The role of the élites in economic history and their business activities have recently given rise to new interest among historians and new reflections on a variety of cases and contexts have been proposed during recent congresses in Kyoto (WEHC 2015), Bergen (EBHA 2016), Milan (2016) and Vienna (EBHA 2017). Exploring historical characters and the evolution of ruling classes’ wealth and businesses in different countries from diverse perspectives certainly seems to be an additional means of more fully understanding economic and social systems.
This Business History Special Issue on Noblemen-entrepreneurs in the Nineteenth Century. Investments, Innovation, Management and Networks aims to investigate how the nobility managed its capital and what their role was in the economic transformation that took place during the nineteenth century until WWI.
In that crucial period, along with the spread of the Industrial Revolution and the first wave of globalisation, there was significant economic growth in many European countries, the US and Japan, while several other states and regions were catching up or lagging behind. Once labelled as the age of the ‘triumph of the bourgeoisies’ leading to the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the nineteenth century has been reconsidered as the era in which the European nobility maintained persistent cultural and political power (Mayer, 1981). In the last few decades, the image of British Capitalism as ‘Gentlemanly Capitalism’ (Cain and Hopkins, 1993) has been widely debated, while numerous European case studies of nobility in business have been examined.
Nevertheless, noblemen-entrepreneurs are still regarded as historical exceptions, mainly forced into business by changing economic and social contexts. Given their aversion to social and political change and their usual scant involvement in industry and refusal to perform manual labour, the aristocracy is often considered to be traditionally resilient to economic transformation, and essentially to be interested in keeping their social and political status by renting out property and making money from passive property or capital speculations. At best they are seen as being able to adapt to the changing values of the times, joining forces with the emerging bourgeoisie.
By contrast, our hypothesis is that noblemen, pursuing their own interests in conserving and improving their status and wealth, also actively contributed to economic expansion, accumulating capital and skills, investing in emerging sectors, developing economic relationships and new markets. Noblemen were among the principal investors in insurance, banks, national and foreign public debts, railways, urban transport systems, the building industry, gas and electricity networks, and several other industries (in which they were directly involved – especially in mining, in the transformation of raw materials and in the agro-food sector). After all, they were the wealthiest group in the population, they had skills and social advantages such as business organisation expertise – due to the complex structure of their estate administration – they were highly educated, and were part of wide national and international social and political networks, which they could also tap into for economic purposes.
Related to these considerations is the question about their role in business in other continents and countries around the world. To give an example, the debate on the Great Divergence during the early modern period has underlined many similarities between Europe and Asia, as well as many differences (the role of the fiscal-military state, business and financial systems, science and technologies, culture, religion). In the 19th century, Japan – initially forced to open its market – swiftly went on to enjoy economic development. Comparing cases in Europe, Asia and other continents would be a very important contribution to highlighting the potential role and behaviour of the ruling and wealthiest aristocracies and their influence in creating different business contexts and routes to development.
Therefore, we think that there is enough scope to encourage in-depth worldwide historical research, including typically neglected countries in Europe, Asia and other continents: did noblemen contribute or not to economic progress in the 19th century? Can we consider them as modern capitalists of their time? Beyond economic theories, were they simple rentiers or did they have an entrepreneurial vision of their assets? Were noblemen involved directly in innovation and management? What were their attitudes to education, marriage and networks? What were their values concerning business, the economy, money, wealth? What about their relationship with the power and policies of state regulation?
Summing up, we are interested in a submission focused on noblemen-entrepreneurs and their contribution to economic transformation, dealing with the following subjects:
- Investments: type and sectors; strategies and objectives; rent vs profit.
- Innovation: role in fostering technological and agronomic innovation, improvement and experiments; approach to technology and science; promotion of technical and scientific knowledge, education and training.
- Management: business organisation; management of assets; land administration’s structure; information strategies (relying on engineers, attorneys, specialised bulletins and journals).
- Networks: inherited or built up through family relations, education, marriage strategies; political connections; affiliation to scientific societies and social circles.
Paper proposals enlightening the role of nobility in the emerging Nineteenth Century economies from Southern and Central Europe, Asia and Americas will be particularly, but not exclusively, welcomed.
Articles should be based on original research and/or innovative analysis and should not be under consideration by another journal. All articles should be submitted by 31 May 2018 via ScholarOne, clearly indicating in the dropdown list that they are for the Special Issue on Noblemen-Entrepreneurs in the Nineteenth Century. Investments, Innovation, Management and Networks. All the articles will be peer reviewed and, therefore, some may be rejected. Authors should ensure that their manuscripts fully comply with the formatting regulation of Business History.