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Humanist Archives: Sept. 28, 2021, 7:18 a.m. Humanist 35.267 - pubs: Rothschild, An Infinite History; Rid, Rise of the Machines

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 35, No. 267.
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    [1]    From: Ken Friedman <>
           Subject: From the Local to the Global | by Lynn Hunt | The New York Review of Books (335)

    [2]    From: Willard McCarty <>
           Subject: Rid's Rise of the Machines (18)

        Date: 2021-09-27 13:42:39+00:00
        From: Ken Friedman <>
        Subject: From the Local to the Global | by Lynn Hunt | The New York Review of Books

Dear All,

Here is an interesting book review from the New York Review of Books by Lynn
Hunt. She reviews  An Infinite History by Emma Rothschild. The research method
Rothschild used for An Infinite History involves fascinating forms of digital

It’s an exciting book. I have it myself … but like several of my friends, I
haven’t yet read it all the way through.

Ken Friedman


 From the Local to the Global
 The Print Collector/Alamy
 Market Place, Angoulême; engraving by M.J. Starling after Thomas Allom,
 nineteenth century

 Neither of these titles includes the word “globalization” or even “global,”
though the knitting together of the world is in fact the subject of both of
them. The terms related to things global are now so clichéd that it is almost a
relief not to have them brandished again. Yet what could be more vital to the
interweaving of the world’s regions than credit or the movement of people?
Rather than trace them, as is often the fashion, through the analysis of big
data, which means statistical information gathered primarily by states, the
authors of these two remarkable books approach their topics in ways that are at
once traditional and original. They each begin with something seemingly small—a
family, a signed slip of paper—and show how these open up much wider worlds.

 The family in question for Emma Rothschild, a professor of history at Harvard,
in An Infinite History is that of Marie Aymard, the illiterate wife of a
furniture maker who lived in the small southwestern French town of Angoulême in
the eighteenth century. Angoulême is a good stand-in for all that was signified
by “provincial backwater”; Honoré de Balzac described its society in the early
1800s as one of “the most fatal immobility.”

 Aymard, the mother of eight children (two of whom died in infancy), came to
Rothschild’s attention during her research in the departmental archives because
in 1764 Marie went to a notary to get a power of attorney so that she could send
someone to investigate the fate of her husband, Louis Ferrand. He had gone
eleven years earlier to the Caribbean island of Grenada, at the time a French
colony, which was more than four thousand miles away from France. Rumor had it
that he had done well enough there to buy slaves but had died in Martinique on
his way back home. Aymard needed that inheritance, as she had more debts than
assets. Even in Angoulême, therefore, signs of long-distance interconnection
burbled beneath the surface of supposedly still waters.

 Marie Aymard never received any legacy from her dead husband, and she never
left Angoulême during her eight decades of life, yet she did leave a long trail
of descendants whose disparate fates animate this “infinite history.” Their
stories do not depend, for the most part, on personal reminiscences. Marie’s
immediate social milieu has been recreated from information gleaned about the
eighty-three people who signed the prenuptial contract of her eldest surviving
daughter, Françoise. The contract, drawn up just a few weeks after the request
for a power of attorney, was not signed by Marie because she did not know how to
write, but it was signed by the twenty-four-year-old Françoise and her intended,
Étienne Allemand Lavigerie, the son of a tailor who had become a Latin teacher.
They subsequently had thirteen children, and it is their children,
grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who provide the red thread of the tale.

 It is a family history unlike any other because of the way Rothschild tells
it. She starts with the discovery that ordinary people in the most mundane
places developed connections with distant locales. Marie’s husband was not the
only one who jumped at the chance of better opportunities elsewhere; her
youngest son left Angoulême with his wife in 1777 and opened a shop in Le Cap,
the principal city in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), selling
coffeepots and oil cruets. By 1795, after years of slave rebellion, this former
slaveholder had returned to France as a destitute refugee. At the other end of
the narrative line, Marie’s great-great-grandson Charles Martial Allemand
Lavigerie was named archbishop of Algiers in 1866, then cardinal in 1882 and
archbishop of Carthage in 1885. His antislavery campaigning in faraway places
helped make him one of the most famous individuals in France in the nineteenth

 This is no rags-to-riches fairy tale, however. It is a “history by
contiguity,” that is, a history of social relations across space and time. That
might sound rather abstract, but somehow Rothschild manages to make it as
gripping as a realist novel without any of the advantages of fictionalization.
Mini-biographies of the characters have been developed with little evidence of
their inner lives. The research behind their stories combines sophisticated
software for visualization of their family and social networks with the drudgery
of retrieving hundreds, even thousands, of individual birth, marriage, and death
records from now often digitized databanks. The individual records had to be
collated and then enhanced by tracing those names in notarial documents of
marriage contracts and property transactions as well as a multitude of published
sources. Each individual’s life was subsequently reconstructed from those
accumulated intersecting pieces of information.

 By reassembling the connections lost from view over time, Rothschild brings a
kaleidoscopic variety of worlds into our field of vision. Rotating in one
direction highlights overseas connections; turning another way reveals the
importance of just one Angoulême street over many decades. At various moments,
life in the colonies, revolutions, military service, government administration,
railway building, shopkeeping, Catholic practices, marriage, or retirement might
come into focus. The possibilities seem infinite.

 The names of ordinary people rarely attract this kind of intense attention.
When considering family history, demographers and historians usually seek trends
over time, such as life expectancy, average age at marriage, average number of
children, and the like. The individuals therefore count only when considered as
part of an aggregate. Rothschild, in contrast, is after the people who make up
the typical, and it turns out that their chronicles, when patiently recreated
from the faint traces of them left in the archives, are anything but average.
Labeling her approach is next to impossible; it is not a social history of a
group or a microhistory of a unique individual or event. It is not even the
history of an entire family, because the spotlight is trained on one branch of a
maternal line (Marie and her daughter Françoise).

 By starting with the names and tracing them over space and especially time,
Rothschild not only upends the usual methods of study but also compels a
rethinking of many prevailing views about the politics, economy, and society of
eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France. Consider the example of banking.
Where others have examined the careers of leading national and international
bankers or followed the development of the institution through the actions taken
by states, Rothschild discovers that the trajectories of Marie’s family members
require a different kind of account. The second son of Françoise, Pierre
Allemand Lavigerie, moved apparently effortlessly from captain in the new
revolutionary armies in 1795 to army paymaster and finally became a commercial
accountant in Le Mans, the home of his wife’s family, some two hundred miles
north of Angoulême. Pierre’s son Scipion started a business there in packaging
and debt collection, but within a few years he and his partner had been listed
in a local directory as bankers. Scipion became a judge in a commercial court
and adjunct mayor of Le Mans. Banks thus were not just established institutions
with routinized procedures that included accepting money on deposit and giving
it out on loan. Banking was a set of social and economic practices that evolved
step by step out of the opportunities afforded by political upheaval and
changing economic conditions and grasped by those with ambition, perseverance,
and a modicum, no doubt, of luck.

 Scipion’s younger brother, Camille, came to banking by a more roundabout route
but had even more influence on its institutional development. He began as a
merchant’s clerk in Lille and then worked as a traveling salesman back in
Angoulême before accumulating enough capital to set up as a wholesale merchant.
When the provisional government that emerged from the revolution of 1848 in
France established a system of national discount banks based on public-private
partnerships, Camille was appointed the first director of the Angoulême branch.
By then he had bought the house next door to a property owned first by five of
his aunts and then by various female cousins. His aunts, the five unmarried
daughters of Françoise and Étienne, did not become bankers, but in true
Balzacian fashion they parlayed murky notarial transactions and work as
shopkeepers and schoolteachers into major property holdings. They passed these
on through female lines. The eldest daughter, Jeanne, died in 1860 at age
ninety-two and left her share to her niece.

 The family’s banking story did not end there. Jeanne’s inheriting niece,
Françoise Méloé Topin, had married her first cousin, Camille, the eventual
branch bank director. Their only surviving child, Marie Louise Allemand
Lavigerie, married Jean Henri Portet, a clerk in the Angoulême commercial court.
They all moved to Le Mans when Camille inherited from his brother, Scipion, and
as Le Mans became an industrial center, the Portet-Lavigerie bank invested in
marble quarries, railways, and even the Panama Canal, while specializing in
arbitrage in the London markets. As a sign of the bank’s success, the daughter
of Marie Louise and Jean Henri Portet, Valentine, married Olivier Boittelle, the
son of the prefect of police of Paris and a senator in Napoleon III’s

 Portet formed a partnership with Félix Talvande, the son of the director of
the Nantes office of the Banque de France, but a few years after the partnership
was dissolved, Talvande’s company went bust, and Talvande declared bankruptcy
and was arrested. Portet found himself pursued as a member of the advisory
board, and in 1890 the commercial court in Le Mans, the same court in which his
wife’s uncle had been a judge, ordered him to pay the staggering sum of 500,000
francs in damages. (A pit worker in the mines in 1890 made about 1,300 francs a

 Rothschild did not pick this family because of its later successes or
failures. In a sense, it picked her because of the unusualness, or so it seemed,
of Marie Aymard’s quest for knowledge about the fate and fortune of her dead
husband. One thing led to another, and over time striking patterns emerged from
the jumble of contrasting and even contradictory bits of information about this
family’s adventures. They look like adventures to us, but not because the people
in question called them that. The sister of the cardinal and great-great-
granddaughter of Marie Aymard, Louise Lavigerie Kiener, destroyed all the family
papers in her possession before her death in a small village in the Pyrenees in
1906. She had traveled to Algeria and taken photographs of her brother there but
is otherwise a shadowy figure.

 By casting as much light as possible on these individuals, even against their
own resistance and against the amnesia inherent in the passage of time,
Rothschild reminds us that history is not just about the big names that appear
in lists of prime ministers or even about those who manned the barricades and
subsequently appeared in police or judicial accounts; it is also about ordinary
people who turn out on closer inspection to be extraordinary. What matters is
the closer inspection. Rothschild has recovered and then recounted the full
interconnectedness of these lives and thereby has inspired us to care about
these people even though we have little access to their inner selves. She has
given us enough knowledge to exercise our own imaginations. The result is not
only a keener sense of the local meanings of colonialism but also a more vibrant
sense of the moral mission of historical work: to do everything possible to
discover what past experience might have been like for those who lived it.

 Francesca Trivellato ranges across a different scale of space and time but
with a similar aim of understanding the mechanics and meanings of the global.
Trivellato, a historian at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, is
best known for The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno,
and the Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period (2009), a groundbreaking
book on Sephardic Jewish merchants and the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century
exchange of Mediterranean red coral for Indian diamonds. In The Promise and
Peril of Credit, she turns to the legend of the Jewish invention of bills of
exchange, which were the primary private credit instrument of the early modern
era. Bills of exchange were pieces of paper about the size of a modern bank
check. In the centuries before the establishment of an international network of
banks, they enabled the transfer of funds among three, four, or more parties
without requiring the actual shipment of gold or silver coins, which was always
hazardous when sea voyages or long overland travel was required. Thus a merchant
in Lyon could send a bill (in French, a “letter of exchange”) to a local banker
with connections in Italy who then arranged the desired payment to a merchant or
manufacturer in Florence. As is true now, money—gold or silver—did not
necessarily change hands; the credit involved was guaranteed by the reputation
of the signatories, and its cardinal virtue was its fungibility.

 Jewish merchants did not invent this practice, but Trivellato’s purpose is not
to debunk this already discredited myth but rather to discover where it
originated, what it tells us about commercial practices in an era of cumbersome
communication, and why it had such staying power. Using digital resources, she
tracks the legend back to French and other European writers of the 1600s, in
particular to a lawyer in Bordeaux, Étienne Cleirac, whose 1647 compilation of
maritime law, Usages and Customs of the Sea, baldly asserted that Jews had
invented bills of exchange and even marine insurance. Cleirac claimed to have
gotten this information from a Florentine chronicler of the 1300s, but in fact
the Italian author, a partner in two of Florence’s main banks, made no such
allegation, though he did discuss Jewish usury. The connection to the medieval
period was crucial to the legend about bills of exchange; Jews had supposedly
devised them in order to avoid the confiscation of their properties when they
were expelled from France and other European countries during the Middle Ages.

 The pinpointing of this moment of fabulation in the mid-seventeenth century is
vital. Although the legend gained credibility because of the long-standing
Christian association between Jews and usury, it had its origins not in Catholic
sermons, popular plays, or anti-usury polemics but rather in the eclectic
commentary of a seventeenth-century provincial lawyer on the historical sources
of marine law. Cleirac wrote for merchants who were confronting the new
uncertainties created by paper credit, and he was eager to show them how to
avoid the bad practices he blamed on Jewish moneylenders. At the same time, he
was insisting on the virtues of commerce in a society that had long considered
trade incompatible with noble status. Part compilation of Roman and French
jurisprudence and regional customs, but also filled with examples of contracts,
practical instructions, and moralizing tales, Cleirac’s treatise must have owed
much to his personal experience in Bordeaux, which was a vibrant Atlantic port
and legal hub and was home to a population of about five hundred “New
Christians” (crypto-Jews). The New Christians were the descendants of those who
had fled the Iberian Peninsula after the great expulsions and forced conversions
of Jews in the 1490s. Since the French government did not allow the open
practice of Judaism in Bordeaux until 1723, in Cleirac’s time the true
sentiments of the New Christians remained opaque. Cleirac repeatedly accused the
Jews of usury, cheating, and fraud, though he also reproached other groups on
occasion for the same bad practices. “Mohammedans,” “Turks,” “Saracens,” and
even rapacious Christian bankers such as the “Lombards” and “Cahorsins”
(merchants from the southwestern town of Cahors) all provided examples to be
avoided by merchants who wanted to use bills of exchange to good and fruitful

 Cleirac’s work enjoyed considerable success, thanks in part to a second
edition with a large print run for the time (1,200 copies), but the legend got
its true imprimatur from Jacques Savary, who published in 1675 the single most
influential merchant manual of early modern Europe. In The Perfect Merchant,
Savary took out most of the anti-Jewish ranting found in Cleirac’s pages and
thereby made the legend palatable and highly transmissible. Despite some valiant
efforts to disprove the connection between Jewish merchants and bills of
exchange and to argue for either their Italian or uncertain origins, the legend
took hold among both philo- and anti-Semitic authors. In the mid-1700s
Montesquieu praised the Jews for inventing bills of exchange and thereby
injecting new energy into Europe’s economy, yet during the debates about Jewish
emancipation at the time of the French Revolution, its advocates still argued
that the Jews must give up their “thirst for gain” if they were to become true
French citizens. In these accounts, the invention of bills of exchange had been
just another example of the Jewish idolatry of money, forced on them by
centuries of Christian persecution, to be sure, but becoming over time an innate

 By the 1800s, the legend of the Jewish invention of bills of exchange was so
commonplace that it appeared in a wide variety of genres, from treatises of
commercial law to novels. Among the most influential were the grand theories of
the rise of capitalism (and/or the rise of the West). Karl Marx showed no
particular interest in the invention story, but in his early works he went even
further and identified capitalism itself with the Jews; what was required, in
his view, was not the political emancipation of the Jews but rather “the
emancipation of society from Judaism,” meaning “from haggling and from money.”
In his view, Christian society had become Judaized.

 When Max Weber published his influential essay The Protestant Ethic and the
Spirit of Capitalism (1904–1905), which argued for the crucial importance of the
Protestant and especially Calvinist work ethic in the development of capitalism,
Werner Sombart responded with The Jews and Economic Life (1911). Sombart went
beyond the legend in his own fashion: he attributed virtually every public and
private financial innovation to the Jews. Weber then riposted with lectures and
a book that specifically argued against the association of Jews with true
capitalism (as opposed to “pariah capitalism,” usury, or “booty-capitalism”),
while Sombart went on to argue that the Jews could never assimilate, though they
did form a nation of their own, a position embraced by Zionists and rejected by
liberal Jews.

 No one now seriously argues that the Jews invented bills of exchange, but the
association of Jews with the manipulation of money has never disappeared and is
now reemerging with renewed force, not least in the United States, where George
Soros now occupies a central position in the anti-Semitic phantasms of the far
right. Trivellato does not propose to explain that recurrence; she aims to
provide the setting for an earlier, related, but not identical history. The
legend about bills of exchange materialized at the very moment when
international commerce began to take off in Europe, but also at the same time
that a measure of toleration made it possible for Jewish merchants to
participate in that commerce. Toleration thus took shape just when international
credit relations became essential and especially frightening because of their
opaque complexity. It may have given Jewish merchants more access to markets,
but it did not make them less marginal or potentially disruptive in the
imagination of many in the West.

 The Jewish invention of the chief instrument of private credit may have seemed
far-fetched to some but believable to many because the Jews were at once inside
and outside of commercial relations, imagined as insiders by virtue of their
long association with the commerce in money yet still seen as outsiders by
virtue of their long exclusion from Christian society, politics, and culture.
Through patient tracking of sources, aided by the digitization of so many of
them, but also by careful reading of the documents in question, Trivellato has
succeeded in piecing together a story that is both familiar (the supposed link
between the Jews and money) and strange (why so many people, including leading
intellectuals, believed in this legend for so long). By doing so, she brings
into high relief one of the darker sides of globalization whose consequences are
very much still with us.

 The books by Rothschild and Trivellato might be conceived as presenting two
faces of the global: on the one side, the positive tale of individual aspiration
and a family moving up the social ladder thanks to the new opportunities
afforded by commerce, and on the other, the negative narrative of blaming
supposed outsiders for all the traps awaiting unwary believers in new options.
In truth, however, they are both part of the same story: new connections have
outcomes that no one can entirely predict or control. Living with that
uncertainty is perhaps the only certainty available in worlds that are
increasingly intertwined.


        Date: 2021-09-28 06:05:46+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty <>
        Subject: Rid's Rise of the Machines

For those interested in the historical context in which computing
machines arose -- the history of 'cybernetics' in the generic sense that
Norbert Wiener tapped into -- Thomas Rid's Rise of the Machines: A
Cybernetic History (W.W. Norton, 2016) is an excellent source. Rid
manages to be just technical enough, a notch or two less so than, say,
David Mindell's essential study, Between Human and Machine: Feedback,
Control, and Computing Before Cybernetics (Johns Hopkins, 2002), but
without diluting the story.

Read it tonight!

Willard McCarty,
Professor emeritus, King's College London;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews;  Humanist

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