We offer you the opportunity to develop and carry out your own PhD project within the areas of expertise of your supervisors: Dr Joris van den Tol, Dr Sanne Muurling and Prof. Jan Kok. The project will be funded by a Starters Grant from the Faculty of Arts awarded to Dr Joris van den Tol.

‘Institutions,’ Nobel laureate Douglas North wrote, ‘are the humanly devised constraints that structure political, economic, and social interaction’ (North 1991). Institutions can be formal (e.g. laws, constitutions, property rights) or informal (e.g. taboos, traditions, norms, or customs). To answer the questions why early modern merchants made certain choices and how they shaped, negotiated and used informal institutions, this project studies the representations of European merchants’ norms and values in their correspondence.

Traditionally, merchants’ correspondence has been used by historians to reconstruct mechanisms of trust within an economic network (Lamikiz 2017; Wubs-Mrozewicz 2020; Trivellato 2009). Moreover, there has been a tendency to focus on merchants with more or less complete archives such as Marco Datini in Italy (ca. 1335-1410) or Simon Ruiz in Spain (1558-1598), or on correspondences captured as part of prize papers. This project, instead, prefers to focus on preserved ‘letter books’ or ‘copy books’ of lesser known or sometimes even unidentified merchants. This project looks beyond mechanisms of trust and studies sets of merchants’ practices and decisions described in their correspondence to unearth their informal institutions such as norms or customs.

The research may be performed through a diachronic and/or geographical comparison, depending on your preferences and skillset. Several promising ‘letter books’ of seventeenth-century merchants have already been identified in case you can read Dutch, but you are welcome to propose your own source base for other European languages. The material from correspondences can be supplemented with other material such as legal proceedings, notarial deeds or pamphlets. You will be encouraged to draw inspiration from recent advances in digital research methods, which have allowed historians to ask new types of questions about merchants and their way of thinking using similar types of source material (Puttevils 2021; Hermans 2023).