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Accounting privileges in Europe, XVth-XIXth c.: a quantitative and comparative study – PRIVILEGES

Accounting privileges in Europe, XVth-XIXth c.: a quantitative and comparative study

The project PRIVILEGES aims at building a better understanding of the way the privilege as an institution in Europe, over the longue durée of its development, contributed to the mobilization and allocation of resources ; of the expectations and goals it helped achieve for both economic agents and public authorities ; and of the economic, business and spatial dynamics which it generated or butressed.

Economic privileges and business dynamics

In Early Modern Europe, the process of subjection to a general law or jus commune was far from complete and generalized. Particular rights were subsumed within privileges ; these were not exceptions to a rule in legal terms, therefore, and came to be perceived that way only with the increasing sway of the notion of equal rights, and of a conception of the law as a set of abstract norms which applied to everybody. In the economic sphere, the privilege, defined as the temporary grant of a space for action, was seen as a resource for States, communities and individuals alike. It provided a framework within which various realities could become operative, from craft guilds to large overseas trading corporations, from early versions of intellectual property protections for innovators to industrial or service-oriented capitalist firms. The « PRIVILEGES » project aims at taking a general inventory of privileges, leading to the construction of a database which would contain all the privileges containing an economic objective (production, trade, consumption) and granted from the XVth to the XIXth century in France, England, Germany and Italy, each of these countries being characterized by dissimilar State and economic structures. We wish to achieve a precise accounting of the development of this phenomenon of privileges, which took place at the heart of the interrelationship between public authorities and the economic sphere. This accounting in turn will provide a solid scientific baseline for further reflections on the instituional and business dynamics which characterized both of these elements in the Early Modern era. Extending the quantitative results drawn from the database, we will push the analysis further along a series of specific research directions, using both the major statistical events which we will have observed and the various hypotheses suggested by the historical context of individualized chronological sequences. <br /> <br />

The program is structured in 3 periods of unequal length, namely conception and realization of the database ; data entry within the various sites, merging of the local data and publication of the database ; data exploitation and synthetization of results. Data entry will be realized for France, England, and a choice of significant political-economic entities from the German and Italian regions. The project covers the period between the XVth century to the first half of the XIXth century, and is bounded by the first known grant of a privilege of innovation in 1474 in Venice on the one hand, and by the British patent law reform of 1852 on the other. The data will be treated and analysed quantitatively so as to identify the major evolutions in terms of numbers, as well as possible comparative typologies derived from the characteristics selected in the database (branch and field of activity, beneficiaries, rights and advantages granted, duration, frequency of renewals, prorogations, cancellation…). We will also delineate the circulations and strategies of the applicants, and identify the rhythms governing the grant policies of public authorities. Quantitative exploration will help us highlight several specific research directions, especially the universe of rejected applications, the interconnected ingredients generating regional competition and the influence of the grants on the spatial distribution of economic activities, the negotiations process and the information it provides which can help us understand the relationships between political authorities and economic agents, the tracking of recording procedures, and the actual usage of certain types of privileges, especially in terms of leasing strategies and processes, engaging in litigations and contestations, and transferring shares or putting together investment packages, particularly for concessionary grants of infrastructure.

Production of a generic tool through the publishing online of the database and the results of its quantitative analysis, including secondary material making possible a global and comparative approach of privilege, sets of figures presented in tabular and graphic form, etc. This resource will be made freely accessible to the community of researchers so as to promote later use of the data it contains within new, questioning and research contexts unrelated to the original project.
Publication of the results of the qualitative analysis through various contributions. A concluding colloquium will publicize the results and host French and foreign researchers who will be able to access the quantitative results from the Summer 2014 on. The goal will be both to assess what the project can teach us, and to explore the possibility of a larger European project, on the basis of new questions.

A first goal of the project is to fill a gap in our knwoledge of this topic, since no quantitative census of economic privileges has ever been attempted whether within a national framework or throughout Europe. Such a census will enable us to answer questions crucial to our ability to deconstruct the ideological jumble which gave rise to anachronistic and uncritical analyses of the institution of privileges. The detailed accounting attempted here will lead to periodization and a new ability to contextualize efficiently business or industrial branch monograph, while allowing for a global and comparative approach of the policies governing privilege.
Designed to take into account the diversity of juridical and socio-political contexts, the frame of the inquiry will also offer the opportunity to expand it in a rigorous, problematized way to include other entities such as Spain, the German Empire, the United Provinces, or Russia.

As part of the developmeent process of the project PRIVILEGES, a conference was held in Frankfurt, Die Ökonomie des Privilegs Westeuropa, 16.-19. Jahrhundert/ L’économie du privilège Europe occidentale XVIe-XIXe siècle ; it was co-organized by the Fench Historical Institute in Germany and the various teams partnering in the project. The proceedings are in the process of being published under the direction of Guillaume Garner.
In the year 2014, the PRIVILEGES database will be made publicly accessible on the LAHRHA website, within the SyMoGYH environment.
The proceedings of the concluding conference will be published in 2015.

Within the framework of an increasing focus on institutions on the part of social sciences (economics, law, sociology, history...), and of a renewed interest for the question of the sources of economic growth and European dominance throughout the world system, it is crucial to study further one institution in particular, the institution of privileges, since the latter structured economic activity in every territory and Nation of Europe throughout the Early Modern Era. Privilege, defined as the temporary grant of a space of activity within the economic sphere, constituted a resource for States, communities and individuals alike, as well as a framework within which various realities were expressed, from guilds to large trading companies, from early forms of intellectual property benefitting inventors to capitalist manufacturing and service industries.

Indeed, while the ability of sovereigns to edict general and abstract norms for all of their subjects constitued a key indication of the self-affirmation of the Modern States, the process of submission to general rules and a commmon law was far from complete and generalized. In Old Regime Europe, with its societies of orders, the fact is that one almost never met a general statute, but rather a multiplicity of particular rights underpinned by privileges, which therefore could not possibly be seen as a legal exception. Such a perception of a jus singulare opposed to a jus commune could only develop along with increasingly influential notions of legal equality and of the law as a set of abstract rules applicable to all.

However, no quantitative study of economic privileges has ever been attempted on either a national or a European scale. The goal of the present project is to fill this gap, by locating, counting and classifying privileges in a set of European territories considered particularly significant: France, England, and the German and Italian areas. In these two latter spaces, a subset of of political and economic entities considered significant was selected, namely Saxony and Augsburg for the German areas, the Republic of Venice, the Florentine State, Piedmont and the Duchy of Mantua for the Italian areas. The period considered spans the XVth to the early XIXth centuries. The choice of the starting point is justified both by the early development of privileges and their deep roots in medieval social-political realities, and by the 1474 birthdate of the patent in Venice. As for the endpoint, the project goes beyond the revolutionary era and encompasses the early XIXth century because of the observed continuous existence of privileges in parts of the German territories well after the Napoleonic episode, in France where the Revolution-born legal system keeps expressing the principle undeprinning them under various guises and conditions, in England where patents are reformed in 1852 only, and in the various Italian States as well. This choice is an important element in the whole project, which does not merely assume that the French Revolution constituted a sharp de facto and de jure break in economic processes and institutions, but proposes rather to explore the real extent and contents of this putative break.

The PRIVILEGES sets itself a clear goal, the improved understanding of how this institution, in the "longue durée" of its being, contributed to the mobilization and allocation of resources, which expectations and pursued goals it helped reach both for agents and for public authorities, and which economic, entrepreneurial and spatial dynamics it helped develop or perpetuate.

Project coordinator


The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.



Help of the ANR 270,000 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: - 36 Months

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