Introduction to A Cultural History of Shopping in the Early Modern Era

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In 2006 the editors of a collection on the history of retail circuits and practices in late medieval and early modern Europe commented that “our knowledge about the daily practices of buying and selling is still superficial” and that “comparative analysis of retailing experiences and shopping practices across Europe is, to a large degree, uncharted territory” (Blondé, Stabel, Stobart and Van Damme 2006: 7). In 2010 Jon Stobart again highlighted the lack of attention paid to acts and practices of shopping, arguing that applying theories about identity to the study of inventories, diaries, household accounts and bills would enable the writing of a new kind of history of shopping, one which would link histories of practices with those of materials, and by doing so would bring together the economic history of retailing with the socio-cultural history of consumption (Stobart 2010: 345-7). The aim of this volume is to fill the gap in our knowledge highlighted in 2006 through a series of essays which utilise (to varying degrees) the evidence and methodologies highlighted by Stobart in 2010. The three main functions of this introductory chapter are to define (and in part justify) the chronological and geographical parameters of the volume; to consider how “shopping” has been conceptualised by historians who have considered the topic previously; and to offer a series of thematic overviews of some key literature related to the histories of consumption and retail, primarily drawing on the findings of scholarship produced in the last thirty years, but also referring to older works containing arguments which have been contested but remain influential.

The title of this volume states that it deals with shopping in the early modern period, but as scholars who define themselves as “early modernists” well know, “early modern” is a contested term which generally refers to the period from c.1450 to c.1789 and on occasion extends into the early nineteenth century, but which has been used to refer to various shorter periods within this timeframe, often being replaced by labels such as “Renaissance”, “(Long) Reformation”, “Pre-Modern” or “Ancien Regime” depending on whether the author is writing from a cultural, religious, socio-economic or political perspective (Cameron ed. 1999; Wiesner-Hanks 2013; Kumin ed. 2018). This series, like others produced by Bloomsbury, treats the Enlightenment era (or “long eighteenth century”) as a discrete period, so in this volume “early modern” will be used as a short hand for the “long sixteenth century”, essentially the first half of an era which stretched from the end of the medieval period (c.1450-1520 CE) to the age of political and industrial revolutions (c.1780-1850 CE). The long sixteenth century has much coherency as a historical epoch, beginning in the mid-fifteenth century when the Italian Renaissance reached its apex and Europe was recovering from the demographic catastrophes which had struck between the 1340s and 1430s. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, the turning back of the Mongols during the reign of Ivan III (1462-1505), and the establishment of new transoceanic routes to Asia and the Americas in the second half of the fifteenth century meant that the place of Europeans in the wider world was being redefined (Musgrave 1999: 1-12; Gerritsen and McFarlane 2018: 160-70). Within Europe the long sixteenth century also witnessed drastic political, religious and cultural change as Renaissance ideas spread beyond Italy, the Western Church splintered due to Protestant reformers challenging papal dogma, and secular rulers sought to increase their authority vis-à-vis the papacy and each other, all of which resulted in wars of religion being waged within and between European states in the eight decades leading up to 1648 (Cameron 1999: 63-101; Gunn 1999: 102-33; Wiesner-Hanks 2013: 86-198; Butters and Cohn 2018: 326-36). Like early modernity itself the long sixteenth century can be bifurcated politically and religiously, but also socially and economically, with the first half characterised by increases in “agricultural and industrial output, trade, rents, and incomes” as well as “sustained demographic expansion and urbanisation” while the decades after 1550 witnessed deceleration of demographic and market growth in the run up to the crises of the 1640s, but there is a strong case to be made for the coherency of the period too, as an age which witnessed a “price revolution”, “agricultural revolution” and the emergence of a “capitalist world-economy” (DuPlessis 2019: 51-177).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationA Cultural History of Shopping in the Early Modern Era
EditorsTim Reinke-Williams
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherBloomsbury Academic
Number of pages21
ISBN (Print)9781350027060
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2022

Publication series

NameA Cultural History of Shopping
PublisherBloomsbury Academic


  • Shopping
  • early modern history
  • economic history
  • social history
  • cultural history


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