Over the last year or so, Iâ€™ve become increasingly fascinated by economic and financial history. How trade forms bridges between civilisations; how empires funded their wars; how new things made their way into the homes and lives of ordinary people â€“ I believe that these topics are every inch as important in understanding history as the more usual tales of Great Leaders and Epic Battles. Below,Â I review three â€œnarrativeâ€-type books on this area: Conquest, Tribute, and Trade, by Howard Erlichman; Vermeerâ€™s Hat, by Timothy Brook; and The Ascent of Money, by Niall Ferguson.
Please note I am not an expert in the topics covered by these books; rather, my perspective is that of an interested lay reader.
Conquest, Tribute, and Trade: The Quest for Precious Metals and the Birth of Globalisation, by Howard J Erlichman (2010): I went into this book knowing only the bare bones about its subject matter, world trade and the birth of the European overseas empires in the 16th century, and sadly, I finished it in much the same state. The problem for me was, this book presents history as â€œone thing after anotherâ€ â€“ it offers up a sea of dates and details, but little in the way of narrative or context. Those lessons I did take awayâ€“ in particular, the disastrous finances of the Hapsburg monarchs â€“ were often the result of certain events, such as Spanish sovereign defaults, being repeated over and over again. The book does not even have a concluding chapter: the flow of facts simply stops when it reaches the early 1600s. I think my unfamiliarity with the bookâ€™s subject matter did not help, and I did get the sense that a more knowledgeable reader might have gotten more out of the book than I. Still, I cannot recommend this book to my fellow lay readers.
Vermeerâ€™s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World, by Timothy Brook (2008): This book starts with everyday items in Dutch paintings of the 1600s â€“ a fur hat, a porcelain bowl, some silver coins â€“ and traces them back across the world: the fur in the hat comes from North America, where we meet Samuel Champlain as he takes his arquebus against Mohawk warriors; the porcelain bowl from China, where it could be tailored for European tastes; the silver from the Americas, where it could be taken to Manila and traded for Chinese goods. I really enjoyed this book as a glimpse into the changing lives and mindsets of Europeans, Ming Chinese, and others of the era. Recommended as an introductory read.
The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, by Niall Ferguson (2008): The companion book to a TV series, this examines several themes in finance â€“ credit; stock markets; insurance; housing markets and more â€“ through a variety of historical yarns. The author is a very good storyteller, and it shows as he gives era after era a human face. I walked away having learned a little about the Confederate States trying to borrow money secured by cotton; a little about the Scotsman who, according to Ferguson, â€œinvented the stock market bubbleâ€ in eighteenth-century France; Â a little about the profligate lifestyle of a nineteenth-century duke; a little about twentieth-century US property busts; and so much more. While this is not a serious reference book, Iâ€™d recommend it for someone looking for a readable introduction to finance throughout history.