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Sailing into Modernity: Comparative Perspectives on the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century European Economic Transition

This European Research Council funded project, led by Dr Maria Fusaro, will analyse the economic transition in Early Modern Europe through a comparative study of the contractual conditions and economic treatment of sailors active in the Mediterranean, employing an innovative interdisciplinary approach using tools from legal, economic and social history.

Working on the project with Maria Fusaro are Bernard Allaire – working on France, Richard Blakemore on England and Tijl Vanneste on the Low Countries.

You can find details on Law, Labour, and Empire, the volume of collected essays edited by the project term, at the Centre's publications page.

The early modern maritime sector is an extremely early example of an international labour market, and its investigation represents the perfect case study for the analysis of the transition between Mediterranean and Northern European commercial capitalism. This project’s central contention is that the legal and financial differences in the treatment of sailors were one of the crucial factors in the ultimate success of northern European economies in their penetration of the Mediterranean, which was a necessary step in their struggle for global hegemony.

Since Fernand Braudel coined the expression ‘invasion of the northerners’, the subject of how English and Dutch shipping overtook local Mediterranean powers has been a classic topic of early modern economic history. To explain their success, several hypotheses have been brought forward, mostly focussing on English and Dutch technological superiority, and their better resilience towards pirates’ threats. Still, if their success is evident, we know little about the details of how this happened in practice, due to the poor survival of traditional economic documentation for this period, and existing debates have effectively stalled because of a lack of detailed comparative research.

This project offers the opportunity to reinvigorate these debates by analysing alternative documentary evidence (from judicial and notarial archives), which will allow for considerable methodological advances through the comparative analysis of the protagonists’ trading strategies.

The project aims at testing the hypothesis that legal and financial differences in the treatment of sailors were one of the crucial factors in the ultimate success of northern European economies in their commercial penetration of the Mediterranean. To achieve this aim, four different European economic systems, characterised by a strong maritime tradition and a consistent involvement in intra-Mediterranean trades, shall be analysed: England, the United Provinces, France and Italy. The project will be pursued by Maria Fusaro as Principal Investigator, in charge of the section on Italy. She will coordinate three post-doctoral researchers who will be working for two years on three interconnected sub-projects: one on England, one on the United Provinces and one on France.

This project will provide a methodologically novel approach by utilising primary evidence connected with legal history to elucidate issues of economic growth and business organization in the shipping sector, which in the period under investigation was the most critical sector of the European economy, and an essential tool to the emergence of the West. The PI and the post-doctoral research assistants will actively engage with scholars active throughout Europe in both disciplines and, in doing so, the project will also train young scholars into interdisciplinary studies, delivering at the same time top quality research outputs.