Symposium on Early Modern Mercantile Culture

Further details and full programme.

The subject of mercantile culture has become one of the most fascinating and promising fields where scholars can produce transregional and interdisciplinary research. Early modern merchants in particular were moving, acting and writing in increasingly complex and global networks, where they had to face problems as diverse as distance, foreign status, mercantilist policies, and the constant need to quickly gather reliable information. The symposium organized at King’s College London for the 22nd and 23rd of June aims to bring together specialists in early modern mercantile culture, its broader intellectual and economic underpinnings, and its social and international facets. Among the speakers at the event, there will be three faculty members from King’s College (Prof. Francisco Bethencourt, Dr. Joao Silvestre, and Dr. Matteo Salonia). Topics covered by some of the papers include trade in late imperial China, business strategies in early modern Japan, and the impact of mercantile activities on visual art and literature.

Kaino Naizen (1570-1616), Namban Folding Screen, detail, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga

King’s is one of the best environments where a multi-disciplinary discussion on early modern trade and mercantile culture can be developed from a global perspective, as besides its world-leading History Department it can also take advantage of research produced at the Camoes Centre for Portuguese Language and Culture and of the input from the institutes concerning China, India and Brazil. The event, which includes Q&A sessions, is open to colleagues from King’s and other institutions, as well as to students and to the general public.

Hans Holbein the Younger, portrait of the merchant Georg Gisze, 1532, oil on wood, 85.7×97.5 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

These are the abstracts of the papers that will be presented by our two History faculty members:


Paper abstract – Prof. Francisco Bethencourt (KCL), “Visual Expression of Mercantile Culture”

Mercantile culture is generally addressed by the study of practical trade, behaviour of merchants during exchange, legal and institutional framework for transactions. We work on specific types of sources, mainly notarial records, account books, commercial law, treatises on usury, money and contracts, trials triggered by bankruptcies. However, the first half of the sixteenth century does not have a prolific set of sources that can help us in this field. This is why I decided to look at iconography, due to my previous experience with racism.  I will study two lost paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497-1543) on the Triumph of Poverty and the Triumph of Riches produced for the residence of the merchants of the Hanseatic League in London in 1532-1534. They are good for thought, since they were commissioned by top merchants in an important commercial environment with international connections. They concentrate a challenging density of symbols and narratives. My argument is that these paintings express the vision of the merchants on the debate on wealth versus poverty and the levelling proprieties of the market. This vision has not been fully taken into account by the historiography of economic thought concerning the period before the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.




Paper abstract – Dr. Matteo Salonia (KCL), “Self-perception and the Production of Knowledge at the Peripheries of Empire: the case of Giovanni da Empoli (1483-1517)”

There are still many questions surrounding the history of the first Portuguese fleets reaching the Indian Ocean immediately after Vasco da Gama’s expedition. Two of the most important issues that we have to explore when looking at the early empire-building process in this region are the identity (agenda; value system) of different actors among “the Portuguese” and the production of knowledge about space and human geography at the peripheries of the empire.

This paper offers a brief introduction to the life of Giovanni da Empoli (1483-1517), one of the first Italians to reach India and China by sea. Giovanni’s Letters offer an invaluable source for our understanding of early European expectations, perceptions and depictions of Asia’s human and economic geography. The paper also outlines possible lines of inquiry and discusses alternative research questions for the future.


Dr. Matteo Salonia and Prof. Francisco Bethencourt

Conference Report | Britain – Palestine – Israel: 70 Years On What happened, and what can we do now?

Seventy years ago, in May 1948, both the state of Israel and the Palestinian nakhba (catastrophe) were created. The anniversary of Israel’s establishment – declared on 14 May, one day before the final withdrawal of British troops – will be marked by some with joyous celebration. For others, though, this month is a time to remember the 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes, creating a refugee crisis that has only grown in magnitude since then.

On 1 May a one-day conference was held at King’s, co-sponsored by the History Department and the Balfour Project (a charitable organisation working for justice, peace and reconciliation in the Middle East), to consider the events of 1948, their legacy today, and possible ways forward. Both the morning and the afternoon panels comprised a Palestinian, an Israeli and a British speaker. The day focused particularly on the role of Britain. As the colonial power in Palestine during the thirty-year ‘British Mandate’ period from 1918, Britain bears considerable responsibility for the division and suffering that followed after May 1948. More recently British foreign policy on the Palestine / Israel conflict has tended to follow the lead of the United States. However, if Britain is to play a role as a force for positive change in the future, then a more active and imaginative approach will almost certainly be necessary.

Both Palestinian and Israeli speakers spoke about the personal human consequences of the conflict. Ghada Karmi, a London-based Palestinian doctor, reflected on her experience of exile, which she has recounted in her memoir In Search of Fatima (2002). Her family left their home in Jerusalem during the conflict in 1948, expecting to be able to return when the situation calmed down – but they were never able to do so. Alon Liel, an retired Israeli diplomat, observed that his primary-school-age grandchildren have already been indoctrinated with a hatred of Arabs, and noted that with similar hatred inculcated among Palestinian children the challenges standing in the way of a genuine peace are immense.


In a radical break with long-standing international consensus, the United States will mark this anniversary month by moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Israel is labouring hard to induce other countries to follow suit, in the hope that this will erode the commitment of the international community to a negotiated settlement on the sovereignty of Jerusalem. In Britain, several political parties – including Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party – are committed to the recognition of Palestinian statehood. This would follow the 2014 lead of Sweden, which remains the only European country to recognise Palestine, though several other countries might follow if a major player such as Britain took this step. In the afternoon session, Vincent Fean, former British Consul-General in Jerusalem (representing the UK in the Palestinian territories), advocated this step.  Others wondered if any future British government would be committed enough to put this policy into action, given the likely response from Israel, which Alon Liel suggested might include the breaking of diplomatic relations with the UK.


Discussion also focused on the deteriorating situation in the Palestinian territories. Leila Sansour, a Palestinian film-maker based on Bethlehem, described the increasing demoralisation in her home city, hemmed in by the Israeli ‘separation barrier’ and with access impeded by checkpoints: those with the means to leave Bethlehem have mostly already done so.  In the Gaza Strip conditions are increasingly desperate, and the United Nations has projected that the territory will become effectively uninhabitable by 2020 if current trends continue. There was a broad consensus at the conference that the Gaza Strip is facing a humanitarian crisis, which urgently requires international attention and structural change.


However, the clash between the competing historical narratives of 1948 and its legacy provoked heated disagreement between members of the audience. For most Israelis the conflict of that year is remembered as their ‘War of Independence’, establishing a secure Jewish refuge after centuries of persecution in Europe and initiating their nation’s continuing embattlement against a ring of hostile Arab neighbours. The Palestinian memory of 1948, in stark contrast, is of dispossession and disaster, compounded by further calamity in 1967, when Israel established control over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and soon established Jewish settlements in both places, and a deepening sense of frustration and hopelessness since then. Sustaining civil debate on this topic is, because of the depth of this division, perhaps more difficult than on any other international issue. Precisely for this reason, it is vital that universities continue to rise to this challenge, and to host broad-based, challenging and controversial events such as this one.


Adam Sutcliffe

May 2018

Workshop | Uncovering the Animal: Skin, Fur, Feathers 1450-1700

The study of animal skin is a core component of the Renaissance Skin project (funded by the Wellcome Trust), which aims to understand how animal and human skin was conceptualised and used in a globalised world between 1450 and1700.

We have been examining animal skin through various themes, such as the use of animal skin, fur, and feathers in the leather, fur, felt, and featherwork industries; how domestic husbandry animals (mainly horses and cattle) might be bled and cupped to purge their humours like their human counterparts; diseases that might affect the skin of animals and their cures (mange, scabies, murrain); and theoretical discussions on the composition of animal skin and its ‘coverings’, including fur, shells, and the scales of the rhinoceros or the armadillo. So far we have examined a range of primary sources from agrarian manuals, medical treatises, veterinary texts on anatomy and treatment, works on natural history, and furriers’ accounts to iconography and objects made from animal skin and fur themselves, from buff-skin coats to shark-skin sword grips

Feather mosaic triptych, Mexico, 16th century. It was created by indigenous featherworkers who adapted pre-Columbian techniques to Christian use.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 88.3.1. Gift of Coudert Brothers, 1888 (view original

We are organising a half-day workshop on the 29 June 2018 to bring together scholars who study the many facets of animal skin. As the Renaissance Skin project examines the issue from various historiographical approaches, using textual, material, and visual evidence, we hope to gather researchers from many different disciplines with the aim to facilitate lively conversation on animal skin and open the field to a wider audience.

Speakers will be Lianming Wang (Heidelberg) on kingfisher feathers at the Qing court, Stefan Hanß (Cambridge) on Iberian and Peruvian feather-work, Patricia Lurati (Zürich) on fur in Renaissance art, Thomas Rusbridge (Birmingham) on shagreen in early modern England, Cristina Bastante (La Sapienza) on nautilus shells, Sara Ayres (National Portrait Gallery) on fur and the Courtly Hunt, and Natalie Lawrence on early modern pangolins. For further information on the event, visit our website.

Registration for the event is now live – please follow this link.

Follow us on Twitter @RenSkinKCL and to keep up-to-date on the workshop use #uncoveringanimals.