The emergence of markets

In light of this extended history, the economic historian and collector Nicolaas Posthumus concentrated his efforts on the period prior to the Industrial Revolution. From 1914, he brought together a collection at the Netherlands Economic-History Archive and the Economic-History Library revolving around merchant capitalism, which for the Netherlands was clustered in the Golden Age. Subsequently, he made collecting social-history documents the basis of the International Institute of Social History, which he established in 1935.

In the course of searching for accounting records of merchants and manuals of commercial arithmetic, the NEHA purchased the Velle collection, which comprised fine specimens about trade, both in international practice (1-2) and in theory (3). Posthumus, who was already known in the Netherlands for his books on Leiden’s wool industry from the late Middle Ages onward, now became known internationally as a specialist on the history of wages and prices and the stock exchange. In the Netherlands the ‘tulip mania’ instigated the first crash on the stock exchange in 1636 (4), and demands that economic institutions be regulated ensued. This and the desire among trading nations to protect their lines of supply led to fundamental policy changes. Taxation and economic policy became as important as warfare. This is illustrated in the Bruyard collection based on the situation in eighteenth-century France (5).

Merchant capitalism, in addition to men of action, also included thinkers, who tried to identify the consequences of what was happening. Thomas More formulated his social critique in the allegorical narrative Utopia (1516), based in part on the rise of capitalism in Flanders (6). When the centre of world trade shifted from South to North, Leiden entrepreneur Pieter de la Court defended free immigration as a condition for economic growth and prosperity (7-8). The great authors from the French Enlightenment elaborated on ideas about the most desirable structure of the state, inspired by the tales of explorers about ‘peoples in foreign lands’ (9-10).