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.


  • Pauline M.-J. Lemaigre-Gaffier, Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines / DYPAC,, France
  • Cheryl S. McWatters, Ottawa,, Canada

Session members

  • Harmony Dewez, Université de Poitiers,
  • Tony Moore, University of Reading,
  • Béatrice Touchelay, Université Lille 3,
  • Senthil Babu, French Institute of Pondichery,
  • James R. Fichter, University of Hong-Kong,

Proposed discussant(s)

  • Anne T. Conchon, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne,

This panel has Call for Papers open.
If you are interested in participating, please contact the panel organizer(s) to submit a proposal.

  • Pauline M.-J. Lemaigre-Gaffier, Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines / DYPAC,, France
  • Cheryl S. McWatters, Ottawa,, Canada


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