Economy – reformation – revolution

Transformations to and in modernity

Date: 1 September 2017, 09:00–12:00

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 340



From a global and at the same time regional perspective interdependences between socio-economic, -cultural and -political factors, developments and movements are crucial and decisive for the rise of modern societies and for further social change. The intention of the panel is to analyse processes of transformation to modernity in late medieval / early modern times and in modern / present times - and to compare such processes.

Then we must methodically reflect the extent to which modern sociological and economical categories are helpful and necessary for analysing earlier, historical societies. Historical differences, but also different ‚time strata’ (R. Koselleck) have to be adequately considered in sociohistorical comparisons. This is indispensable if we want to include lessons from earlier transformations in discussions on current problems of social, cultural and political reforms.


Norbert Fabian (University of Bochum)


Norbert Fabian (University of Bochum)

Stuart Jenks (University of Erlangen)

Angela Huang (Europäisches Hansemuseum Lübeck)

Dominic Sachsenmeier (University of Göttingen)

Michael Eze (University of Cambridge)



Norbert Fabian: Reformation and the dual revolution of modern times: Transformations from traditional to modern societies and the model of a "mixed economy"

Transformations to modernity are often described as transitions from feudalism to capitalism - especially in Marxist traditions and historiography. The paper refers to discussions between Maurice Dobb, Paul Sweezy and others in the 1950s and 1970s. It seems however to be difficult to analyse the complex and heterogeneous empirical reality of late medieval and modern societies adaequately with de facto ‘ideal types’ of ‘feudalism’ and ‘capitalism’. A suggested new model and paradigm could and should be, to understand and interpret such transformations as structural changes in mixed economies and formations - with a changing dominance of the different elements.

To what extent have sociopolitical factors such as revolutions and reforms and in traditions of Max Weber sociocultural and -ethical factors influenced transformations to dominant modern societies? This further question is also relevant for discussions on the possibility and real chances of structural social changes in present times. Eric Hobsbawm stresses that a dual, economical and political revolution in the 18th and 19th century was constitutive for the modern world. That paradigm has to be enlarged by the contribution of reformations as movements and earlier revolutions, of humanism and the enlightenment to the beginning and the rise of modernity. A sociohistorical consequence for our time and the future could be a stronger commitment to democratic reforms, to justice and peace - for reflexive and more sustainable progress.

Stuart Jenks: The distribution revolution of the 15th century

The consumption revolution of the long eighteenth century (c. 1650-1850) was inconceivable without a previous distribution revolution in Northwest Europe, which linked markets in a fairly stable hierarchy reaching from the international fairs of Antwerp and Frankfurt (later Leipzig) down to humble packman tramping along country lanes. The exotic products of the consumption revolution did not have to surmount any significant distribution problems, because the networks had been functioning since the fifteenth century.

This paper begins by proving that the distribution revolution did, in fact, take place in England and the Hanseatic world, by analyzing the disposal of the East India Company's huge stocks of imported pepper in 1603 and Hanseatic trade with England in the fifteenth century. Then, the paper will examine the reasons for the distribution revolution: cash demands on newly mobile English peasants in the thirteenth century, the race to found markets and the late medieval market shake-out (exacerbated by the plague, the enclosure movement and price-wage developments). The markets which survived this winnowing constituted the foundations of English commercial geography until the advent of the railways. Other signal characteristics of the consumption revolution (fixed shops, carrying services and turnpikes) were merely responses to increased market traffic.

The winnowing also established a hierarchy of markets (cf. Krugman) with London at the apex, as traders exploited scale economies deriving from the difference between urban wholesale and rural retail prices and – by concentrating their trade on the most liquid provincial markets and thus maximizing thick market externalities (cf. Diamond) – locked the satellite markets into the hierarchy.

Angela Huang: Textile trade and proto-industrialisation

In the later 14th and 15th centuries, textile trade changed profoundly, transforming from a predominantly high quality trade of expensive woollen cloth to a trade in a vast variety of fabrics and qualities. Export production for regional or even long distance trade took place in almost every larger town. This expansion of the textile industry, however, did not result from the introduction of new tools; Spinning wheel and horizontal loom had been introduced much earlier. The rapid expansion of the textile industry in the late 14th and 15th centuries rather represents a shift towards mass consumption of linens, accompanied by technological changes, such as the standardization of individual household production through the putting-out system or urban production markets – technologies associated with the term ‘proto-industrialisation’.  In my paper, I will illustrate the variety of textiles produced and traded in the 15th centuries by drawing on two examples representing the two most important fabrics in medieval textile trade, linens and woollen cloth. I will then highlight features in the organization of production and trade that supported the expansion of textile trade for mass consumption and the redistribution of textiles of all qualities.

Trade in cloth changed profoundly over the late middle ages. The many references to ‘grey cloth’, undyed cloth made from regional wool, in the trade sources from the late 14th century on mark the transition in trade towards one in mass products for mass consumption. The guild letters of German towns illustrate the expansion of export cloth production, some guilds producing up to five different kinds of certified cloth for regional and/or supra-regional consumption. Mechanisms like the ‘show’, the central exhibition and certification of an individual weaver’s production, were increasingly introduced in the 15th century and significantly lowered transaction costs in cloth trade beyond the local market sphere.

Linen trade had been comparatively insignificant before the later 14th century, but expanded remarkably from that point on, as can be observed in the London Customs Accounts. The linen ‘brands’ referenced here serve us as case studies for the organisation of a successful export production of linens on the Continent for the English market. Central production markets with standards of production introduced by urban authorities transformed household production into a commodity.

Dominic Sachsenmeier: Debates on capitalism in China

This paper views the study of economic history and capitalism in East Asia from a rather peculiar angle. Rather than seeking to add more economic historical viewpoints on the subject matter, it will primarily take an intellectual historical approach. This means that the main focus will lie on analyzing a sample of important intellectual positions dealing with the structures and cultures of capitalism in East Asia. Each of the chosen positions represents an important intellectual and political camp in China, ranging from the New Left to neo-nationalist circles. As the talk will show, many recent discussions surrounding the notion of an East Asian capitalism are tied to much larger social, political and intellectual controversies, which since the late Cold War period have arguably been even reinvigorated and taken into new directions.

Michael Eze: I am because you are: A project of an African humanism in an age of xenophobia

The paper critiques the post-humanist perspectives for being intellectually premature and ahistorical. Post-humanism is grounded on a reductionist view of history, primarily engaged with Western historical experiences. Their critique of traditional humanism putatively evacuates possible contribution of nonwestern historicity in filing the current intersubjective conscious void typical of traditional humanism. Humanism is understood and celebrated largely within Western historical experiences.  The cumulative effect of this worldview is decisive for our understanding of humanism. First is the epistemic inheritance of moral good and practices of Western humanism as the ultimate signature of a universal moral ethics. Second, this view of Western humanism (its merits and demerits) is then projected and celebrated as historic/epistemic reservoir of universal knowledge, that is, what it means to be human or non-human are defined by canons of Western history. The post-humanists consider their project as liberating humanity from bankruptcy of old ideas. They want to move on to new ideas, new ways of thinking that is not homo-centric. What they fail to recognize however is the abstract elitism of their project. Their liberation mandate oversimplifies and distort history. It obscures the lives and historical experiences of those outside the domain of Western history. Post- humanism takes for granted that we have achieved the basic minimum condition of human restoration. The alternatives they offer are merely displacement trajectories that masks perpetual human conflicts or cultural inhibitions to subjective recognition of others as people with subjective equality. The perspective from Africa argues for a view of humanism which while recognizing the significance of localized “humanities”, transcends the parochialism of Western humanist trends. The paper is a call for a return to a new understanding of humanism that is historically inclusive and relevant to contemporaneous human experience. Clearly, the aim is not to dismiss human advancements as rooted in Western intellectual tradition but to offer strategies to complement its inadequacies through a creative adaptation of a healthy African theory of humanism.

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