Proposal preview

Deciphering the Economy: Numbers and their Rationalities in the longue durée, 12 th-19th century

In our modern societies and globalized world, the omnipresence of numbers seems a constant confirmation of the fundamental assumption that they are the most efficient tool for implementing and rating every kind of human activity. The fast-growing production of numerical data raises several issues regarding their impact on economic and political trends and policies. According to the French historian Alain Desrosières and the French lawyer Alain Supiot, this overwhelming use of numbers begs the question not only of what is being measured, but why and how. In recent years, historians have sought to chart and explain the increasing use of numbers in Western societies in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period as the key to a new way of governing people through new practices of counting, measuring, and quantifying – be it through the introduction of street house numbers, bookkeeping, statistics, quantified argumentation, to name only a few examples. By focusing on the Medieval and Early Modern times, this session aims to explore earlier stages of the economic uses of pragmatic numeracy and the relationship between numbers and the economy in a longue durée chronological frame in order to challenge our understanding of modernity. To what extent does the increasing use of numbers sustain the development of economic growth or resilience in the face of crisis? What influence do these data have on economic trends? In what measure are they necessary for building strategies and anticipating economic change? To what extent can the ideological assertion that numerical representations are the best way to view the world lead to the reification of numbers? And lastly, what is the impact of big data on cognitive and social structures?
To explore these phenomena in the Medieval and Early Modern times, it is necessary to break with the common categories used to characterize the modern world that are not relevant, such as the distinction between private and public. This session will welcome papers dealing with a wide range of contexts of production of numerical data – states, institutions, or individuals. This will enable us to understand how different kind of practices – for instance inventories, statistics, book-keeping, tax enrolment or economic surveys – mutually developed, and how numbers circulated from one sphere to another. To understand the consequences that representing social and economic realities numerically had on the development of Western societies, our session will also propose new insights into the fabric of data over the centuries: their methods of calculation, but more importantly the process of gathering, combining, adjusting, copying or updating numbers in order to produce a workable set of information. At last, we will ask whether it is possible to pinpoint a moment in time when numbers begin to be considered as abstract data which may be extracted from their original context and re-used in correlation with other data of similar nature. Thus, this session will contribute to reveal the multiplicity and complexity of the uses of numbers between the 12th and the 19th century, questioning the assumption of a linear evolution.
In the past centuries, the numerical representation of reality did not necessarily match our own modern notions of economic efficiency, but may have rather served other purposes such as legal, memorial or symbolic uses. However, these same numbers could also become tools for new management practices, even in times and places which have long been suspected of not having developed such allegedly “modern” rationalities – medieval monasteries, for instance. Conversely, using numbers to manage businesses or State finances does not prevent economic actors from continuing to use them as legal evidence or as scientific proof. This is a call for historians to unravel the variety of ways in which numbers interact with economic thought and practices and participate in the process of creating wealth and knowledge.

Organizer(s)

  • Pauline Lemaigre-Gaffier Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines / DYPAC plemaigregaffier@gmail.com France
  • Cheryl S. McWatters University of Ottawa mcwatters@telfer.uottawa.ca Canada

Session members

  • Tony Moore, University of Reading
  • Harmony Dewez, Université de Poitiers
  • Pauline Lemaigre-Gaffier, Université de Versailles-Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines
  • Joël Félix, University of Reading
  • Béatrice Touchelay, Université Lille 3
  • Senthil Babu D., French Institute of Pondichery
  • Benjamin Huf, University of Sidney

Discussant(s)

  • Anne T. Conchon Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne anne.conchon@univ-paris1.fr

Papers

Panel abstract

By focusing on Medieval and Early Modern times, this session aims to explore earlier stages of the economic uses of pragmatic numeracy and challenge our understanding of modernity. The past numerical representation of reality did not necessarily match our own notions of economic efficiency, but may have rather served other purposes such as legal, memorial or symbolic uses. However, these same numbers could also become tools for new management practices, even in times and places which have long been suspected of not having developed such allegedly “modern” rationalities – medieval monasteries, for instance. Conversely, using numbers to manage businesses or State finances does not prevent economic actors from continuing to use them as legal evidence or as scientific proof. This is a call for historians to unravel the variety of ways in which numbers interact with economic thought and practices and participate in the process of creating wealth and knowledge.

1st half

Opening Comments

Dr. Cheryl S. McWatters (University of Ottawa)

‘As much as a kingdom is worth': The Use and Abuse of Numbers in Medieval Politics

Dr. Tony Moore (University of Reading)

The tendency of medieval chroniclers to use excessively large and round numbers, for instance when describing the size of armies, is well-known and reflects, in part, the symbolic significance of certain numbers derived from biblical and classical exemplars. On the other hand, from the thirteenth century, Alexander Murray has charted the ‘growth of an arithmetical sense’ and concern for accurate quantification driven by the expansion of commerce and government. An interesting liminal area between the practical and symbolic usage of numbers concerns political discourse. This paper will consider several case studies in which quantified numerical data were presented as part of political arguments. How accurate were such figures? How were they compiled? Were they effective? Did the use and perception of numbers vary depending on the subject or the intended audience? The aim is to understand changes in medieval attitudes towards quantification and its relevance for political decision-making.

The tendency of medieval chroniclers to use excessively large and round numbers, for instance when describing the size of armies, is well-known and reflects, in part, the symbolic significance of certain numbers derived from biblical and classical exemplars. On the other hand, from the thirteenth century, Alexander Murray has charted the ‘growth of an arithmetical sense’ and concern for accurate quantification driven by the expansion of commerce and government. An interesting liminal area between the practical and symbolic usage of numbers concerns political discourse. This paper will consider several case studies in which quantified numerical data were presented as part of political arguments. How accurate were such figures? How were they compiled? Were they effective? Did the use and perception of numbers vary depending on the subject or the intended audience? The aim is to understand changes in medieval attitudes towards quantification and its relevance for political decision-making.

Valor, Clarum, Commodum, Extenta: The Construction of Value in 13th- and early-14th-Century England

Dr. Harmony Dewez (Université de Poitiers)

Value is a social as well as an economic construction, and changing ways of defining and apprehending the value of goods and services appear at times of deep societal change. England between the 1220s and the 1330s is characterized, among other aspects, by an important increase in the production of written records for administrative and economic purposes, a process described as the Pragmatic Turn or, following Michael Clanchy’s famous work, the shift „from memory to written record“. It is also marked by the development of royal and papal taxation – on moveables, but also on ecclesiastical income – and by a specific movement in estate management, namely a move towards the direct management of estates, or „demesne-farming“. The conjunction of these and other factors have spurred a progressive refinement of annual net income or value which occurred simultaneously in demesne-farming and ecclesiastical taxation, taking into account the costs of production...

Value is a social as well as an economic construction, and changing ways of defining and apprehending the value of goods and services appear at times of deep societal change. England between the 1220s and the 1330s is characterized, among other aspects, by an important increase in the production of written records for administrative and economic purposes, a process described as the Pragmatic Turn or, following Michael Clanchy’s famous work, the shift „from memory to written record“. It is also marked by the development of royal and papal taxation – on moveables, but also on ecclesiastical income – and by a specific movement in estate management, namely a move towards the direct management of estates, or „demesne-farming“. The conjunction of these and other factors have spurred a progressive refinement of annual net income or value which occurred simultaneously in demesne-farming and ecclesiastical taxation, taking into account the costs of production in agriculture.

Deciphering the Court to dignify the Crown: managing the Court by the numbers in eighteenth-century France

Dr. Pauline Lemaigre-Gaffier (Université de Versailles / DYPAC)

Even if contemporary political critics linked eighteenth-century French Court to frivolousness and mismanagement, this institution was in fact a place where new governance principles and methods where experienced. Run by men from finances and tax administration, it produced more and more numbers and used them to anticipate expenses, negociate funds with the “Contrôleur general des Finances” and convince, inside and outside the government, that Court was not only harmless but necessary to State. Court officials started indeed to consider these numbers as abstract data they could operate through many kinds of documents to elaborate a long term strategy. Political tools, these documents could also be used to show the ability of the King to display his glory both with splendour and measure.

Even if contemporary political critics linked eighteenth-century French Court to frivolousness and mismanagement, this institution was in fact a place where new governance principles and methods where experienced. Run by men from finances and tax administration, it produced more and more numbers and used them to anticipate expenses, negociate funds with the “Contrôleur general des Finances” and convince, inside and outside the government, that Court was not only harmless but necessary to State. Court officials started indeed to consider these numbers as abstract data they could operate through many kinds of documents to elaborate a long term strategy. Political tools, these documents could also be used to show the ability of the King to display his glory both with splendour and measure.

2nd half

Making Fiscal Data Public in 18th Century France

Pr. Joël Félix (University of Reading)

Although Necker’s Compte-rendu au roi (1781) has been considered as the first public royal account, evidence suggests that the public was able to access information about royal finances. More importantly, as Necker argued in 1781, his successors were constrained by his path-breaking decision. Indeed, this paper will examine a series of accounts made public each year, between 1785 and 1789. Although these accounts were not published, they raise a number of questions about the origins of the information displayed as well as their purpose and destination. These beautifully crafted and informative accounts raise an array of questions about the uses and limits of transparency as government tools on the eve of the French Revolution.

Although Necker’s Compte-rendu au roi (1781) has been considered as the first public royal account, evidence suggests that the public was able to access information about royal finances. More importantly, as Necker argued in 1781, his successors were constrained by his path-breaking decision. Indeed, this paper will examine a series of accounts made public each year, between 1785 and 1789. Although these accounts were not published, they raise a number of questions about the origins of the information displayed as well as their purpose and destination. These beautifully crafted and informative accounts raise an array of questions about the uses and limits of transparency as government tools on the eve of the French Revolution.

Data without Use or User: in the Origin of the Modern Statistics?

Pr. Béatrice Touchelay (Université de Lille)

This paper aims to stimulate discussion around a rather strong starting hypothesis which consists in considering that colonial statistics built in the 19th century are useless, or at least that they do not meet the initial purposes attributed to them. It aims to present the first result of a research on global history of colonial statistics based on a detailed analysis and comparison of the institutions set up in the different empires, their personnel, their functioning and their productions. Its first step consists in comparing the stages and methods of setting up colonial statistical services in Belgian and French metropolises in the 19th century and to analyze the legacy acquired from previous periods. It also aims to analyse the impact of the construction of these "userless" statistics on the development of modern statistics.

This paper aims to stimulate discussion around a rather strong starting hypothesis which consists in considering that colonial statistics built in the 19th century are useless, or at least that they do not meet the initial purposes attributed to them. It aims to present the first result of a research on global history of colonial statistics based on a detailed analysis and comparison of the institutions set up in the different empires, their personnel, their functioning and their productions. Its first step consists in comparing the stages and methods of setting up colonial statistical services in Belgian and French metropolises in the 19th century and to analyze the legacy acquired from previous periods. It also aims to analyse the impact of the construction of these "userless" statistics on the development of modern statistics.

Numbers and the Making of Private Property in Colonial South India

Dr. Senthil Babu D. (French Institute of Pondichéry)

Computational practices were reshaped in the nineteenth century with the consolidation of the English East India Company’s rule through the establishment of private property in land and the concomitant changes to the meaning of production, labour and ways of counting and assessment in south India. Numbers acquired a new place in the social and political imaginary among practitioners (like the village accountant and the school masters) as well as among a ‘measuring public’ of agrarian and mercantile social order, when the economic rationale of existing measuring practices were altered to secure private property based production. This new topography of numeracy is the object of our study as we map the shifts and changes in computational activities through practices of revenue record keeping and in the classrooms of arithmetic in early nineteenth century south India.

Computational practices were reshaped in the nineteenth century with the consolidation of the English East India Company’s rule through the establishment of private property in land and the concomitant changes to the meaning of production, labour and ways of counting and assessment in south India. Numbers acquired a new place in the social and political imaginary among practitioners (like the village accountant and the school masters) as well as among a ‘measuring public’ of agrarian and mercantile social order, when the economic rationale of existing measuring practices were altered to secure private property based production. This new topography of numeracy is the object of our study as we map the shifts and changes in computational activities through practices of revenue record keeping and in the classrooms of arithmetic in early nineteenth century south India.

Accounting for ‘growth’: colonial enumeration and the of invention economic knowledge

Dr. Benjamin Huf

Recent attempts to historicise the invention of ‘the economy’ as a measurable, socio-technical object of knowledge by experts and national account-makers in the early twentieth century tend to treat the relationship between governmental enumeration and economic knowledge as self-evident. But this conjunction also has a history. Governments began producing an ‘avalanche of printed number’ over a century earlier, a process magnified by Britain’s evolving ‘information empire’. Initially, however, colonial counting related little to ‘economic knowledge’. Focusing on Britain’s settler colonies, this paper reassesses the shifting motivations of governmental counting in blue books, musters and censuses to trace a transformation of the epistemological status of official enumeration, from a practice of political arithmetic imposing social order to a ‘scientific’ technique that supposedly revealed it. Beginning as exercises in control, surveillance and transparency, as colonial almanacs proliferated, their utility and meaning were increasingly satirized and disputed. In response, colonial statists sought to...

Recent attempts to historicise the invention of ‘the economy’ as a measurable, socio-technical object of knowledge by experts and national account-makers in the early twentieth century tend to treat the relationship between governmental enumeration and economic knowledge as self-evident. But this conjunction also has a history. Governments began producing an ‘avalanche of printed number’ over a century earlier, a process magnified by Britain’s evolving ‘information empire’. Initially, however, colonial counting related little to ‘economic knowledge’. Focusing on Britain’s settler colonies, this paper reassesses the shifting motivations of governmental counting in blue books, musters and censuses to trace a transformation of the epistemological status of official enumeration, from a practice of political arithmetic imposing social order to a ‘scientific’ technique that supposedly revealed it. Beginning as exercises in control, surveillance and transparency, as colonial almanacs proliferated, their utility and meaning were increasingly satirized and disputed. In response, colonial statists sought to redefine the significance of government numbers by innovating new publications, including “statistical registers” from 1850, which appropriated categories from political economy to make generalizations about the ‘long term’ and narrativize colonial wealth accumulation. These publications instituted a new kind of official memory and cognitive process that facilitated ideas of GDP and ‘growth’.

Closing Comments

Dr. Cheryl S. McWatters

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