…the social history of urban life

Internal trade in Western Europe was actually created by the intervention of the state. Right up to the time of the Commercial Revolution what may appear to us as national trade was not national, but municipal. The Hanse were not German merchants; they were a corporation of trading oligarchs, hailing from a number of North Sea and Baltic towns. Far from “nationalizing” German economic life, the Hanse deliberately cut off the hinterland from trade. The trade of Antwerp or Hamburg, Venice or Lyons, was in no way Dutch or German, Italian or French….The trade map of Europe in this period should rightly show only towns, and leave blank the countryside-it might as well not have existed as far as organized trade was concerned….Trade was limited to organized townships which carried it on either locally as neighborhood trade or as long-distance trade…Such a permanent severance of local trade and long-distance trade within the organization of the town must come as another shock to the evolutionist, with whom things always seem so easily to grow into one another. And yet this peculiar fact forms the key to the social history of urban life in Western Europe.

Karl Polanyi (1886-1964), The Great Transformation, Beacon Press, 1944, p. 63


One thought on “…the social history of urban life

  1. I’ve never heard it pit quite that way, but it makes sense. We all know Venice was important, but it is a useful reminder that the way things work in recent times is not necessarily the way they used to work


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