History seminars at the IHR

Economic and Social History of the Early Modern World, 1500-1800

Convenors: Julian Hoppit (UCL), Alejandra Irigoin (LSE), Anne Murphy (University of Hertfordshire), David Ormrod (University of Kent) and Nuala Zahedieh (University of Edinburgh)

Venue: Room N304, 3rd floor, IHR, North block, Senate House

Time: Friday, 5.15pm

Spring Term 2016
DateSeminar details
15 January The Returns to Invention during the British Industrial Revolution

Sean Bottomley (Institute for Advanced Study, Toulouse)

It was a commonplace among contemporaries – and among some historians today – that inventive ‘talent’ was poorly rewarded during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But such a notion clearly sits uncomfortably with explanations of the Industrial Revolution that invoke economic incentives. Adapting a dataset of 759 inventors first compiled by Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr, this paper presents the first attempt to systematically examine the issue. Using probate information from the estates of these inventors, the paper establishes that the majority were in fact extremely wealthy. The paper also starts to explore the precise origins of their wealth. Broadly speaking, inventors were not the inheritors of financial capital but they were inheritors of social capital, in the form of their training and ready access to the professional networks of their male relatives.

29 January Material Changes: The Impact of Mechanisation and Fibre Prices on Working-Class Underwear, 1720-1850

Alice Dolan (Hertfordshire)

Cotton was quickly adopted for decorative outer clothing by all ranks of society in eighteenth-century England. The Foundling Hospital billet books which contain textile scraps from plebeian clothing show that by 1759 plebeian women had access to thousands of cheap designs printed on textiles with cotton content. However, the widespread adoption of cotton for ‘plain’ textiles such as underwear (shirts and shifts), sheets and table linens occurred decades later. The majority of the working class still used linen for these purposes in the 1820s. The difference in adoption rates was due to the material properties of cotton and flax fibres. Cotton absorbed dye better than linen and was more colourfast. However, flax, used for linen, had much longer fibres, several feet compared to a few centimetres. This meant that it produced a stronger yarn, making linen much more durable than cotton. It was only when cotton prices declined sufficiently that working-class people began to use cotton instead of linen for plain textiles.

This paper therefore explores the relationship between cotton fibre prices and the use of linen and cotton underwear by the working class and uncovers the wider implications of these changes. Differences between the methods of production for linen and cotton will also be explored.

12 February Credibility or necessity? Supply and demand-based interpretations of the creation (or not) of long-term public debts in the Middle Ages

Tony Moore (Reading)

An implicit assumption in much of the recent literature about the origins of long-term public debt is that medieval European princes would have issued long-term debt, as contemporary city-states did, if they could have done so at reasonable rates of interest. However, lenders would not supply credit on such terms because princely rulers were unable to credibly commit themselves or their successors to repay their debts in the same way that town or city governments could. In this view, the principal constraint appears to have been a lack of supply rather than any absence of demand.

This paper will investigate a contrary hypothesis - that medieval princes did not issue long-term debt because they did not need to - by comparing the fiscal budgets and interest rates of medieval principalities and city-states at the point when they first issued long-term debt to see if the decision was driven by demand factors (i.e. financing needs outstripping short- and medium-term taxation capacity) or supply factors (i.e. creditors who were willing to lend long-term at low interest rates).

26 February Disciplining credit: the civic model of public pawnshops in early modern Italy

Mauro Carboni (Bologna)

Pawnshops were the most common and adaptable credit institutions for short-term, consumption-oriented loans. Despite low transaction costs, pawnshop charges tended to be steep and exposed poorer people to arbitrary treatment and increasing indebtedness. Regulated community-based pawnshops provided a possible escape. The cities of Renaissance Italy became the home of public pawn banks (Monti di pietà), a remarkable innovation which subsequently became the benchmark of a socially responsible consumer credit.

As the fortunes of a number of Monti soared from the mid-16th century onwards, historians have noticed that such evolution went hand in hand with the acquisition of assets, a steady expansion of banking services, closer ties to public authorities and to affluent customers. This evolution – often described as threatening the original mission of Monti as benevolent lenders of last resort to the working poor – was not necessarily nefarious and detrimental to poorer borrowers. Wider financial operations and dealings with a wealthier clientele could be managed and disciplined in such a way to have an ethically acceptable outcome: more abundant and cheaper credit services to those in serious need.

11 March Re-assessing the Great Rebuilding 1480-1700

John Broad (CAMPOP)

 'W G Hoskins' article, 'The rebuilding of rural England 1570-1640' in Past and Present 1953. was one of the most influential contributions to the post-war re-shaping of the social and economic history of early modern England.  There have been arguments about its timing and importance, but the basic constituents remain unchallenged.  But it also rested on a surprisingly thin evidence base by modern standards.  This paper will examine the nature, timing, and geographical spread of the 'rebuilding' phenomenon using a range of sources that have come into prominence since Hoskins' time, in particular probate inventories, early village maps, and detailed estate surveys to suggest that we can refine Hoskins' basic concepts to a considerable extent.'

18 March The Crisis of the 1620s and its antecedents: trade rivalry and politics in England and the Netherlands, 1604-1625

David Ormrod (Kent) and Valentina Caldari (Balliol College, Oxford)

Economic historians have long singled out the 1620s as the decade when the sustained growth of the early modern world economy came to a halt.  In England, monetary instability abroad and widespread depression in the textile industry coincided with harvest failure and plague.  Revival of the ‘general crisis’ debate by Geoffrey Parker has refocused interest on the Braudellian conjuncture, the intersection between war, rebellions and outbreaks of peace, and long-run economic and environmental change.


The Dutch Eleven Years’ Truce with Spain (1609-21) and James I’s pro-Spanish policy gave England and the Netherlands a breathing space to extend and diversify their overseas trade, which in turn led to a reshaping of their economic and diplomatic relations.   Revised estimates of English and Dutch trade values and reconsideration of the significance of import-led growth help to explain the dual character of the crisis of the 1620s in England and the Netherlands:  economic and political in equal measure.

Low Countries History, Economic and Social History of the Early Modern World seminar joint session
Venue: Room SH243, 2nd floor, South block, Senate House

Summer Term 2016
DateSeminar details
20 May The Role of Domains in Transferring and Building Manufacturing Systems in the Tokugawa Era (1603-1868)

Masa Tanimoto (Tokyo)

17 June Spinning and the Industrial Revolution

John Styles (Hertfordshire)