In current urban studies, there are two diametrically opposed views on the conditions for technological innovation in an urban context. On the one hand, innovation in cities – especially in industrial and post-industrial times – is frequently ascribed to a relatively high degree of cultural and political tolerance for political diversity. On the other hand, innovation in cities is explained as a result of mechanisms and institutions of regulation. The latter view is currently en vogue among historians of late medieval and early modern towns. Urban centres in pre-industrial Europe are now often considered to have benefited – in terms of supply of technical knowledge and formation of human capital – from the regulatory mechanisms maintained by urban authorities and craft guilds. Urban authorities, it is assumed, compensated a lack of an elaborate system of patents with an ad hoc policy geared to attracting skilled immigrants and granting temporary monopolies to entrepreneurs in possession of promising ‘trade mysteries’. Craft guilds are supposed to have increased the stock of human capital through the apprenticeship system. Larry Epstein, for instance, has argued that as a result of the legal prerogatives of masters, the levy of entry fees (serving as bonds) and the promise of end of term rewards (such as privileged entry into the labour market or access to the guild labour market monopsony) guilds effectively ensured that apprentices would serve out their contract. For such reasons, cities with a highly developed guild system are taken to have been more innovative than others.
Yet, these views have hardly been put to the test in late medieval and early modern cities. Comparative, empirical research on this issue is still relatively rare. In this session, we would like to discuss case-studies that address technological innovation in late medieval and early modern cities from the perspective of regulation. Key questions are: How did urban authorities and craft guilds cope with the need for innovative entrepreneurs and skilled workmen? What measures (ad hoc or structural) were implemented and what was the result thereof? Was technological innovation the intended effect of a deliberate policy or rather the unintended result of regulations with other aims in view? What exactly, if at all, was the connection between regulatory mechanisms and institutions and the supply of technical knowledge and human capital in Old Regime cities?
Papers in the session might address the following themes:
- policies of urban authorities concerning innovative entrepreneurs and labour market mobility: Under what circumstances, in what ways and for what reasons did urban authorities use instruments like the grant of citizenship, fiscal privileges, infrastructural provisions and the like to attract newcomers? To what extent were these policies shaped by local circumstances (i.e. the uniqueness of products and resources) and path dependent factors? Under what circumstances, in what ways and for what reasons did urban authorities promote the immigration of skilled artisans?
- cities as centres of vocational training: What made cities suitable places to learn a craft or trade and how did they function in this particular role? To what extent were immigrants attracted to cities because of their role as training centres? To what extent did skills acquired in cities circulate between urban centres and between cities and the countryside? Under what circumstances, in what ways and for what reasons did guilds favour or obstruct the advent of skilled immigrants?
- apprenticeship and regulatory policies of craft guilds. What were the reasons to prescribe fixed terms of service for apprenticeship or master pieces: to improve training or to increase the local stock of technical knowledge? To what extent were entry fees for apprentices and/or masters related to the need to attract skills and technical knowledge? To what extent and how did the guild’s monopsonic power in the labour market stimulate investments in training and technological innovation? How were the guilds regulations concerning product quality related to innovation?
Bert De Munck
University of Antwerp - Centre for Urban History
Prinsstraat 13 (Room D 325)
++ 32 (0)3 265 42 68
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