Mercantile Humanism: Knowledge-Making in Early Modern England, 1560-1660

Funded by The British Academy.

Mercantile Humanism: Knowledge-Making in Early Modern Britain, 1560-1660

Humanism in the early modern world has normally been seen as the preserve of the social and educational elites. Scholars usually associate it with the courts and counsel, with the universities and leading schools. In the same way, longstanding historiographical narratives have typically emphasized a split between humanist forms of knowledge-making and those practices associated with the worlds of the artisan, commerce, and trade—the early modern equivalent, if you will, of our ‘two cultures’ today. This project will offer a radical challenge to those views. Focusing on early modern Britain, it will recover the rich vein of ‘mercantile humanism’ that emerged across the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By identifying a set of distinctly mercantile knowledge-making practices, it will reveal the merchant as a figure who bridged the two cultures, and brought them into productive epistemic dialogue in ways that remain significant for understanding our world today. Influenced by the classical humanist learning of the universities, but also reflecting the practices (material, commercial, archival) of the counting house and bourse, this mercantile humanism reached far and wide. It shaped the literary, dramatic, intellectual, scientific, pedagogical, and philosophical cultures of the period. From new forms of patronage to new practices of accounting, from new methods of knowledge exchange to new means for the circulation of books and ideas, and from new conceptions of risk to new technologies of trust, mercantile humanism transformed the early modern world. By tracing the cultural agency of merchants in this way, this project will fill this gap in understanding and provide a major new account of learning, knowledge production, and epistemology in the pre-modern world. In parallel, by bringing its own two cultures together, it will feed into contemporary public debates about the role of the humanities, about our own two cultures, and, more fundamentally, about human learning itself. Through its methodology, but also its forms of dissemination, it will answer some of the challenges raised by those debates and reveal the possibilities inherent in the kind of interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary dialogue that it will both recover and model.

The project's research will be disseminated and delivered in four principal ways: (1) Merchants' Books, a major monograph to be published by a leading university press; (2) a series of three educational/performance workshops to be hosted at different schools, and designed and delivered in collaboration with schoolteachers, dramaturges, and drama practitioners (the last to be a performance-based session); these will focus on the play texts (Jacobean city comedies) that the project will investigate; (3) a set of educational resources, created with the same collaborators and out of these workshops, as well as in collaboration with an educational consultancy; designed to facilitate and promote the teaching of this material at secondary level; and (4) a series of public lectures at locations significant to the project's research objectives.

[Keywords: Knowledge-Making - Epistemology - Mercantilism - Humanism - Commerce - Education]

Total award value £106,352.51

People (1)


Dr Angus Vine

Dr Angus Vine

Associate Professor, English Studies

Outputs (1)


Website Content

Vine A (2022) London's Literary Merchants. London Metropolitan Archives [Online newsletter] 12.08.2022.

Research programmes

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