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Modern Medieval Enterprises

Enterprise and entrepreneurship were not the product of the industrial revolution. The theory is not new but nevertheless is rarely applied. It is possibly a question of appeal, yet the legend of the revolution which, from England, changed production systems (and therefore the world) through the division of work and steam still survives. Previously at most retailers and bankers, artisans and artists followed the widespread idea of the “mother” industrial revolution of modern entrepreneurship, definitely not people who could rightfully call themselves entrepreneurs.

Yet apparently this is not the case. This at least is the theory of Mark Casson (from the Department of Economics of Reading University) and Catherine Casson (from the School of History and Cultures of Birmingham University). The two researchers have put forward, in their newly published The History of Entrepreneurship: Medieval Origins of a Modern Phenomenon, the idea that the origin of entrepreneurship and corporate culture has to be dated much earlier than the industrial revolution.

In other words the modern enterprise was allegedly born in the medieval age between 1250 and 1500, when the modern state was created. A theory which also appeals, turning back the hands of history. Between 1250 and 1500, they tell us, churches, shopkeepers and members of the royal courts were all engaged in activities which demonstrated entrepreneurial features of innovation, risk-taking and judgement. Exactly that which, still today, any entrepreneur worthy of the name does.

In order to “prove” the theory the article includes some examples such as those of the activities of the Prior of Tynemouth and the career of the wool merchant William de la Pole. Not leading figures, and possibly because of this more important for the history of economics and corporate culture, who with their activities, their decisions in the management of a convent and a textile trade company, represented, like many others, the forerunners of modern entrepreneurship.

The two British authors conclude: “by focusing on individuals rather than firms, it is possible to push back the study of entrepreneurship beyond the Industrial Revolution and early-modern trade to a period that witnessed the origins of the modern state”. As if to say the enterprise, its culture and its mode of operation are the result not only of major historical events but also and above all the accumulation of single actions, minute facts, grains of production wisdom which gradually take shape.

The history of entrepreneurship: Medieval Origins of a Modern Phenomenon

Mark Casson, Catherine Casson

Business History, February 2014