Better late than never, here are my thoughts on the 2016 Economic History Society conference held at Robinson College Cambridge on the weekend of 1-3 April 2016. This was the best attended of the Society’s conferences to date with over 300 delegates, nearly 50 New Researchers papers and over 100 Academic papers. There was an abundance of riches for scholars of the eighteenth-century. And the nine academic sessions and six new researcher sessions dedicated to financial history in some form this year attest to the continuing and welcome interest in the field in the wake of the 2008 Financial Crisis.
The EHS always begins on the Friday afternoon with the New Researchers sessions. For the past three years I have been Chair of the NR Prize Committee. This has been a welcome task because it has reminded me of the generosity of academics who give up their time to observe the sessions and read and comment on the written papers and who also eschew the bar, for a while at least, to attend late night discussions to decide the prize winners. But mostly, I have enjoyed this role because I have had the opportunity to catch up with the wide variety of fascinating, innovative research that is currently being undertaken by new economic and social historians and to observe some fantastic performances delivered, often with perfect timing (some senior academics might learn a thing or two) and confident and assertive responses to questions. Of course the nature of the competition is that the panel must choose winners but high commendations might have gone to a great number of the papers that I read or observed. This year’s winners though do deserve particular mention: Sebastian Keibek for his paper entitled ‘The regional and national development of the male occupational structure of England and Wales, 1600-1820’ and Jasper Kunstreich for ‘Who had the right to fail? Insolvency regulation in German entrepôts, 1850-70’.
This year was also special for me because I took over from Helen Paul, as Chair of the Society’s Women’s Committee. The Committee’s remit is to support the careers of women in economic and social history and to promote women’s history and feminist approaches to economic and social history. Helen has done a fantastic job in the past six years in promoting and extending the activities of the Committee. We now include among our annual events: sponsorship of a session at the conference, a workshop held in November each year, an annual networking event and an ECR training day. More details of our activities can be found here: http://www.ehs.org.uk/the-society/womens-committee/index.html We are incredibly grateful for all that Helen has done and hope that she will continue to support the activities of the Committee. If you are interested in the Committee’s activities, please drop me a line to be added to the email list, join us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @WComEHS.
There was much on offer throughout the weekend, including the chance to walk in sunshine through Robinson College’s beautiful gardens, a welcome contrast to the somewhat less attractive buildings. There were sessions I really wanted to attend and had to miss, including IB: Credit, Risk and Law, IIA: Tools of Credit and IVC: Work and Welfare which included papers from Brodie Waddell on early modern welfare and Mark Hailwood discussing findings from Women’s Work in Rural England project: https://earlymodernwomenswork.wordpress.com/
Of the sessions I attended, space prevents discussion of all the papers but the ones that particularly resonated with me were the following. In Session IC: Ling-Fan Li focused on the Treasury Orders left unpaid after the Stop of the Exchequer of 1672. Ling’s work explores the extent to which a secondary market in the debt existed and questions what this tells us about the ‘credible commitment’ debate. Aaron Graham likewise offered new perspectives on the importance, or otherwise, of institutions in his discussion of the public finances of Jamaica during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. This work, and that by others working on the financial revolution in the Atlantic world, will add much to our understanding of learning, imitation, adaption and innovation in public finance. Can’t wait to see how the project develops…
Session IIB on Ideology in Economic and Social History promised much and did not disappoint. Amanda Capern, Amy Erickson and Pat Hudson offered us a wide-ranging discussion on the ways ideology and implicit bias might affect our approaches to the study of history. Amanda Capern questioned the extent to which women can be said to be ‘historically visible’ when many historiographies have, and perhaps still do, rendered their roles supplementary. Amy Erickson argued that the power of the ideology of male landed-proprietorship still holds and the lack of understanding regarding women’s property owning is a result of stagnant discourses which persist in viewing women’s economic power as ‘exceptional’ but also implicit bias that downgrades the significance of research conducted by women. Pat Hudson spoke about the ideological baggage that burdens the use of GDP as a measure of economic growth. While acknowledging the detailed and careful work done by those working with national accounting frameworks, she questioned not just the extent to which GDP is an appropriate measure of development but also the appropriateness of using a measure that promotes a particular view of social and economic improvement and the means of achieving development. If you want to read more, Pat’s review of Broadberry et al. British Economic Growth, 1270-1870 can be found in the February 2016 issue of the EcHR: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ehr.2016.69.issue-1/issuetoc
Session IIIA on Early Modern Finance covered debt, lotteries and bank notes. What more could one ask for? I really enjoyed catching up with Jeroen Puttevils at last and hearing about his research into early modern lottery markets in the Low Countries. Jeroen’s view that lotteries should be viewed, not as a quirky aside to the history of Europe’s financial revolutions, but as an integral part of developing financial systems and markets, is one I wholeheartedly endorse. Great also to see Hiroki Shin. His dissertation on the ‘Culture of Paper Money’ during the Restriction period is a must read. The paper presented at the conference addressed the question of what the Bank of England’s register of lost notes can tell us about the provincial circulation of the BoE note during the long eighteenth century. His conclusions point to an earlier and wider penetration of those notes than previously suspected.
Maybe it was my choice of sessions but one thing I found most interesting about this year’s conference was the level of reflection about the field of economic history and its methods. This was particularly in evidence at the Saturday afternoon Plenary in which Jane Humphries and Steve Broadberry for the Society and Karen Hunt for the Social History Society gave their views of the future of economic history. Steve, incoming President of the Society, had an answer (you can find the slides from his presentation here: http://www.ehs.org.uk/dotAsset/78430f18-a785-4b18-ac77-df538c4cb442.ppt). He had canvassed his colleagues and discovered that the next big thing was clearly signposted. It was, in fact, whatever they were working on at the time! Of course, Steve also had a more considered answer noting Financial Crises, the Great Divergence, Anthropometric History, Environmental History and Historical National Accounting (…but isn’t that what you’re currently working on Steve?) All speakers encouraged economic historians to think about how they spoke to and worked with other disciplines.
In the wake of the conference, it was particularly interesting to see that Karen Hunt’s calls for more cooperation between economic and social history was echoed on Twitter by incoming Social History Society Chair, Pamela Cox.
Similarly, Chris Dyer’s keynote at this year’s ‘Sowing the Seeds’ conference addressed the question of ‘Economic history and other disciplines: why we need each other’: http://www.medievalists.net/2016/04/09/conference-round-up-sowing-the-seeds-v-measuring-the-medieval-economy/ Collaboration and cooperation it seems is on many people’s minds.
Much to look forward to in the coming year then and hope to see an equally stimulating conference at Royal Holloway in 2017.