ISSN: 2038-0925

“Legal and illegal commerce: non-institutional actors and trade in pre-industrial economies”

 2-3 October 2014, Marseille

Workshop organized by:

LABEXMEDAix-Marseille Université Maison méditerranéenne des Sciences de l’Homme - Thematic Workshop for Interdisciplinary Research (TWIR) “Production Systems, Circulation, Interdependency” (TWIR 1): The Space, Limits and Identity Project




The programme for this workshop will focus on ‘non-institutional’, ‘marginal’, and ‘parallel’ commercial relationships by taking a long-term perspective and comparing them with markets that are regulated by rules and institutions. For many years, economic historians have concentrated their research on legal trade, but there is now a growing interest in the illicit or black market among researchers working in areas such as sociology, economics, and pre-industrial history. Several publications have studied the structure of the black market in the early modern period and the ways in which illicit and licit markets interacted, showing that irregular practices were a structural characteristic of early modern economies. For earlier periods of history, it is difficult to obtain information on the practices and identities of actors operating outside regulated markets, because of the limited number of sources available. For this reason, taking a trans-disciplinary approach gives us an opportunity to analyse issues and concepts for different historical periods. The objective for these Study Days is therefore to bring together historians of all pre-industrial periods from Ancient Greece and Rome to the early modern era and launch a debate on the various forms of the ‘unofficial’ side of economic activity.

Thus, our intention is to study non-institutional commerce in terms of the persons involved and their presence in the marketplace. While their ability to trade legally may have depended in large part on their personal, civil and political status, it is also important to understand how and where they entered into commercial transactions and, more particularly, how and when conflicts, rifts and transgressions occurred. The Workshop will allow participants to reflect on concrete situations and experiences, rather than on pre-established categories of persons who were either excluded from, or marginal to, commercial activities (women, minors, strangers etc.).

Conflicts and transgressions are particularly interesting as they reveal the types of restrictions that commercial actors had to overcome together with the resources available to them for defending their interests and rights, according their age, class and status in society. By analysing the rapports de force that emerged from these marginal activities, we can also identify the opportunities for agency that were available to individuals operating at the margin of the formal market, the power structures within which they operated, the way in which, as a result of conflict, they were seen as having rights by the authorities, their ability to exploit or circumvent the regulations on trade, and the restrictions that they had to face.

This workshop will take a heuristic approach to the examination of cases of marginality, conflicts and transgression in order to understand the mechanisms for the construction and appropriation of real and symbolic commercial territories.

Three axes for this thematic workshop have been identified:

1. Black market areas and the construction of commercial territories

While the study of territories where social and commercial activities take place is now a common theme in contemporary history research, pre-industrial societies have not attracted similar interest. We will therefore seek to launch a debate on the construction of the areas in which commercial practices and interactions, whether licit or illicit, took place.

2. Commercial techniques and situations for ‘one-to-one interactions’

As pre-industrial societies’ economies were essentially based on ‘one-to-one dealings’, we will focus our attention on the techniques developed in different historical periods and structures of ‘marginal’ commerce in order to reduce economic risk by establishing methods for building trust: presence of guarantors, witnesses, ‘guardians’ for wards (women and minors), swearing of oaths, use of assets as security (property and furniture) and systems for carrying out seizures, where necessary, etc.

3. Conflicts and their resolution: transgression, redefinition of standards

Although judicial and other legal sources are not available for all periods of history, they can often provide insight into real legal practices, and show that the law was far from rigid.  Moreover, they allow us to study the development, evolution and possible transfer of procedures for the resolution of breaches and conflicts in commercial loans and transactions. Development and redefinition of new systems and standards for the management of commercial practices and trading areas can thus be discussed in the context of appropriation of territory at the national and urban levels.


In particular, presentations could focus on any of the following topics, for which a transversal approach would obviously be welcome:

- Commercial activities ‘reserved’ for certain categories (e.g. foreign residents, ‘foreigners’, women, minors, etc.);

- Geography of black market activities: identification of specific neighbourhoods and areas identified as centres for the black market and illicit or clandestine activities;

-  Differentiation and juxtaposition of areas where legal and illegal traders operate;

-  Ways of reducing risk: (personal) guarantees, guarantors, self-presentation, formal and informal systems for developing trust;

-  Court proceedings (complaints, prosecution, etc.) and the resolution of conflicts (arbitration, settlements, conventions, laws, and privileges).

-  Formal or factual documents on regulation and their transfer to other centres.


Submission of papers:

Proposals may be submitted in French or in English (max. 500 words), together with a short biography (including publications), before 15 February 2014 to this address:
Presentations may be made in either English or French. Travel and hotel expenses will be reimbursed.
Closing date for submissions: 15 February 2014
Notification of acceptance: 5 March 2014
Closing date for reception of written presentations: 1 September 2014

Organizing Committee:

Eleonora Canepari (University of Oxford, Italian Studies at Oxford)

Julien Dubouloz (Aix-Marseille Université, UMR 8210 ANHIMA)

Anne Montenach (Aix-Marseille Université, UMR 7303 TELEMME)

Isabelle Pernin (Aix-Marseille Université, UMR 7299 Centre Camille Jullian)


Dates for the Workshop:

Marseille, Thursday 2-Friday 3 October 2014

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