwards. The theme is developed further by looking at the involvement of businessmen in governmental structures in polities where authority was strongly centralised in the hands of a prince, where princes and cities shared power and where cities had considerable political autonomy. Special attention is given to the relationship between towns and their surrounding countryside and to the position of foreign merchants. Medieval businessmen did not have to participate in government in order to have political influence. Several case studies demonstrate how they gained power by exploiting rulers’ dependency on their economic activities, their supply of financial credit in particular.
Business and Materiality: Business, Administration and the Production of Literature
The worlds of business and administration and the production of literature became inextricability connected in the middle ages. The scribes who wrote bureaucratic documents and letters, and the merchants, who recorded their everyday transactions onto paper and parchment, also composed, copied, bought, and traded literary texts. This paper outlines how, from the twelfth century onwards, the rise of the ‘business mode’ for the management of an urban, more specialised economy produced and reproduced the conditions of the material life of the text. It was business concerns that promoted the rise of the written word as property rights, financial transactions, legal verdicts, and institutional practices were increasingly recorded physically. It was a growth in employment opportunities for the men who could produce these material records that caused lay literacy to proliferate and push beyond the religious houses.
A thriving market for literary texts grew among this prospering literate class of bureaucrats, merchants, clergy, scholars and academics—as well as the gentlemen and women, nobility, and royalty who could read but did not necessarily write. This fuelled a ‘business mode’ of literary text production as books proliferated, first in manuscript form from monasteries and then in print amongst the laity. This resulted in a situation where professional bureaucratic scribes of the fifteenth century found themselves divided between the ‘bread and butter’ work of royal and civic administration and the composition and copying of literary texts for patrons and members of their own ‘literary circles’. Techniques from the medical humanities are used to understand what happened to these professional writers when they got older - did this work slow-down or dry up, or did they find that they had more time for this 'freelance' work when they worked fewer hours in their day job?