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


Through this innovative interdisciplinary approach, this project will contribute to several historiographical debates:

  • The differences in commercial capitalism between northern and southern Europe.
  • The history of comparative legal economic institutions in Europe, especially the role played by the practice of civil courts – as opposed to the jurisprudence – on the early modern development of international commercial law.
  • The early stages of the development of an international labour market in the maritime sector, and especially the economic and social characteristics of the professional/labourer categories in the early modern period.
  • The creation and dissemination of legal knowledge across state boundaries and between poorly educated social groups;
  • The role played by England and the Netherlands in the Italian economic decline.

For England this project will

  • fill a gap in a growing bibliography on sailors' positions towards the administration of justice;
  • contribute to two long-standing debates: the supposed ‘litigiousness’ of early modern English society, and the unfair treatment of sailors in the English courts.

For the United Provinces and France this project will

Clarify how the seventeenth-century reforms in the legal system were influenced by foreign developments, and by the involvement of their sailors on the international maritime labour market.

For Italy this project will

Allow us to see how Italy’s legal systems and economy responded to these exogenous stimuli:

  • For Genoa it will contribute to the explanation of its withdrawal from maritime trade.
  • For Venice it will clarify how a mature economy – based primarily on the service sector and on the management of a complex, long-distance trading system – reacted to a structural crisis and the aggressive competition of rising economic and political powers (a most topical subject with strong connections to contemporary issues).
  • For Livorno it will provide further details of its success as an international maritime trade hub, the first portofranco.

An important corollary of the project will be shedding light on the role played by informal information networks in the dissemination of (legal and economic) knowledge in Europe, and how this contributed to the practical beginnings of international commercial law.

Analysing these issues within a comparative setting through a ‘new institutional economics’ approach based on the nexus between economic activity and development of legal institutions, will provide a better understanding of the pace of transformation in a crucial sector of the European pre-modern economy.

Methodological Challenges

The methodological innovation of this project will consist of the utilisation of judicial documentary evidence for the socio-economic study of this phenomenon:

  • Qualitatively through the analysis of the different types of contractual agreements which were offered in different European countries.
  • Quantitatively through the gathering of the data on actual wages’ figures available through these sources.

Courts with specific jurisdictions on maritime issues existed in every maritime European state, and seamen very frequently took advantage of them outside of their home country. Nobody has so far studied these cases in which sailors took advantage of foreign courts to settle their disputes, and this notwithstanding the fact that they represent a unique point of observation, insofar as the negotiations between the captain and the owner and their crew frequently had different results when conducted in a foreign country, under a different set of legislation and social mores.

Collating data on contested pay will allow us to compare wages in the maritime sector of the economy in the four countries: England, France, the United Provinces and Italy. Analysing data about pay – both quantitative (amounts) and qualitative (contractual agreements) – will be an integral part of the research. Through the analysis of this documentary material it will therefore be possible to overcome the shortage or absence of serial quantitative data on wages which has so far limited the study of these issues for the seventeenth century.

The main bulk of the research for this project will be done in the State Archives of the countries under consideration, collecting and then cross-referencing documentary material relating to sailors’ wage disputes. The project’s team will mostly concentrate on documentary evidence in the archives of Courts of Justice, but some material will also be found in the Notarial Archives. Given the large size of Notarial Archives, the research in those will be performed through a sampling of notaries and years selected on the basis of their specialization in the maritime sector.

Individual law suits will be critically transcribed, qualitative details about contractual arrangements will then be separated from the quantitative data, and the latter will be published in a database which will be available online (free of charge) through the Centre for Maritime Historical Studies website.