Economics of Quality: People and Products on Medieval and Modern Markets

The first day of the 5th summer school on economic history opened with three papers by experts in the field, Christian Bessy, Laurent Feller and Bert de Munck, who introduced different theoretical issues in the economics of quality (économies de la qualité), followed by questions and discussion sections.

All three speakers referred to the medieval and/or early modern periods, applying modern and contemporary developments in economic studies from a historical perspective.

First, Christian Bessy’s report on the Economics of Quality in the Middle Ages presented an intensive theoretical framework, introducing the notions economics of conventions (économies de conventions), economics of quality (économies de qualité) and economics of identification (économies d’identification). Bessy reveals the complexity of the term ‘economics’, which can mean different things for different specialists and scholars across disciplines and schools. In his recent article, ‘The Power of Market Intermediaries’, Bessy argues that the participation of intermediaries in market making may be nearly invisible, yet their power, or authority, in constructing and regulating markets is undeniable, due to their engagement in the transactions between the producer (who may also be the trader) and the consumer (customer). He concludes that the issues of expertise, falsification, authentication and identification can be better understood if approached through the role of intermediaries in medieval markets.

Second, Laurent Feller spoke on People and Goods on Medieval and Modern Markets, discussing the practices of production (standardisation, authentication and certification) and labour organisation in villages and workshops. He focused, first of all, on the Livre des métiers, especially its part on the ‘Statut des merciers’, which is concerned with authentication and certification of products produced in the city, giving minimum surety on the quality of the bought goods, and reassuring the consumer of the good reputation of the trader. Subsequently, he discussed the institutional frameworks in which the quality of foods (bread and meat) and textiles was set and enforced. Curiously, substandard meat discovered by assessors may have to be destroyed or converted into a different product by cooking, salting or smoking – apparently medieval consumers were presumed to survive a salted joint made from not-so-fresh pork.

Third, Bert De Munck in the Concepts of Value in Early Modern Production, traces the evolution of the role of artisans and guilds from the High Middle Ages to the early Modern period. He links the decline of the power of guilds and the devaluation of artisans’ expertise to philosophical and political developments, with the passage from the medieval economics of what is traditionally, if misleadingly, termed ‘feudalism’, to ‘capitalism’.

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Bert De Munck presenting his research on the role of medieval guilds

De Munck argues for viewing intrinsic quality as a convention, determined by the quality of raw materials on the one hand and the credibility of the manufacturers (artisans organised in guilds) on the other hand. In the eighteenth century, the philosophical and theological discourse, illustrated by Smith’s writings, foregrounds the presence (immanence) of God in the raw material, with the respective declined of the role of the producer, who is viewed as a relative unskilled individual. Thus, economic value is linked to the way in which knowledge is organised and created.

In the afternoon, four speakers introduced their ongoing doctoral and postdoctoral research, focusing on the processes by which quality standards were produced and maintained and the use of objects for identifying groups of individuals. Léa Friis Alsinger introduced her projects on Qualifying Objects of Medieval Jews in Provence and Catalonia, which applied the methodology drawn from economics and sociology to study archaeological objects discovered for in association with medieval Jewish communities in Provence and Catalonia. Marianna Astore narrated a success story of the Italian paper from Fabriani, which experienced a second flourishing in the late eighteenth century, becoming the medium favoured by contemporary artists (The First Commercial Expansion of Miliani Paper Mills in Fabriano in the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century). Bruno Evans showed enticing jade jewellery and introduced the audience to the secrets of mining and processing jade (Jade in Olmes in the Eighteenth Century, on Rural Industrial Territory between Standardization of Products and Search for Lux). Finally, Steve Lewis following on Laurent Feller’s presentation of the quality of bread and wheat in the Middle Ages, discussed agricultural developments in late modern France, designed to ensure stable supply of bread in the country (Determining and Measuring the Quality of Bread from the Eighteenth Century to 1942).

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Bread and wine at the dinner after the studies

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About thegrailquest

Anastasija Ropa holds a doctoral degree from Bangor University (North Wales), for a study in medieval and modern Arthurian literature. She has published a number of articles on medieval and modern Arthurian literature, focusing on its historical and artistic aspects. She is currently employed as guest lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Sport Education. Anastasija’s most recent research explores medieval equestrianism in English and French literary art and literature, and she is also engaged as part-time volunteer horse-trainer. In a nutshell: Lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Sport Education Graduate of the School of English, University of Wales, Bangor. Graduate of the University of Latvia Passionate about history, particularly the Middle Ages A horse-lover and horse-owner
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