Call for papers: creditors, debtors, and early financial markets (c. 1300-1800)

Call for papers
13th European Social Science History Conference, Leiden, The Netherlands, 18 – 21 March, 2020
Organizers: Elise Dermineur (Umeå University) and Jaco Zuijderduijn (Lund University)

Since the crisis of 2008, debt has increasingly become a major concern in our contemporary world. Abyssal public debt, ever growing student loans, credit card indebtedness and concern regarding the housing bubble regularly appear on the front page of newspapers worldwide. But what is exactly debt? Is it a financial tool sustaining growth or is it the evil of our modern societies auguring its downfall? The last financial crisis has clearly proven that the paradigm of debt was poorly understood, even -and perhaps above all- by economists. We clearly need a better comprehension of the mechanisms and threats associated with debt. In this respect, historians of early financial markets can highlight critical points.

Recently, David Graeber suggested a concept he labelled “everyday communism” in reference to the solidarity and norms of cooperation existing among people when it comes to the structure and organization of their traditional communities, from the management of common lands to neighbourly and daily mutual assistance (Graeber, 2011). With this concept in mind, he proposed studying the evolution of the paradigm of debt over the last 5,000 years, with special reference to the transition from “everyday communism” to “impersonal arithmetic”; this latter model based on inequality, oriented towards profit making and the de-personification of exchange, in other words our current situation.

Nowadays we are used to fully de-personalizated forms of exchange between individuals and (multinational) financial corporations. Whether this is the logical or even optimal outcome of historical processes, is questionable though: it may be that current institutions only make sense within the current economic paradigm, as Tomáš Sedláček has argued (Sedláček 2011). Societies moving to a new, more sustainable economic paradigm, might require a different configuration of financial markets, and a different paradigm of debt.

The session asks which configurations of financial markets existed in history, and what the pros and cons were. Were historical, personalized markets efficient in the sense that they generated enough supply and demand? How well were creditors protected against defaults, and how well were defaulters protected against creditors seeking compensation? What did it mean to be able to meet your counterparty in a financial transaction in the streets, to be a creditor or debtor in everyday social exchange? And how did economies and societies move from personalized to de-personalized exchange – and why did they?

We invite colleagues to submit a 250-word abstract before March 14 2019 to Jaco Zuijderduijn:

For info on the ESSHC 2020 click here.


Graeber, D., Debt: the first 5000 years (New York 2011).

Sedláček, T., Economics of good and evil. The quest for economic meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street (Oxford 2011).

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