The Stages in the Social History of Capitalism
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The Stages in the Social History of Capitalism


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The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Stages in the
Social History of Capitalism, by Henri Pirenne
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Title: The Stages in the Social History of Capitalism
An Address Delivered at the International Congress of Historical Studies, London, April, 1913
Author: Henri Pirenne
Release Date: May 4, 2010 [eBook #32252]
Language: English
Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1

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Henri Pirenne
In the pages that follow I wish only to develop a hypothesis. Perhaps after having read them, the reader will find the
evidence insufficient. I do not hesitate to recognize that the scarcity of special studies bearing upon my subject, at least
for the period since the end of the Middle Ages, is of a nature to discourage more than one cautious spirit. But, on the
one hand, I am convinced that every effort at synthesis, ...



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Publié le 08 décembre 2010
Nombre de lectures 32
Langue English


TThhee  SPtraojgeecst  iGn uttheen Sbeorcgi aelBook,History of Capitalism, by HenriPirenneThis eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at nocost and withalmost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it,give it away orre-use it under the terms of the Project GutenbergLicense includedwith this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.orgTitle: The Stages in the Social History of CapitalismHAins tAordidcrael sSst uDdeileivs,e rLeodn dato tnh, eA Ipnrtile, r1n9at1i3onal Congress ofAuthor: Henri PirenneRelease Date: May 4, 2010 [eBook #32252]Language: EnglishCharacter set encoding: ISO-8859-1***START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOKTHE STAGES IN THE SOCIAL HISTORY OFCAPITALISM*** 
aE-ntde xtth ep rPerpoajreectd  Gbyu tFernitbze rOgh rOennlisnceh aDlli,s tMriabrutitne dPettit,(Phrtotpo:f/r/ gTdeap.mnet)     NoPage numbers appear in the right margin. Click ton the page number to see an image of the origeinal page.:Henri PirenneTSHOEC ISATL AHGISETS OINR YT HOEFCAPITALISMTHE STAGES IN THE SOCIAL
CHIASPTITOARLYI SOMF[1]In the pages that follow I wish only to develop ahypothesis. Perhaps after having read them, thereader will find the evidence insufficient. I do nothesitate to recognize that the scarcity of specialstudies bearing upon my subject, at least for theperiod since the end of the Middle Ages, is of a natureto discourage more than one cautious spirit. But, onthe one hand, I am convinced that every effort atsynthesis, however premature it may seem, cannot failto react usefully on investigations, provided one offersit in all frankness for what it is. And, on the other hand,the kind reception which the ideas here presentedreceived at the International Congress of HistoricalStudies held at London last April, and the desire whichhas been expressed to me by scholars of widelydiffering tendencies to see them in print, have inducedme to publish them. Various objections which havebeen expressed to me, as well as my own subsequentreflections, have caused me to revise and complete oncertain points my London address. In the essentialfeatures, however, nothing has been changed.A word first of all to indicate clearly the point of viewwhich characterizes the study. I shall not enter into thequestion of the formation of capital itself, that is, of thesum total of the goods employed by their possessor toproduce more goods at a profit. It is the capitalistalone, the holder of capital, who will hold our attention.My purpose is simply to characterize, for the variousepochs of economic history, the nature of this
capitalist and to search for his origin. I have observed,in surveying this history from the beginning of theMiddle Ages to our own times, a very interestingphenomenon to which, so it seems to me, attentionhas not yet been sufficiently called. I believe that, foreach period into which our economic history may bedivided, there is a distinct and separate class ofcapitalists. In other words, the group of capitalists of agiven epoch does not spring from the capitalist groupof the preceding epoch. At every change in economicorganization we find a breach of continuity. It is as ifthe capitalists who have up to that time been active,recognize that they are incapable of adapting,themselves to conditions which are evoked by needshitherto unknown and which call for methods hithertounemployed. They withdraw from the struggle andbecome an aristocracy, which if it again plays a part inthe course of affairs, does so in a passive manneronly, assuming the rôle of silent partners. In theirplace arise new men, courageous and enterprising,who boldly permit themselves to be driven by the windactually blowing and who know how to trim their sailsto take advantage of it, until the day comes when, itsdirection changing and disconcerting theirmanoeuvres, they in their turn pause and aredistanced by new craft having fresh forces and newdirections. In short, the permanence throughout thecenturies of a capitalist class, the result of acontinuous development and changing itself to suitchanging circumstances, is not to be affirmed. On thecontrary, there are as many classes of capitalists asthere are epochs in economic history. That historydoes not present itself to the eye of the observerunder the guise of an inclined plane; it resembles
rather a staircase, every step of which rises abruptlyabove that which precedes it. We do not findourselves in the presence of a gentle and regularascent, but of a series of lifts.In order to establish the validity of thesegeneralizations it is of course needful to control themby the observation of facts, and the longer the periodof time covered the more convincing will theobservations be. The economic history of antiquity isstill too little known, and its relations to the ages whichfollow have escaped us too completely, for us to takeour point of departure there; but the beginning of theMiddle Ages gives us access to a body of materialsufficient for our purpose.But first of all, it is needful to meet a serious objection.If it is in fact true, as seems to be usually concededsince the appearance of Bücher's brilliant Entstehungder Volkswirtschaft[2]—to say nothing here of thethesis since formulated with such extreme radicalismby W. Sombart[3]—that the economic organisation ofthe Middle Ages has no aspect to which one canrightly apply the term capitalistic, then our thesis islimited wholly to modern times and there can be nothought of introducing into the discussion the centuriespreceding the Renaissance. But whatever may be thefavor which it still enjoys, the theory which refuses toperceive in the medieval urban economy the leasttrace of capitalism has found in recent times everincreasing opposition. I will not even enumerate herethe studies which seem to me to have in anincontrovertible manner established the fact that allthe essential features of capitalism—individual
enterprise, advances on credit, commercial profits,speculation, etc.—are to be found from the twelfthcentury on, in the city republics of Italy—Venice,[4]Genoa,[5] or Florence.[6] I shall not ask what one cancall such a navigator as Romano Mairano (1152-1201), if, in spite of the hundreds of thousands offrancs he employed in business, the fifty per cent.profits he realized on his operations in coasting trade,and his final failure, one persists in refusing to him thename of capitalist. I shall pass over the disproof of thealleged ignorance of the medieval merchants. I shallsay nothing of the astonishing errors committed in thecalculations, so confidently offered to us as furnishingmathematical proof of the naïveté of historians whocan believe the commerce of the thirteenth andfourteenth centuries to have been anything more thanthat of simple peddlers, a sort of artisans incapable ofrising even to the idea of profit, and having no viewsbeyond the day's livelihood.[7] Important as all thismay be, the weak point in the theory which I am hereopposing seems to me to lie especially in a question ofmethod. Bücher and his partizans, in my opinion,have, without sufficient care, used for their picture ofthe city economy of the Middle Ages thecharacteristics of the German towns and moreparticularly the German towns of the fourteenth andfifteenth centuries. Now the great majority of theGerman towns of that period were far from havingattained the degree of development which had beenreached by the great communes of northern Italy, ofTuscany, or of the Low Countries. Instead ofpresenting the classical type of urban economy, theyare merely examples of it incompletely developed;they present only certain manifestations; they lack
others, and particularly those which belong to thedomain of capitalism. Therefore in presenting as trueof all the cities of the Middle Ages a theory which restsonly on the observation of certain of them, and thosethe least advanced, one is necessarily doing violenceto reality. Bücher's description of Stadtwirtschaftremains a masterpiece of penetration and economicunderstanding. But it is too restricted. It does not takeaccount of certain elements of the problem, becausethese elements were not encountered in the narrowcircle which the research covered. One may beconfident that if, instead of proceeding from theanalysis of such towns as Frankfort, this study hadconsidered Florence, Genoa, and Venice, or evenGhent, Bruges, Ypres, Douai, or Tournai, the picturewhich it furnished us would have been very different.Instead of refusing to see capitalism of any kind in theeconomic life of the bourgeoisie, the author wouldhave recognized, on the contrary, unmistakableevidences of capitalism. I shall later have occasion toreturn to this very essential question. But it wasindispensable to indicate here the position which I shalltake in regard to it.Of course I do not at all intend to reject en bloc theideas generally agreed upon concerning the urbaneconomy of the Middle Ages. On the contrary, Ibelieve them to be entirely accurate in their essentialelements, and I am persuaded that, in a very largenumber of cases, I will even say, if you like, in themajority of cases, they provide us with a theory whichis completely satisfactory. I am very far frommaintaining that capitalism exercised a preponderantinfluence on the character of economic organization
from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. I believethat, though it is not right to call this organization"acapitalistic", it is on the other hand correct toconsider it "anticapitalistic". But to affirm this is toaffirm the existence of capital. That organizationrecognized the existence of capital since it tried todefend itself against it, since, from the end of thethirteenth century onward, it took more and moremeasures to escape from its abuses. It isincontestable that, from this period on, it succeededby legal force in diminishing the rôle which capitalismhad played up to that time. In fact it is certain, and weshall have occasion to observe it, that the power ofcapital was much greater during the first part of theurban period of the Middle Ages than during thesecond. But even in the course of the latter period, ifmunicipal legislation seems more or less completely tohave shut it out from local markets, capital succeededin preserving and in dominating a very considerableportion of economic activity. It is capital which rules ininter-local commerce, which determines the forms ofcredit, and which, fastening itself on all the industrieswhich produce not for the city market but forexportation, hinders them from being controlled, asthe others are, by the minute regulations which ininnumerable ways cramp the activity of thecraftsmen.[8]Let us recognize, then, that capitalism is much olderthan we have ordinarily thought it. No doubt itsoperation in modern times has been much moreengrossing than in the Middle Ages. But that is only adifference of quantity, not a difference of quality, asimple difference of intensity not a difference of
nature. Therefore, we are justified in setting thequestion we set at the beginning. We can, without fearof pursuing a vain shadow, endeavor to discern whatthroughout history have been the successive stages inthe social evolution of capitalism.Of the period which preceded the formation of towns,that is, of the period preceding the middle of theeleventh century, we know too little to permitourselves to tarry there. What may still have survivedin Italy and in Gaul of the economic system of theRomans has disappeared before the beginning of theeighth century. Civilization has become strictlyagricultural and the domain system has impressed itsform upon it. The land, concentrated in large holdingsin the hands of a powerful landed aristocracy, barelyproduces what is necessary for the proprietor and hisfamilia. Its harvests do not form material forcommerce. If during years of exceptional abundancethe surplus is transported to districts where scarcityprevails, that is all. In addition certain commodities ofordinary quick consumption, and which nature hasdistributed unequally over the soil, such as wine orsalt, sustain a sort of traffic. Finally, but more rarely,products manufactured by the rural industry ofcountries abounding in raw materials, such as, to citeonly one, the friezes woven by the peasants ofFlanders, maintain a feeble exportation. Of thecondition of the negociatores who served as theinstruments of these exchanges, we know almostnothing. Many of them were unquestionablymerchants of occasion, men without a country, readyto seize on any means of existence that came theirway. Pursuers of adventure were frequent among
these roving creatures, half traders, half pirates, notunlike the Arab merchants who even to our day havesearched for and frequently have found fortunes amidthe negro populations of Africa. At least, to read thehistory of that Samo who at the beginning of theeighth century, arriving at the head of a band ofadventuring merchants among the Wends of the Elbe,ended by becoming their king, makes one thinkinvoluntarily of certain of those beys or sheiksencountered by voyagers to the Congo or theKatanga.[9] Clearly no one will try to find in this strongand fortunate bandit an ancestor of the capitalists ofthe future. Commerce, as he understood andpractised it, blended with plunder, and if he loved gainit was not in the manner of a man of affairs but ratherin that of a primitive conqueror with whom violence ofappetite took the place of calculation. Samo wasevidently an exception. But the spirit which inspiredhim may have inspired a goodly number ofnegociatores who launched their barks on the streamsof the ninth century. In the society of this period onlythe possession of land or attachment to the followingof a great man could give one a normal position. Mennot so provided were outside the regular classification,forming a confused mass, in which werepromiscuously mingled professional beggars,mercenaries in search of employment, masters ofbarges or drivers of wagons, peddlers, traders, alljostling in the same sort of hazardous and precariouslife, and all no doubt passing easily from oneemployment to another. This is not to say, however,that among the negociatores of the Frankish epochthere were not also individuals whose situation wasmore stable and whose means of existence were less
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