This course will allow students of history, economics and the social sciences to
reflect on the histories of their own disciplines as they emerged out of the early modern
university and attempted to grapple with the new forms of economic activity which have since
the nineteenth century been generalized as “capitalism.” It will allow them to understand the
ambiguities of canonical and noncanonical sources and their susceptibility to interpretation as
support of vastly diverging schools of thought with vastly different definitions and periodizations
of early capitalism. They will reflect on how capitalism, however defined, relates to imperialism
and the state, which are also open to ambiguities of definition. They will stake out their own
position on which features of early modern economic activity and legal reformulation are most
relevant to present-day economic and legal dynamics. They will make arguments for the utility
and limitations of approaches from Marxism, legal history, quantitative economic history,
demographic history, intellectual history, and other approaches. They will explore whether the
particular rapidity of the English industrial revolution has caused us to retroactively interpret the
entire trajectory of early modern England from about 1450 as uniquely and precociously
capitalist when in fact other Western European countries were making equal or greater
contributions to the legal development of the corporation, the political theory which encouraged
capitalistic activity, and the economic activities associated with early capitalism. Although I use
the term “historiography” to generalize differences of opinion on these questions, also at stake
are different schools of social-scientific and economic thought. Notably, we will engage with
Marx, Weber, Keynes, Polanyi, Smith, Ricardo, Brenner and Wood, among many others who
either bridge disciplines or who lived before the modern distinctions among disciplines (e.g.
between economy and moral philosophy) developed. Subsequent versions of this course will
incorporate feedback from economics students in particular, exploring whether there is any
overlap between the reading list here and the canonical texts with which they are familiar. I
would be particularly interested in discussing the content of this course with Economics faculty
and incorporating guest lectures into a later version.

offering time

Spring 23




Elsa Costa



Course code


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