The best books on early-modern business history

Siobhan Talbott Author Of Conflict, Commerce and Franco-Scottish Relations, 1560-1713
By Siobhan Talbott

Who am I?

I began my academic career working on political history until a chance conversation and a serendipitous find in an archive changed the direction of my doctoral research. Since then, I have become increasingly enmeshed in Business History, interested predominantly in the people that were at the heart of commercial activity. It is my belief that the landscape of business was – and is – shaped more by the people directly involved in it than by those making policy and devising international treaties. My current work – funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council Leadership Fellowship – explores the ways in which information was created, disseminated, and utilised in early modern business networks.


I wrote...

Conflict, Commerce and Franco-Scottish Relations, 1560-1713

By Siobhan Talbott,

Book cover of Conflict, Commerce and Franco-Scottish Relations, 1560-1713

What is my book about?

It has long been thought that the Franco-Scottish ‘Auld Alliance’ ended in 1560. In this book, I dismantle this assumption, showing that the Auld Alliance continued to play a crucial role in Franco-Scottish relations after 1560, as well as in broader British and European politics and commerce, even after the British unions of 1603 and 1707. Scottish ‘privileges’ in France were regularly renewed – the result of repeated overtures, from both sides, to maintain their long-standing ‘special relationship’. Focusing on periods of war, I show how the activities of the individuals who participated in Franco-Scottish commerce – predominantly merchants, but also manufacturers and consumers – shaped the continued development of this alliance throughout the tumultuous long seventeenth century. This book won the Senior Hume Brown Prize in 2016 and was Highly Commended in the Frank Watson Prize in 2015.

The books I picked & why

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Entrepreneurial Families: Business, Marriage and Life in the Early Nineteenth Century

By Andrew Popp,

Book cover of Entrepreneurial Families: Business, Marriage and Life in the Early Nineteenth Century

Why this book?

While perhaps a little late to be truly classed as ‘early-modern’, Andrew Popp’s Entrepreneurial Families is one of the books that sparked my own interest in a social approach to business history. Revitalising the exploration of the role of families in business after Davidoff and Hall’s seminal 1987 study Family Fortunes, this micro-study primarily employs correspondence as its source. This not only allows Popp to explore the validity of this approach, but it also helps him to realise his aim to ‘re-humanise the economic’. The focus on family makes this work appealing not only to those interested in business history, but to those interested in debates about the public/private spheres, gender history, and kinship.


The Ties That Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America

By Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor,

Book cover of The Ties That Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America

Why this book?

It has been broadly recognised in recent years that the traditional perception of early-modern Atlantic business as a male-dominated space is outmoded and inaccurate. In this superb book, Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor shows that the women who participated in commerce – from all ranks of society – were not exceptions in exclusively male-dominated markets but were ‘quintessential market participants’. Appealing strongly to my own approach to business history, Hartigan-O’Connor marries social and economic history, providing an updated view of who the commercial players were in eighteenth-century America.


'Merely for Money'?: Business Culture in the British Atlantic, 1750-1815

By Sheryllynne Haggerty,

Book cover of 'Merely for Money'?: Business Culture in the British Atlantic, 1750-1815

Why this book?

Sheryllynne Haggerty is not the first to consider the issues of risk, obligation, and reputation in early-modern business – I might have chosen Craig Muldrew’s earlier The Economy of Obligation, for instance – but what marks this book apart is its interdisciplinary approach to business culture. Throughout, Haggerty skillfully interweaves the broad range of primary material she uses – including merchants’ letters, accounts, state papers, newspapers, and trade directories – with a theoretical framework drawing explicitly on socio-economic theory. The use of fascinating case studies and an engaging writing style makes this, despite being an excellent example of a scholarly monograph, accessible to a broader audience.


Empire of Cotton: A Global History

By Sven Beckert,

Book cover of Empire of Cotton: A Global History

Why this book?

While perhaps not ‘business history’ in the strictest of senses, Empire of Cotton explores themes relevant to any business history – those of power, hierarchy, capitalism, and consumption, to name a few, and does so in a global context. This is a book not just about history, but about how this history has shaped the world we live in today. In places, it is a sobering story of power struggles and exploitation, of conflict between humans as well as between humans and the natural world. While not one for the faint-hearted, this award-winning tome is worth the effort it requires.


The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

By Imogen Hermes Gowar,

Book cover of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

Why this book?

I have included a work of fiction in this list both because it is an extraordinary example of period fiction and because it highlights the potential richness of many of the stories we tell as historians. Several of the books I’ve highlighted in this list, as well as my own work, draw on the records of specific people – often merchants, but also consumers and manufacturers – to explore issues surrounding business history. Imogen Hermes Gowar’s Jonah Hancock exemplifies the risk and uncertainty navigated by early-modern merchants as well as the potential cost of their ambition and expertly navigates the ways in which information spread through the streets and in the coffee-houses of eighteenth-century London. This novel was well-deservedly shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2018.


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