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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: March 2021

1 - Introduction


The purpose of this book

The ‘future of capitalism’ emerged at the beginning of the new millennium as an important topic of political debate – a debate recently intensified by the banking crisis of 2007. Discontent with capitalism has been reinforced by rising income inequalities and job insecurity and has led to increasing populism and political instability reminiscent of the 1930s.

There are, however, different varieties of capitalism. It is generally agreed that modern capitalism emerged from the decline of feudalism. This was a lengthy process, and historians disagree about the most critical stages in the emergence of capitalism and their timing. For many historians the key turning point was the Industrial Revolution, commencing c.1760, or the Agricultural Revolution and the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1689 that preceded it. In England, however, the market system was well established by the Elizabethan period of 1558 to 1603. Weber and Tawney dated the emergence of capitalism even earlier, to the start of the Reformation in c.1520, while Schumpeter dated it to the spread of international merchant banking, c.1400.

Evidence clearly indicates, however, that an international network of market towns had developed throughout much of Western Europe by c.1300. Markets are an indispensable component of the capitalist system, and so the origins of capitalism may be found at about this time. There was undoubtedly a Commercial Revolution in England in the period 1100–1350, which involved the emergence of organized markets for agricultural commodities and artisan production. However, there remain outstanding questions about whether markets in land operated in tandem with markets in manufactured and agricultural goods.

Entrepreneurs and firms have been credited with playing an important role in those markets from 1600 onwards. Medieval businesses were generally structured as a single trader or as a partnership. While some medieval businesspeople did exhibit the entrepreneurial characteristics of risk, innovation and judgement, the terminology of ‘entrepreneur’ has rarely been used in relation to the medieval period. Those differences in business structures and terminology, coupled with the relevance absence of specific business records, have often resulted in the exclusion of the Middle Ages from studies of the history of capitalism. However, as this book will demonstrate, medieval business activity can be traced through a range of sources, beyond businesses, and the presence of entrepreneurs and family business units discerned.