Economic History of Europe in Modern Times

By Melvin M. Knight; Harry Elmer Barnes et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II THE "COMMERCIAL REVOLUTION"

GENERAL NATURE OF THE CHANGES

IF it is ever permissible to use the word "revolution" to designate a series of changes requiring decades to complete, this is perhaps one of the cases. We need to be fairly definite, however, as to what was overturned, and also as to what appeared in its place. An attempt was made in the last chapter to show that the seeds of modern capitalism were already springing up, here and there, by 1500. In fact, if we look at particular businesses, or even towns, in Italy and the Low Countries long before that time, their appearance is seen to be quite modern in many respects. Modern capitalism long resembled medieyal as regards the domination of industry by commerce. When real industrial capitalism had reached such a stage of development that it could turn the tables and put trade in a dependent position, the commercial revolution was over. This did not occur until the eighteenth century.

The object of a definition, if we take the word literally and exactly, is merely to fix bounds. In trying to sketch a movement in time and space, it is almost infinitely preferable to deal with the positive forces which produce change and continue to appear, rather than merely to record the disappearance of this or that factor which once seemed important -- or perhaps actually was so. Thus we can postpone fixing the forward boundary of the "Commercial Revolution" for the moment, merely noting that another step in the economic development of western society, to which the name "Industrial Revolution" seems to have become thoroughly fixed, overshadowed the more strictly commercial phase.

How we date the commercial revolution is of no great consequence. Dating it at all is merely a matter of con-

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