Opening Markets at the 14th ISECS congress in Rotterdam 2015

Aug 7, 2015 | Blog, Uncategorized

It was a truly open market at the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ISECS) congress in Rotterdam, 27-31 July 2015. On and around a thousand scholars from all over the world (delegates from 53 countries!) enjoyed pleasant Dutch summer weather at the recently renovated Erasmus University Campus. They attended keynote lectures, participated in round-table discussions, twittered enthusiastically (#ISECS2015), and engaged in social events, such as cultural excursions and music performances. The general theme of the congress was ‘Opening Markets’, though all topics related to the eighteenth century were welcomed. It is rather impossible to give a comprehensive account of all the papers and panels, but I intend to present some of the highlights of last week’s congress.

The lecture ‘The Nature of the Economy: a Cultural History of the Stock Exchange’ by Inger Leemans best answered to the theme of ‘Opening Markets.’ The early modern period saw an impressive economic expansion: new international trade routes were explored to exchange raw materials and new commodities; the establishment of stock exchanges opened up new possibilities of trade and labour, but also the bursting of bubbles. As a result Enlightenment thinkers developed new ideas about economy and politics. Leemans showed how the stock market in Amsterdam was a central manifestation of economic thought, not so much in books, but rather in a rich mercantile and visual culture of prints, plates, playing cards, cups and so on. The stock exchange was also depicted as a hive of activity, using bees as metaphor to illustrate dynamics of trade and merchant ideologies.

Leemans was part of an impressive line-up of keynotes. Margaret Jacob opened the congress, explaining how eighteenth-century people had to face new worlds, which led to new forms of sociability, new languages and political realities. Daniel Brewer reflected on a topic not often discussed by historians, namely time, and how we shape and reshape our view of the past. Dan Edelstein asked ‘who the Enlightenment was’ and showed how interactive visualisation tools can shed new light on the social networks of intellectuals, using their correspondences. Céline Spector’s keynote explored French Enlightenment thinkers from Diderot to de Sade and their ‘éloges de l’injustice.’ Interrelations between Enlightenment thought and religion were covered in John Robertson’s lecture on Catholic enterprises in sacred history. Finally, Wijnand Mijnhardt’s so-called swan-song – though I doubt we’ve heard the last of him – presented a panorama of the long Dutch Enlightenment, from radical to moderate, from republic to monarchy, from urban to rural.

In the remainder of this short review, I would like to draw attention to the ways in which the theme of ‘Opening Markets’ stimulated the topics and discussions. The first was historical. Markman Ellis, Matthew Mauger, and Richard Coulton presented a great panel on tea, approaching it as a popular commodity on the British marketplace, as an object of study in natural history and medicine, and as an item igniting new consumption behaviours and social performances. Another exciting case was a panel on how ‘the Enlightenment’ was marketed. David van der Linden, Marion Brétéché and Andreas Nijenhuis showed how publishers and booksellers in the Dutch Republic were often not having particularly profitable businesses, nor were they driven by enlightened ideas. Rather, they struggled to keep their businesses afloat, which in turn stimulated innovation and specialisation, publishing journals and theological works in the vernacular. Other panels discussed how colonial markets shaped European identities. What kind of strategies did collectors and painters develop for artistic exchanges? The wide variety of panels on markets in religious, political and literary contexts only marked the success of this theme for historical research.

The already much-debated digital humanities (DH) can be seen as a methodological interpretation of ‘Opening  Markets.’ A roundtable discussion with Dan Edelstein, Keith Baker, Robert Morrissey, Nicole Coleman, Simon Burrows, Glenn Roe, Jason Ensor and Inger Leemans brought different DH projects to the fore. Although it remains unclear whether DH will be able to answer unresolved questions about the past and actually brings up new knowledge, it’s surely a new phenomenon that allows modern historians to market their research.

Like most congresses, bringing scholars together and creating a space to meet and discuss was ISECS’s strongest suit–for example the organisers’ experiment to host poster presentations. Furthermore, the organisers arranged enjoyable and informative excursions to the beautiful Dutch towns of Amsterdam, Leiden, The Hague, Delft, Dordrecht, and of course tours in and around Rotterdam, including a visit to Erasmus’ statue and the Maritime Museum. Musical concerts featuring original English guitars and Italian fortepianos brought eighteenth-century sounds to life and were a delight to listen to. My personal favourite was the congress dinner at the Spido boat, which took us around the impressive Rotterdam harbour while dining and wining. The organising committee of ISECS must be given many compliments with hosting such a well-organised congress where scholars were able to meet and exchange novel ideas – a true marketplace of eighteenth-century scholarship.

Ruben E. Verwaal (University of Groningen / member of the Scientific Committee of ISECS 2015)