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

Women in Military History

KCL PhD Student Jenna Byers reflects on the gendering of military history.

I recently attended a conference celebrating the contributions of women to the study of history, both as historians and as historical subjects. In a conference attended predominantly by women, I was not surprised to be in a minority as a military historian. I was, however, surprised by a statement midway through the day, made by a member of the audience, who suggested that women tend to study cultural and social history because they are easier than economic or political history.

If, as Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of politics by other means, then it is high time that women get involved.

For those of you who are unsure as to the distinctions between these types of history, essentially, cultural and social history are about how people behaved, how they filled their homes, or educated their children, while economic and political history are about how much money the government had to spend and what they wanted to spend it on. Now, I for one would not claim that social and cultural history are easier to study, because anyone who looks at these has to be as much a detective as they are a historian, extrapolating from physical items, while economic and political historians have any number of written sources to rely on. But this wasn’t why I felt compelled to speak out at this conference.

No, I wanted to point out that, in fact, women don’t choose social and cultural history because they’re easier than other kinds of history; we often choose these things because that’s what everyone tells us we should do. Since I was in primary school, I have been interested in the Second World War and, since I was in primary school, I have had people trying to convince me not to be. Telling people later on that I intended to study War Studies led almost invariably to the question, “Why do you want to study war?” with a subtle emphasis on the word ‘you’. After all, why would a woman want to study war?

By and large, military history has been and remains the reserve of men; it has been about the battles, the glory, the heroic figures and the bonds forged on the battlefield, bonds which, it is tacitly assumed, women cannot understand because we cannot participate in this form of bonding, being banned from the front lines of conflict in most major armies. Military history is about men doing one of the most traditionally masculine things in history; fighting with other men for territory or riches or glory. And, owing to the fact that the majority of military historians are male, military history has become, in many ways, isolated from other forms of history, tucked away in a masculine man-cave in the basement of university history departments.

Rina Levinson - a pilot in the IDF

Rina Levinson – a pilot in the IDF

Men have always feared the inclusion of women on the front lines of combat, and we can see this by looking at one case study, that of the Israeli Defence Force. It might surprise some of you to learn that, up until the late 1940’s, the IDF allowed women to fight on the front lines. However, in 1948 they reversed this decision, not because the women were struggling to fulfil their role, but because the men working with those women were having trouble. The problem was that male soldiers were developing protective feelings towards their female comrades, because these women represented, for them, a home front that was safe and peaceful and far away from where they currently were. This somewhat patronising treatment of a fellow soldier only really became an issue if these female troops were wounded on the battlefield, as this led to several instances of male soldiers losing control and going on guilt-filled rampages which increased the risk of injury to themselves and to their comrades. So the IDF decided that it would be easier to pull women off the front lines than to re-educate society to believe that women might not actually need men to protect them in this way.

This societal outlook, which says that men should be shielding women from the horrors of war, extends down to those of us who choose to study conflict. I guarantee that any woman who has ever announced her intention to pursue War Studies has encountered at least one man asking, “Why does a pretty thing like you want to go and study a thing like that?” Because society still tells women that war is a dirty, awful business and we should leave it for the boys, while simultaneously telling the boys to man up and get stuck into the mess. So women don’t study war, which is a great loss for everyone.

Dr James Barry (born Margaret Ann Bulkley) - a surgeon in the British army. Died 1865.

Dr James Barry [left] (born Margaret Ann Bulkley) – a surgeon in the British army. Died 1865.

If, as Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of politics by other means, then it is high time that women get involved. We don’t yet know what women can bring to the table, with all of our cultural and social historical experience, all we do know is that it is not 1948 anymore; there are biographies of female fighter aces from the German Reich, there are stories about Dr James Barry who lived for fifty years as a male surgeon in the British armed forces, there are all-female regiments currently fighting ISIS. We can no longer pretend that women have no place in military history, we can no longer ignore their contribution to conflicts of the past, and we can no longer allow ourselves to be surprised by the notion that a woman might be interested in studying these things.

Samuel Butler’s The Elephant in the Moon, (c. 1670)

Tom Colville, PhD candidate in the KCL History department, considers the value of satires for a historian seeking to understand early modern concepts. The particular source in question is Samuel Butler’s The Elephant in the Moon (c. 1670) which features in his thesis on “Mental Capacity in the Early Royal Society and Beyond: Intelligence and The New Science in England c.1650-1750”.

The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, formed in 1660, was a contentious institution. Anyone who has ever studied early modern natural philosophy, or indeed any aspect of Restoration society, will no doubt have come across one of the vitriolic pamphlets that attacked the Society in its early years. Some of the more brazen of these have been extensively discussed by historians, for example Henry Stubbe’s inflammatory Legends no Histories (1670). However, I believe one of the most interesting criticisms of the early Royal Society has largely flown under the radar.

The frontispiece to Samuel Butler, The Elephant in the Moon, (London: N. Merridew, c.1670).

The frontispiece to Samuel Butler, The Elepehant in the Moon, (London: N. Merridew, c.1670).

Samuel Butler’s The Elephant in the Moon must be one of the most wonderfully simple yet beautifully conceived satires of the seventeenth century. Essentially, Butler’s poem tells the story of a group of self-congratulatory Royal Society virtuosi gathered around a telescope. These gentlemen scientists take turns to examine the moon through the looking glass and discover the regaling sight of open warfare taking place on that celestial body, with two opposing armies in the heat of battle. Most astonishingly of all, an enormous elephant emerges from one of the lines of soldiers and rampages across the surface of the moon at a blistering pace, travelling from one side to the other in a matter of seconds. Amazed at the brilliance of their own discovery the virtuosi set about writing up their findings for publication, certain in the belief that this will finally put all questions about their lack of productivity to bed at last. Leaving the telescope unattended, a simple footman decides to experience the Royal Society life-style and steals a quick look through the eye-piece; he sees the truth of the situation immediately. Some gnats and flies have found a gap in the telescope and made a home on the lens; these are the virtuosi’s warring armies. And the elephant? A mouse has got trapped and squashed against the internal glass.

‘For he had scarce apply’d his eye
To Th’ engine, but immediately
He found a mouse was gotten in
The hollow tube, and, shut between
The two glass windows in restraint,
Was swell’d into an Elephant’

For my own research into conceptions of intelligence and mental capacity in the social milieu of early modern natural philosophy this poem offers some really valuable insight. The subversive twist is really effective because there is a perceived difference in expected intelligence between the footman and the virtuosi. Let us consider the significance of the mouse in the story. The fact that the footman’s mouse discovery conquers the Royal Society Fellows’ elephant discovery represents the victory of the small over the large, the seemingly insignificant over the bloated and loud. That size difference corresponds to an idea about the size of intellectual ability between the two groups. To leave his reader in no doubt at all, Butler composed an ode to his mouse as a footnote to The Elephant in the Moon. The Royal Society, and particularly their oversized appreciation for their own mental ability, is the real elephant in the room. And ‘the Mouse, that, by mishap,/ Had made the telescope a trap’, ‘though he appears unequal match’d, I grant,/ In bulk and stature by the Elephant,/ Yet frequently has been observed in battle/ To have reduc’d the proud and haughty cattle’.

Butler’s work has prompted me to think about the value of satires as primary sources for historians. The success of satirical work rests on a shared set of ideas between the author and his/her readers. Unlike a polemic (such as Stubbe’s above mentioned work), which can forcibly impose ideas onto the minds of their readers in acts of persuasion, a satire is dependent on the reader already sharing certain conceptions with the satirist. Satires might therefore – if we are able to decipher them – be able to demonstrate core concepts and ideas which are not only important to one author but are genuinely expected to resonate with an audience.

Swift's word machine, included in, Travels into several remote nations of the world. In four parts. By Lemuel Gulliver[...], Volume 2, (1727, London), p. 74

Swift’s word machine, included in, Travels into several remote nations of the world. In four parts. By Lemuel Gulliver[…], Volume 2, (1727, London), p. 74

Moreover, the power of imagery to articulate concepts which are not neatly encapsulated by a simple phrase or term is an interesting off-shoot from examining satires closely. I do not believe it to be a coincidence that a number of references to mental capacity which I have come across in early modern satire also rely heavily upon clear images. In Butler’s case, what could be more emblematic of the misrepresentation of intellectual size than a mouse distorted into an elephant? In Gulliver’s Travels, one of the very few images is included to demonstrate the writing machine that allows a group of unlearned idiots to randomly turn wheels until intelligent words start to appear. It may well be the case that difficult-to-articulate concepts, and those with an uncertain and contested vocabulary (such as intelligence or mental capacity), are the ones which imagery-heavy satire are best suited to representing.