Call for Papers – Kalamazoo 2019: Was there capitalism in the middle ages?

For both contemporary scholars and classical theorists, capitalism defines modernity. Yet for a concept that is so en vogue (consider, e.g., the surprising success of Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty- First Century), there is little consensus over what it is and when it started. If capitalism is definitionally modern, then are all pre-modern economic systems non-capitalist? Or, on the other hand, do we have “modernity” whenever we see whatever we decide capitalism is? These thorny questions push us to consider what medieval economic activity was like and how it can inform the burgeoning field of the history of capitalism.

This definitional problem also masks a disciplinary problem: historians of capitalism and medieval economic historians often talk past each other, with medievalists privileging close study of primary sources (written, material, etc.) and historians of capitalism often lacking the exposure to the medieval material needed to back up definitional and theoretical claims. The aim of the panel will be to bring together experts in medieval economic activity and the evidence that survives for it with historians who may not have engaged with the medieval material. We hope that this will foster a new, positive, and productive sense of interdisciplinary discussion and teamwork.

Our panel will follow up on the successful “lightning session” format that we used at this past year’s panel on Digital Materialisms. The panel will consist of a series of four short papers (~12 minutes long) which will be precirculated among participants. The papers will be followed by discussion between the panelists followed by open questions from the audience. Because of the brevity of the papers, and our desire to foster dialogue, we ask scholars to either present a set of primary sources (documentary, material, or otherwise) that can shed light on medieval economic life; or, on the other hand, we ask scholars to provide an introduction to a theoretical problem in the field of history of capitalism that certain types of evidence might help resolve.

We choose this format because we feel that the value that our panel adds will be in bringing together the expertise of historians of capital and medieval historians, who are often not in dialogue.

Please send abstracts of no more than 250 words together with a completed Participant Information Form to session organizer Henry Gruber ( by September 15. Please include your name, title, and affiliation on the abstract itself. All abstracts not accepted for the session will be forwarded to Congress administrators for consideration in general sessions, as per Congress regulations.

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