Edited volumes like Suzanne Desan, Lynn Hunt, and William Max Nelson’s The French Revolution in Global Perspective (2013) and Lynn Hunt’s Writing History in the Global Era (2014) have called upon scholars of early modern France, who have traditionally remained narrowly domestic in their considerations of the Old Regime and the Enlightenment, to look beyond nation-centric explanations of historical change. Indeed, notwithstanding the original publication in 1949 of Fernand Braudel’s La Méditerrannée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II, which offered a template for moving beyond singular nation-based and event-driven historical narratives, early modernists have only recently begun integrating discussions of non-European processes, activities, and populations into French history. Felicia Gottman’s Global Trade, Smuggling, and the Making of Economic Liberalism: Asian Textiles in France, 1680–1760, is a welcome addition to the collection of newer studies that seek to “globalize French eighteenth-century history” (5). Grounding her study of Asian and Asian-style textiles sold, imitated, produced, prohibited, and smuggled in France in the century prior to the French Revolution in a social history of consumption, violence, and resistance, Gottman offers much more than an economic history, narrowly conceived, of trade flows between “East” and “West.” Straddling the rich scholarship on materials and material culture (by Giorgio Riello, Prasannan Parthasarathi, Sven Beckert, and Maxine Berg, among others) and that on political economy (by Paul Cheney, Michael Kwass, Jeff Horn, and Michael Sonenscher, to name a few), Gottman’s ambitious study reveals how France’s global trade played a central role in shaping Enlightenment economic liberalism and state-sponsored initiatives for economic expansion, reform, and regulation. Casting the history of Asian textiles in France in the widest context, Gottman offers us a book that should appeal not only to economic and social historians, but also to those interested in the history of science and technology, knowledge transfers, and industrialization. Gottman divides her book into three sections, “Global Textiles,” “Smuggling,” and “The Making of Economic Liberalism.” The first section focuses on the materials themselves and on how trading companies acquired and carried them from Asia to France. Readers looking for an overview of Asian textiles desired by French consumers would find her first chapter most useful, as it serves as a kind of reference or catalogue of what the French shipped from India (Surat, Gujarat, the Coromandel Coast, and Bengal), China, and the Levant. Gottman’s observations that superior colorfastness, weave, variety, and customization accounted for the popularity of Asian textiles are not entirely original; in the last decade, historians and art historians have offered similar assessments regarding Asian cotton, calico, and silk in the early modern period. Nonetheless, these observations are valuable, because taken together they shed light on the global and early modern origins of “modern” industrial knowledge. In the latter two sections of the book, Gottman shifts from descriptions of materials to smuggling and the state’s responses to illicit trade. Here her overarching story is one of failure. From 1686 to 1759, French men and women bought, wore, and displayed banned textiles on the streets and in their homes, rendering visible the ineffectiveness of the French state’s prohibition of Asian and Asian-style printed cottons, silks, linens, and hemps, and “proclaim[ing] to all and sundry passing by that the French monarchy was incapable of controlling its subjects” (102). In addition to loopholes in and inconsistent applications of the ban, France’s territorial fragmentation—evidenced in the free port of Marseille and the three exclaves of Orange, Avignon, and Mulhouse within the country’s borders—provided ample cover for the illegal production, imitation, and circulation of Asian-style printed textiles (57). Corruption, bribery, and the lack of reliable police allowed smugglers to traffic illicit goods along France’s borders. The widespread acceptance of selling, procuring, and wearing smuggled items, combined with popular support for smugglers like Louis Mandrin, who resisted the despised tax farmers, helped cultivate what Gottman calls “a real culture of contraband” (81) that posed serious threats to the French Crown’s political power. The other threat was intellectual. Asian manufacturing far outpaced French manufacturing due to Asia’s technological superiority. Proponents of economic liberalization, like the Abbé André Morellet, argued, therefore, in favor of repealing the ban and creating an environment friendly for the “practice of emulation, part of the international game of catch-up and rivalry” (106). Focusing primarily on examples from the mid-eighteenth century, Gottman argues that enlightened reformers across the 1750s pushed against French textile manufacturers and lobbyists, invoking liberalization as a means for economic growth and national regeneration (146). The main takeaway from Gottman’s study is that we cannot consider the emergence of economic liberalism as a purely British, French, or European phenomenon. By describing the material, technological, cultural, and political contexts in which ideas about free trade emerged during the Enlightenment, Gottman stresses that we must understand the global framework in which they appeared. The global emphasis, furthermore, allows her to problematize oppositions between mercantilism and economic liberalism, as scholars interested in company trade, entrepreneurship, and economic privileges such as Philip J. Stern, Carl Wennerlind, Jeff Horn, and others have recently done. I would suggest that Gottman could have gone a step further in this regard. While she rightly points out that the line between these two economic doctrines is more unclear than historians have allowed in the past, a closer examination of industrial activities in Provence and Languedoc, for example, would have helped demonstrate that the kinds of liberal reforms suggested in the 1750s were already being experimented with in the late seventeenth century. Discussions over open-door immigration and legal protections for foreign artisans willing to share technologies with French workers, and debates about the liberty to trade formed a large part of economic policymaking in Marseille across the latter half of the seventeenth century. Perhaps the next step for early modern French historians is to rethink not only the relationship between mercantilism and free trade, but also the periodization of the emergence of these concepts and policies, and, in doing so, to continue to move studies of the Enlightenment toward the local and the global. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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