The entrance to the Department of History’s office in Sidney Smith Hall

This project seeks to identify the extent of commercialisation in southern Germany between c.1200 and c.1440. By doing so, this project will provide a comparandum to the now substantial body of literature on the commercialisation of society in medieval England, and also examine the extent to which conditions in Germany were comparable to those in England. Since a highly commercialised society is a necessary precondition for the evolution of capitalism, a comparative study of pre-capitalist commercialisation is also the first step in arriving at a better understanding of the long-term processes that were required for capitalism to come into being, in both places. Given that Germany eventually became a very successful capitalist economy, despite the tendency of most historical scholarship to seek and find the origins of capitalism in the long-term trajectory of the English economy alone, the possibility of a similar long-term trajectory in Germany needs to be explored, and these issues need to be examined in a comparative perspective for any explanation of either the English or the German case to be robust. In particular, a comparative approach is essential to determine whether long-cherished views of English uniqueness are in fact tenable. It has long been known that this was a period in which market relations became normal and often essential for most layers of English society. It is notable that in England, commercialisation and market dependence came into being while a 'feudal' system was still in place: despite the fact that landlords retained direct management of their lands and cultivated them with the use of labour services (though these were often commuted for money rents), and although there were still a raft of customary restrictions on sale and movement of land, people, and goods, these supposed hindrances do not seem significantly to have obstructed the evolution of a market-dependent society.

Such a society has been seen, logically enough, as a necessary precondition for the evolution of capitalism, although how precisely the latter emerged from the former still needs a coherent theoretical explanation. Understanding the nature and dynamic of medieval commercialised societies is a necessary first step in this direction. Medieval rural commercialisation has never been studied in any detail from a comparative perspective; my preliminary research suggests that at least some regions in southern Germany were as commercialised as England in this period, though in Germany, landlords generally no longer retained control over their lands by c.1300 at the latest, having leased them out to tenants over the course of the previous two centuries. A study of German commercialisation will thus illuminate the economic history of this region, and potentially also the longer-term trajectory that set up the necessary preconditions--if not sufficient causes--for later capitalistic development. It will also provide a fresh perspective on theories regarding commercialisation, economic development, and the origins of capitalism in England. The monograph resulting from this project will thus form the basis of a reassessment of the trajectory of the medieval economy, and the pre-history of the origins of capitalism. It aims also to open up a relatively neglected field of study--medieval German agrarian history--and build a bridge between German and English scholarly traditions.

Principal Investigator: Shami Ghosh