The wind traders: Speculators and Frauds in Northern Europe, 1650-1720

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It is curious how often margins and centers intersect, a physical impossibility that is readily apparent in the economic world of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Any study of this period of economic history remains unsatisfactory unless it considers the celestial orb of high finance and the crepuscular realm of fishy deals and shady traders. Although the extent to which the two coincided may seem surprising, the overlap characterized the fluid economies of the time, as the career of the Scottish monetary reformer John Law amply demonstrates. Honest brokers and disreputable ones worked cheek by jowl, frequently employed identical economic practices, and often collaborated. In this milieu, speculation could seem very much like fraud, and credit often rested on questionable grounds. Yet both credit and speculation greased the flying wheels of commerce. Those who lived dangerously by speculating or by dealing fast and loose in the burgeoning money markets of pacemaker economies like Amsterdam,Antwerp, and Hamburg, ran the risk of bankruptcy. But not only frauds and speculators went bust; so, too, did reputable firms and prudent businessmen.Moreover, if contemporaries jumped to criticize the dubious economic practices that paved the road to ruin, they just as quickly saw in them threats to the republican heritage these polities shared.While this republicanism remained ill defined (it was certainly not a coherent or well-articulated political philosophy), it proved a useful rhetorical device for defining a particular place in the world. By it the good burghers of Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Hamburg meant something more than a vague concept of res publica (in the broad sense of "commonwealth," "public affairs," or "public property"). Such republicanism, as Jonathan Israel has persuasively argued, was "plainly not the ideology of a rural elite, aspiring to dominate a national parliament, but rather of city burghers whose interests were commercial and non-agrarian." It only superficially resembled the "Atlantic" (or rather Anglo-Saxon) republicanism that J.G.A. Pocock and others have described and "which is far and way the leading and presiding tradition in post-Renaissance western republicanism as a whole."1.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationLiving Dangerously
Subtitle of host publicationOn the Margins in Medieval and Early Modern Europe
PublisherUniversity of Notre Dame Press
Number of pages30
ISBN (Print)0268030820, 9780268030827
StatePublished - Dec 1 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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