The Organization of Business in Early Modern Europe


Large-scale enterprises such as the English or Dutch East India Companies loom large over the business history of early modern Europe because they pioneered the legal form of the modern corporation. In reality, the majority of private business enterprises, whether in the commercial or manufacturing sectors, maintained a family basis. They were normally organized as sole proprietorships or general partnerships, that is, private enterprises in which owners and managers had the same decision-making power and shared equally all profits and losses. During the late Middle Ages, however, merchants across the Mediterranean developed contractual forms that allowed them to raise funds from outside investors, who were not involved in managing the business and who remained liable only for their portion of the investment.

Since Max Weber, limited liability partnerships have been credited with a crucial role in the growth of impersonal markets because they allowed merchants to expand the range of investors beyond their families. We do not know, however, what led to the adoption of this new form or how widely it spread in Europe. This project will lay the ground for a more ambitious research aiming to map the relative importance of different kinds of private business organizations in Europe from 1500 to 1800 and to develop a comparative methodology to explain geographical and chronological variations. With this grant, we plan to build a network of specialists on different countries, to write a scientific article, to begin the empirical research, and to develop a long-term, international grant proposal (249 words).


Scientific article


Project number


Main applicant

Prof. dr. O.C. Gelderblom

Affiliated with

Universiteit Utrecht, Faculteit Geesteswetenschappen, Letteren


01/08/2014 to 31/07/2017