Provincializing Global History: Money, Ideas, and Things in the Languedoc, 1680-1830
New Haven, Yale University Press, 2020, ISBN: 9780300237160; 224pp.
Wayne State University
Date accessed: 6 June, 2023
James Livesey’s Provincializing Global History: Money, Ideas, and Things in the Languedoc, 1680-1830 examines the ways significant knowledge shifts amongst ordinary men and women tied into, and helped create and solidify, deep economic change in the long eighteenth century. Part of making that argument for Livesey entails tying changes in culture in a specific place, here Languedoc, to broader economic development and transformation. The questions he lays out – how and why did the economic and industrial movements that originated in Western Europe come to capture and then dominate global economic activity and culture – are ones that many historians puzzle over in some fashion or another. For Livesey, answers lie in understanding the experiences of the subaltern, peasants and more generally ordinary folks in Languedoc, and the ways they connected to, understood and eventually participated in and transformed knowledge culture and economic development. He makes the argument that technological and scientific advances were not predicated solely, or even primarily, on inventions themselves and how effective they were. Rather a supportive local political environment, and the local adaptation of new technologies to the particular conditions of a place, made change possible. Livesey examines three examples of local transformation, connected to broader shifts, that connected the population of Languedoc to broad shifts in thought and practice developed and adopted elsewhere in order to trace how the provincial shaped and responded to global history. The three examples roughly correspond to the subtitle of the book – money (provincial debt holding), ideas (botany), and things (swing plow).
Livesey’s research centers Languedoc because his book argues that broad global economic and political changes spread and endured in response to the emergence of new, locally rooted, knowledge cultures. These novel ways of thinking and understanding the world, in Livesey’s telling, “were not disseminated from ‘centers of calculation’ but constituted a process of collective learning that transformed the horizons of judgment in the European lifeworlds.” (5) Livesey takes key shifts in the long eighteenth century around finance, science and technology and chronicles their success in reshaping local practices. As a result of the findings of his study of changing systems in Languedoc, he makes an argument for the necessity of working in local archives to understand local responses to broader political, economic and intellectual shifts. In focusing on the crucial role subaltern men and women played in this process, he seeks to lay out how local buy-in, by the majority of a region’s population, constituted both a necessary condition for success as well as a powerful tool for adapting and reshaping global developments, such as the swing plow, to local conditions and needs. It was in that dialogue between broad ideas that developed elsewhere, the selling of debt instruments for example, and local needs that successful adaptation of new ideas and practices took root and flourished.
Livesey closely examines three broad developments across the eighteenth century to understand how elements of modernization came to be adapted in provincial settings. The first of these examples is the system of public debt established in Languedoc in the pre-revolutionary era. In line with the work of other historians of credit and debt, Livesey finds that a broad swath of the province’s population held public debt (rentes). Women frequently purchased public debt, judging the system’s level of risk acceptable for the returns generated. The capital women, primarily widows and single women with independent means, put into provincial coffers through their frequent purchase of rentes provided crucial support for the public works projects those funds underwrote. Provincial debt performed a number of tasks in the larger mission of integrating Languedocian residents into a broader economic system driven by the circulation of money and debt. It provided a safe way to invest capital, generating a reliable and relatively low-risk return. Livesey argues that the good management of provincial public credit on the part of the Languedoc Estates provided “new standards of public rationality” and demonstrated the impact of good governance on the province’s residents. Part of the prudent management of public debt meant investing public funds in the upkeep and expansion of the province’s infrastructure and in the mechanisms of good governance. Those investments created wider opportunities for the residents of Languedoc, reinforcing the connection between prudent investment and communal benefits. While the system of selling debts by provincial Estates collapsed with the French Revolution’s wholesale destruction of the Old Regime’s fiscal and political structures, the legacy of that good management left traces on a Languedocian population still comfortable interacting with an increasingly important system of monetary transactions.
After tracing the creation of a relationship between the subaltern and money, Livesey turns to ideas. He lays out how the University of Montpellier, a local institution of higher learning with a network of international connections, served as both a generator of new ideas as well as a way to disseminate them locally and beyond. The university’s strength in medical training led, in Livesey’s telling, to a robust program of research in the natural sciences and botany. The scholars in Montpellier, by siding with the theories of Linnaeus, created a network of scholars with “the total absence of overlap with the Paris academy of science,” aligning instead with the Royal Society based in London. (82) That web of international connections facilitated the creation of an independent, locally grounded institution of knowledge. Underscoring the independent, local character of the botanical research at Montpellier, Livesey reveals the process by which local experts, without elite credentials, formed part of the local society. This development, which came to support a robust program of theoretical and applied research in botany, enriched the agricultural practices of Languedoc while also spreading new, and in part home-grown, ideas about the most productive agricultural practices for local conditions. That connection constituted an important part of the adoption of new ideas, but adapted to local knowledge development.
Related to these new developments in the understanding of botany and, more importantly, agronomy, was the adoption, after modification, of the swing plow, the things of the volume’s subtitle. A new agricultural technology, the use of a plow allowed farmers to participate more easily in market-oriented agriculture. But just as with the use of provincial debt and defining the contours of the study of botany, the authorities of Languedoc and, just as importantly, the working farmers of the region, adapted this technology to local conditions. Livesey emphasizes that “the machine, a community of use, and norms of evaluation [of efficacy], all had to be in place if the plow was to embed itself and become a meaningful element of transformed cultural and material life.” (120) Further helping the adapted swing plow to take root in and help augment the profitability of agriculture in the region was willingness of the Revolutionary government to support local transformations of agricultural practices, spearheaded by peasants, that created a framework for better yields and more appropriate crops, most notably the vines that eventually created a profitable local viticulture. Released from the restrictions on land use imposed by an Old Regime system of privilege, peasant communities increasingly rationalized their agricultural processes to create what Livesey calls “a new kind of rationality in rural Languedoc.” (134)
All told, the volume provides an example of how local practices and attitudes formed an essential part of the creation and persistence of a modern global world, including the acceleration of a capitalist economic system that undergirded that modernity. Livesey adeptly addresses the complex process of modernity, adding an accounting of how local institutions and subalterns participated in and shaped that process to engage their needs and aspirations. This work provides a model of how to consider a broad question with skillfully devised examples that provide answers to that substantial topic. Nonetheless, there are a few points that could be examined more fully in order to strengthen the book’s conclusions.
The book’s title points to Livesey’s engagement with Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. In the most broad sense, Chakrabarty’s work argues for the decentering of a European standard and model for understanding global (economic) development, an approach Livesey adapts to his subaltern peasants of the Languedoc.(1) Provincializing Global History seeks to question explanations of the fundamental economic shift that took place in the eighteenth century, paving the way for the modern economic system of capitalism. Rather than seeing that process as driven by elites in cities like Amsterdam, London and Paris, Livesey decenters those places and actors in favor of small cities and ordinary people whose “collective learning,” as he calls the process of adopting scientific norms and modern economic practices, allowed these changes to have a global sweep and sustained influence, in short to shape a modern world. Further, Livesey seeks to decipher the process or dynamic that prevented elites from monopolizing growth and profits, through the use of rent-seeking for example, and allowed for broad economic change that both included and benefitted subalterns.
While Livesey’s study nods to Chakrabarty’s goal of decentering European ideas and categories, and suggests that he will use ideas from that text to problematize the relationship between the provincial and the metropole, Livesey’s book does not fully demonstrate the utility of adopting Chakrabarty’s approach. One of the insights of Provincializing Europe that resonates with my reading of Livesey is the desire to recount a divergent history of reason, one where the markers laid down by the European enlightenment do not constitute the only measuring stick. Rather, to give one example, in Chakrabarty’s narrative, the practices of Bengali men gathering for unfocused but intense conversation (adda) is seen as escaping from a European model of bourgeois civil society, one of the foundations of modernity.(2) Livesey’s book seeks to construct a similar alternative to a narrative of modernity that relies on urban centers of commerce and learning as the constructors and yardsticks of rational, Enlightened society, contrasted to an irrational pre-modern provincial Europe.
However, with his compelling telling of the construction of a locally based community of knowledge and practice, Livesey shows provincial towns and villages conforming to and adapting to the new market-based economy and knowledge based society, with urban centers serving as nodes of communication and commerce, rather than presenting a path to modernity that is provincial. He points to the connections between Edinburgh and Montpellier, for example, suggesting that these ties represent a divergence from a Paris-centric model of the diffusion of Enlightenment ideas. (72) Similarly, the strength of the botany community at the University of Montpellier rested in part of the ties to the Royal Society in London, which constituted a rejection of Parisian scholarly institutions. It would strengthen his argument if Livesey could clarify what he suggests is a disparate, local, path through the modern world that did not fully depend on established metropolitan centers, and which was more fully provincial.
In terms of understanding the development of a globally-connected, market based economy in Languedoc, it is surprising to see that the textile industry does not figure in this study. Throughout the eighteenth century the production of textiles provided employment to large numbers of men and women in the cities and towns of Languedoc, known for producing high quality wool. This market also connected the region to international markets, among them the markets of the Levant.(3) The cloth woven in Montpellier and other cloth production towns made its way to merchants across the eastern Mediterranean, marking an important source of revenue as well as key international economic ties. These connections weakened at the end of the eighteenth century in part due to a decline in the quality of cloth produced in the region, a situation that likely affected both the economic health of the region and the way local communities adapted to a forced shift in employment.(4) For those who had depended on the sale of fabric for their livelihoods, this drop in the market imposed significant change. The state of the textile sector is also a part of the story Livesey is telling here, one at the center of the development of new knowledge and the economy.
The role of women calls for more exploration than what Livesey presents here. He identifies the importance of funds provided by female investors to the credit markets of the Languedoc which undergirded both key investments and shifts in understanding of money and debt on the part of the region’s populace. This finding comes as no surprise; the role of women in financing debt has been increasingly recognized.(5) However, women certainly took part in the other changes Livesey chronicles. They worked alongside men as agricultural laborers, and participated in the market production that renewed infrastructure, financed by their funds, made possible in the changing Languedoc of the eighteenth century. The omission of women’s participation in the ‘collective learning’ that integrated provincial cities, towns and villages into a modern capitalist world diminishes our understanding of this process.
The aims of this book are ambitious, to explain how new ideas and economic practices came to small municipalities like Carcassonne and Béziers, which formed part of ushering those places and other small corners of the world like them into modernity. Livesey’s volume demonstrates a smart approach to the problem, laying out a robust introduction which introduces the broad problem and theoretical concepts that define and motivate the project followed by carefully chosen examples of how these concepts played out in everyday experience in his chosen region. This approach provides the reader with a clear argument about the adoption of modernity in a non-metropolitan part of the world with succinct and persuasive examples of that process. This volume will surely have a wide readership given its broad and ambitious questions accompanied by clear and convincing case studies that examine and provide compelling answers to them. For the reader wanting to understand how modernity came to small, out of the way places, Livesey provides a brisk and compelling read.
- Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference – New Edition (Princeton, 2008).Back to (1)
- Chakrabarty, 185-187.Back to (2)
- Christopher Johnson, The Life and Death of Industrial Languedoc, 1700-1920 (Oxford, 1995), 26-28.Back to (3)
- Johnson, 5.Back to (4)
- Philip T. Hoffmann, Gilles Postel-Vinay and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, Priceless Markets: the Political Economy of Credit in Paris, 1660-1870 (Chicago, 2000).Back to (5)