Edward Everett Root Publishers Co. Ltd.


The Moral Economy We Have Lost

​Life Before Mass Abundance

Henry C. Clark

Available July 2024

About this book

THIS LANDMARK WORK of cultural synthesis clearly debates fundamental historical issues of morality, government, autonomy, power and self-responsibility, labor, exchange, household economy and consumption.  It offers a wide-ranging social-historical assessment of the moralization of economic conduct among ordinary people in pre-modern Europe.

Its detailed survey presents a microcosmic view of the human condition. It resets the baseline for critical assessments of modern "capitalism" by offering an alternative to one of the most successful theories of the past half-century: E.P. Thompson's famous paradigm of the "moral economy."

This book casts modernity itself in a new light. It records and analyses many of the ordinary activities of ordinary people with a sympathy and a kindly wit which brings them to life after the lapse of centuries, uncolored by the heroics of popular but unhistorical romanticism. Professor Clark’s observations are shrewd, real, compassionate, historically-based, and unsentimental. The work highlights fundamental understandings of the most fascinating sources and vignettes. It shows the richness and variety of human character and the implications of the social and moral changes which took place.

Clark begins with a critique of one of the most influential historical theories - that 18th-century food rioters gave voice to a widely shared “moral economy” in resistance to the advent of market capitalism. He offers a different way of thinking about what was “moral” in the economy of pre-modern Europeans. He pulls together recent work on economic and social history alike to show how both a zero-sum moral economy of honor and a surprisingly acquisitive individualism were pervasive in Northwest Europe over the six centuries before the Industrial Revolution.

Taking seriously the quotidian violence and Malthusian constraints facing all our ancestors, and drawing on recent behavioral-science insights into moral agency and economic bias, this work offers an account of pre-modern moral aspiration and economic conduct that is both more modest and more rounded than the original “moral economy” thesis proposed. This rescues ordinary people from an anachronistic romance of revolutionary solidarity.

Clark shows that pre-modern food riots were part of a broadly Malthusian honor culture. He defines both the integrative and disruptive features of this “moral economy of honor,” and shows that witchcraft was not an aberration but a representative extension of it. He surveys the role of honor in a guild-based system of production, and the economic individualism that nonetheless permeated the life of labor.

He then explores the European Marriage Pattern, and both the enterprise and turbulence it entailed. He treats how commoners were often knitted together, and stigmatized, by informal deal-making and pervasive credit in the moral economy of honor. Formal fairs and markets were both integrated into this broader honor culture, while also being sites of remarkable economic ambition. Private consumption saturated premodernity, but the perennial appeal of sumptuary law underscored the stubborn stickiness in the moral economy we have lost.

The end of the long, open revolt against liberalism (1917-91) raised key questions concerning the social use of moral knowledge. Given the stigmas attached to the trader throughout history, by what counter-intuitive process was it that Adam Smith's notion of modernity as one big "commercial society" in which everybody "becomes in some measure a merchant" came to be imaginable? Clark explores the ways in which political economy - often seen as replacing a traditional "moral economy" with a cold and "amoral" market society - actually contributed much, perhaps most, to a genuinely moral modern sensibility. The work frames these investigations globally

 About the author

Professor Henry C. Clark is Senior Lecturer and Program Director of the Political Economy Project at Dartmouth College. An early modern historian, he is the author or editor of seven previous books, including La Rochefoucauld and the Language of Unmasking in Seventeenth-Century France (Droz, 1994), and Compass and Society, Commerce and Absolutism in Old-Regime France (Lexington Books, 2007). He edited Commerce, Culture and Liberty: Readings on Capitalism Before Adam Smith (Liberty Fund, 2003), and translated Montesquieu’s Mes pensées (My Thoughts) [Liberty Fund, 2012), named a Choice magazine Outstanding Academic Title.


 “In this beautifully written book, Henry Clark marshals recent social-scientific and historical scholarship to reappraise the concept of moral economy made famous by E.P. Thompson. Presenting a nuanced interpretation of how people thought about and interacted with markets in preindustrial Europe, Clark makes clear that the psychological, philosophical, and economic ground was well prepared for the coming industrial economy of mass production and mass consumption.” -- Steven G. Marks, Professor of History Emeritus, Clemson University; author of The Information Nexus: Global Capitalism from the Renaissance to the Present (Cambridge UP, 2016).

ISBN 9781915115300 Hardback  £75.00  Order 

​229 x 152 mm  c.340pp.