The best books to understand where “capitalism” came from

Why am I passionate about this?

I have long found it mysterious how we can live in what is truly one interconnected global order. Traders, merchants, deal-makers have long been viewed with suspicion. I wrote Compass of Society to explore how one country, France, with its tradition of land-based elites, could contemplate remaking itself as a “commercial society.” Adam Smith said that even in his time, everyone “becomes in some measure a merchant, and the society itself... a commercial society.” Revisionists are finding high levels of commercialization even in premodern China and India. In this list, I picked five of my favorite books that reshaped our understanding of where European “capitalism” came from.


I wrote...

Compass of Society: Commerce and Absolutism in Old-Regime France

By Henry C. Clark,

Book cover of Compass of Society: Commerce and Absolutism in Old-Regime France

What is my book about?

Compass of Society rethinks the French route to a conception of "commercial society" in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Henry C. Clark finds that the development of market liberalism, far from being a narrow and abstract ideological episode, was part of a broad-gauged attempt to address a number of perceived problems generic to Europe and particular to France during this period. In the end, he offers a neo-Tocquevillian account of a topic that Tocqueville himself notoriously underemphasized, namely the emergence of elements of a modern economy in eighteenth-century France and the place this development had in explaining the failure of the Old Regime and the onset of the Revolution. Compass of Society will aid in understanding the conflicted French engagement with liberalism even up to the twenty-first century.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Commercialisation of English Society 1000-1500

Henry C. Clark Why did I love this book?

Though not bursting with colorful anecdotes, this book is absolutely authoritative, and along with the author’s journal articles, it transformed our understanding of medieval life in at least three ways. It showed how pervasive the monetary exchange of goods and services was in the so-called age of feudalism. It demonstrated the importance of informal modes of exchange, away from the publicly visible formal markets. And it went far toward clarifying how, when, and for what purpose monetary exchange took place in a society dominated by vertical bonds of personal loyalty and reciprocity.

By Richard H. Britnell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Commercialisation of English Society 1000-1500 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Commercialisation of English Society offers an interpretation of social and economic change in England over five centuries. By 1500 English livelihoods depended more upon money and commercial transactions than ever before; the institutional framework of markets had been transformed and urban development was more pronounced. These changes were not, however, caused by any unilinear development of population, output or money supply. This pioneering study examines both institutional and economic transformation and the social changes that resulted and stresses the limited importance of formal trading institutions for the development of local trade. Commercial transition is throughout analysed from a broader…


Book cover of The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England

Henry C. Clark Why did I love this book?

By the sixteenth century, the desire for exchange had only grown, but the money available for it had not kept pace. In this classic study, the English historian Craig Muldrew uses sources such as probate inventories and borough courts to show how resourceful people at all income and wealth levels were at pursuing their deals—for labor, services, or goods of all kinds. People, it turns out, coped largely with a lick and a promise. Debt, sometimes formal but often based on oral reckoning, was far more central to daily transactions than we might imagine. And even the humblest people could use the court system resourcefully to advance their interests.

By Craig Muldrew,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Economy of Obligation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book is an excellent work of scholarship. It seeks to redefine the early modern English economy by rejecting the concept of capitalism, and instead explores the cultural meaning of credit, resulting from the way in which it was economically structured. It is a major argument of the book that money was used only in a limited number of exchanges, and that credit in terms of household reputation, was a 'cultural currency' of trust used to transact most business. As the market expanded in the late-sixteenth century such trust became harder to maintain, leading to an explosion of debt litigation,…


Book cover of The Moral Economy: Poverty, Credit, and Trust in Early Modern Europe

Henry C. Clark Why did I love this book?

This major synthesis broadens the canvas to Europe as a whole, especially Western and Northwest Europe. On the continent, peasant culture was more prominent than in England, and the French historian Fontaine—who has also written ground-breaking studies of peddling and the second-hand trade—shows vividly how resilient, enterprising, even manipulative ordinary Europeans in village and mountain could be in maneuvering their way through economic life. “In early modern Europe,” she writes at one point, “everyone was more or less a merchant”—which, of course, is exactly what Adam Smith had said.

By Laurence Fontaine,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Moral Economy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Moral Economy examines the nexus of poverty, credit, and trust in early modern Europe. It starts with an examination of poverty, the need for credit, and the lending practices of different social groups. It then reconstructs the battles between the Churches and the State around the ban on usury, and analyzes the institutions created to eradicate usury and the informal petty financial economy that developed as a result. Laurence Fontaine unpacks the values that structured these lending practices, namely, the two competing cultures of credit that coexisted, fought, and sometimes merged: the vibrant aristocratic culture and the capitalistic merchant…


Book cover of Artisans in Europe, 1300-1914

Henry C. Clark Why did I love this book?

Though sometimes described as a “textbook,” this authoritative, lucidly written, and altogether reliable synthesis—covering much of Europe—is actually a fine way to learn about the guild masters who dominated pre-industrial labor. Their paradoxical condition comes through clearly: employers and employees, they were at once seamlessly integrated into the social hierarchy and ruthlessly exclusionary toward outsiders. They touted a timeless, divinely sanctioned order, while also being true wheelers and dealers for their own honor and interests, leading to levels of entrepreneurship and inequality amongst their own ranks that would surprise many.

By James R. Farr,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Artisans in Europe, 1300-1914 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book is a survey of the history of work in general and of European urban artisans in particular, from the late middle ages to the era of industrialization. Unlike traditional histories of work and craftsmen, this book offers a multi-faceted understanding of artisan experience situated in the artisans' culture. It treats economic and institutional topics, but also devotes considerable attention to the changing ideologies of work, the role of government regulation in the world of work, the social history of craftspeople, the artisan in rebellion against the various authorities in his world, and the ceremonial and leisure life of…


Book cover of Liberty's Dawn: A People's History of the Industrial Revolution

Henry C. Clark Why did I love this book?

At one point in her excellent study, the author writes, “Generations of historians have painted the industrial revolution in relentlessly dark colours: a force which was wholly destructive for the poor, remorseless, unforgiving in its grinding down of the independent labourer of old. This, clearly, is not the assessment of those who lived through it.” The basis of her claim is a survey of over three hundred autobiographies written by English laborers of the time. Though she expected her readers to be surprised, since workers are famously supposed to be the leading rebels against the onset of “capitalism,” those who have read the other titles on my list will be less surprised. Their messy and eclectic array of passions and interests will seem altogether familiar.

By Emma Griffin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Liberty's Dawn as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This remarkable book looks at hundreds of autobiographies penned between 1760 and 1900 to offer an intimate firsthand account of how the Industrial Revolution was experienced by the working class. The Industrial Revolution brought not simply misery and poverty. On the contrary, Griffin shows how it raised incomes, improved literacy, and offered exciting opportunities for political action. For many, this was a period of new, and much valued, sexual and cultural freedom. This rich personal account focuses on the social impact of the Industrial Revolution, rather than its economic and political histories. In the tradition of best-selling books by Liza…


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We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

By Amy T. Waldman, Peter Jest,

Book cover of We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

Amy T. Waldman

New book alert!

What is my book about?

This irreverent biography provides a rare window into the music industry from a promoter’s perspective. From a young age, Peter Jest was determined to make a career in live music, and despite naysayers and obstacles, he did just that, bringing national acts to his college campus atUW-Milwaukee, booking thousands of concerts across Wisconsin and the Midwest, and opening Shank Hall, the beloved Milwaukee venue named after a club in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap.

Jest established lasting friendships with John Prine, Arlo Guthrie, and others, but ultimately, this book tells a universal story of love and hope…

We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

By Amy T. Waldman, Peter Jest,

What is this book about?

The entertaining and inspiring story of a stubbornly independent promoter and club owner 

This irreverent biography provides a rare window into the music industry from a promoter’s perspective. From a young age, Peter Jest was determined to make a career in live music, and despite naysayers and obstacles, he did just that, bringing national acts to his college campus at UW–Milwaukee, booking thousands of concerts across Wisconsin and the Midwest, and opening Shank Hall, the beloved Milwaukee venue named after a club in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap.

This funny, nostalgia-inducing book details the lasting friendships Jest established…


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